This month we interviewed Junior Smart, Founder and Team Leader of St. Giles’ SOS Project, as part of our Ashoka Series. Launched as a pilot project in 2006, SOS is now London’s largest project tackling gang, gun and knife crime. We discussed how his personal experiences have inspired and informed his groundbreaking work with and for ex-offenders, and also how Ashoka has supported him through this amazing journey.
Interview by Stephanie van de Werve, Communications and Marketing Manager at Aleron

Junior’s Story

Aleron: Tell us about your personal story

Junior: I grew up in South London, in an environment that certainly had its trappings, gangs and negativity, and there were some key moments that really changed my life. For example, as a young person, I was robbed at knifepoint and beaten up; a situation that was completely out of my control. I remember the feelings of helplessness and torment; running into my house looking for a weapon to go back out there and have my vengeance. I was really fortunate that my sister was there for me and helped deal with that situation by peaceful means but from then on my life changed. I realised that things aren’t necessarily fair and I didn’t ever want to be caught in a situation again where I was unprepared to protect myself.

That wasn’t the most catastrophic moment, the most life changing times happened when my mum died and I got caught up in a negative crowd. Different people and indeed different newspapers will say different things some said I was the head of this gang, and some stated I was just a young kid caught in the periphery. Either way, the end result was that I got sent down in 2001, originally for 12 years (which was eventually reduced to 10), for a drug-related offence. I was in my early twenties.

For me, prison isn’t like anything you can describe. I was reading in the newspaper a couple of days ago about ’these people’ (in prison), saying that they are ‘lazy and stupid’, and that ‘it’s like a hotel or a holiday’. However, the reality is that it’s anything but this. I kept seeing the same young people come back in again and again.

After trying to take my own life numerous times – and repeatedly failing – I decided to do something about it. That started off with me becoming a listener; a group of inmates trained by the Samaritans to help other inmates through their times of crisis. Then, I took a long hard look in the mirror and started making good changes in my own life. Finally, I started to get involved in turning as many young people’s lives around as I could.

In the last couple of years of my sentence, an opportunity to mentor young people in Rochester Young Offenders’ was brought to me by my head of education, who really believed in me. There were lots of people who said it was a bad idea, and that there was nothing the young people could learn from me, but I really thought I should give it a shot. That’s what led me to St Giles Trust, an organization that was delivering training in the prison. I sent them letter about my big idea, and I pushed and chased until they gave me a chance.

I came out on ROTL (Release on Temporary License) for the interview, and I sold them the idea of my project, and of what I was capable of.  Before I went back to the prison I was told that I had the job and that I’d start the day after my release. It was the most amazing day of my life. When I came in, after my release, it wasn’t like I was the ex-offender put in a back-room position, I was given real responsibilities, the staff within the Trust treated me like I had something valuable to offer and I gave the job everything.


Junior Smart

Junior was born in South London and had a troubled early life, which led him to prison in his early twenties. While in custody, Junior underwent an extraordinary journey of change and began working to support and mentor other young offenders. Upon his release he founded the SOS project under the St. Giles Trust’s aegis, which he still leads, now managing more than twenty other ex-offenders and supporting hundreds more. Elected an Ashoka fellow in 2008, Junior and his team have won a number of awards including the Charity Awards 2014, The Third Sector Excellence Awards 2011 and the Centre for Social Justice Awards 2010 (to name only a few).

St-Giles Trust

Follow St Giles Trust on Twitter @StGilesTrust and read more at stgilestrust.org.uk

Aleron: And what role were you taken on for, at first?

Junior: I was hired, originally, as a caseworker on a project that was called the Southwark Serious Youth Violence Project. The role itself was about more about having space to grow and build my ex-offender project the way I wanted to do it. I had managers, but they were there more to support me because St. Giles Trust realised that, actually, I was an ex-offender coming out of prison and I was going to need support.

In the first year of my new role there was no reoffending at all, and people outside the Trust stopped being cynical and really started supporting us. Since then we’ve just been growing. Now we’re London’s biggest gangs exit project, covering some 16 London boroughs. We’re a 99% ex-offender-led project, employing 27 full-time members of staff.

Breaking the Cycle of Reoffending

Aleron: Prison sentencing is linked to increased chances of reoffending, but what is it, in your experience, that actually creates this cycle?

Junior: We work with 600 young people each and every year. And typically, they will have a mind-set of wanting to break the cycle. They don’t want to come back to prison, but there are still many, many reasons for reoffending. I think one of the biggest deficiencies of the prison system is that it fails to take into account the multiple layers of complexity that young people are coming from.

We are talking about young people that are coming from broken homes and families, from abusive households, and from communities that are broken. We are talking about young people that have often been victims as well as perpetrators. Like me, they became a victim at some point, and then by their choices they take actions that have detrimental consequences that captures them in a net.

Reoffending is often about limited opportunities. When people get released, they go back to the same area and the same associates, with limited or no support, and they’re expected to just take a step in the right direction. This is a big issue; prisons aren’t adequately preparing people for their release, whether that is through training, qualifications, employment or effective rehabilitation. Employers are reluctant to give those with criminal records a chance. This means that people who have been in custody are ill prepared to come out and move on. Typically, young people will say to us ‘I’m trying, I’m trying, but there are no jobs out there for ex-offenders’ We need to show them the opportunities that are available, and what they need to do.

Aleron: So what inspired you to start the SOS project in the first place? Was it in prison or beforehand? Were you inspired by work being done elsewhere in the UK or abroad?

Junior: It was in prison, and when it happened, it was probably the most unselfish time in my life. It was this feeling of real helplessness, that the situation I was seeing was unavoidable, that some young people were predestined to get involved in a criminal lifestyle. I wanted to do something about it.

The reality of it was that in prison there just wasn’t any help or support for people who were caught up in negative cycles. I would see officers play on that as well; when somebody left custody they would say ‘I hope we don’t see you back here again.’ I never knew anyone who said ‘I’ll see you back here in a few weeks’, but typically, a person who comes out of prison will be given a £47 discharge grant that will have to help them survive for up to six weeks. Now, how many people can survive on £47 pounds for six weeks?

SOS is about providing that support and having someone who’s with you along the way, someone who is your wingman, who is there to show you the obstacles coming up, and to give you the support to overcome them.

When I was in prison I read a book by Ghandi. In it he said that when everything is lost, be the absolute change you want to see in the world. I know it’s much quoted, but until you’re in that situation, you really can’t appreciate the power of those words. It took everything I had inside to keep going sometimes. Every day I am thankful that I made it because many of the people I worked with in custody really struggled.

I was in this situation where everything was lost to me; I only had my sisters. I’ve never seen a situation like it before, where people are just so happy to put you away. There’s something about our society, something about what we do, which takes the most broken people and – rather than building them up – just crushes them and puts them in warehouses with other crushed people. Now think about the families; think about a person who is the main breadwinner of a family, who normally brings in the money, being in custody. His family is crushed, and he is crushed.

I became determined that that wasn’t going to happen to me. I started thinking about other people and about the people who matter to me, like my family, and I realised I’m going to die in this box unless I do something about it.

Aleron: Your project has received a lot of publicity. Do you think this has had a big impact on what you do?

Junior: There was a picture taken of me when I got the Hero of South London award – the first big award we got – and I’m not smiling. That’s because it was at that moment that I realised the project was really serious, and there was no going back.

I’ll always remember thinking that there was so much responsibility in seeing this thing through, because I think that people believe in us more than we believe in ourselves, and every single award we get is really good for the team. They slog away, giving it a full 120%; their phones are rarely off, they have so much passion, so much dedication to their role and often it can really be an uphill slog. You have our clients; the young people that need our help, and all of their challenges and then you have our cynics the people that try and hold us back and then on top of that you have the funding and year to year existence.

It’s sad to think that we’re actually still a charity, dependent on funding, without which we literally can’t do the work. And it’s especially sad considering that we are doing work that society should be providing anyway. If we were not there supporting our clients, who would be? However, we are very fortunate. I’m really pleased that we get these awards and people acknowledge us. It raises awareness of the project, and it tells the next person who leaves prison that there is something to look at.

Aleron: And how do you reach out to ex offenders – while they are still in prison, or after they have been released?

 Junior: When SOS first started, it used to predominantly cover that transition from prison to the community, but as funding has been cut – not just for us, but for the councils that we work with – our approach has changed. Rather than dealing with those who are in prison, we now focus more on the smaller percentage of people who are in the community, and are most at risk. This includes the work of SOS+, which goes into schools, colleges, community centres and pupil referral units, is to demystify and deglamorise the reality of gangs.

A social entrepreneur must have that ability to innovate all the time, and develop projects further. SOS has evolved and that is one of our big strengths. We lean on the team as well; if they see anything that is missing, or they want to innovate or develop for themselves, they can do so.

There’s also this big issue around using ex-offenders to support offenders. This is crucial because when you’ve been in that situation, when you feel like no one understands you because you are broken you want to speak to people who are broken, who perhaps have made mistakes in their life. I want to speak to the person who has got things on their CV they’d rather hide. I want to speak to the person who has had negative peers, or who has been involved with gangs, and has had to get out of it. I want to see and observe what they have had to do. And the more positive examples you have, the more inclined you are to listen.

Aleron: How do you feel about the privatisation of prisons? Is it a step forward, in allowing for more innovation and efficiency, or is it a step backwards in allowing for-profit to make money out of prisons?

Junior: There’s two sides to this for me.

I’ve gone into a couple of the most technologically advanced prisons in the country, and the young people there have access to many different things: phones, TV etc. However, what I have seen is the reason they put so much technology in there is to reduce staff numbers. What this has equated to is that offenders get less one-to-one time with the officers who should be working with them and supporting them. They get less time in terms of real human association and they are frequently kept behind doors for longer. There are also ethical considerations. It has never sat well with me that we’ve come to a point as a society where we’re putting a price tag on a person’s head in relation to their freedom.

However, I think it does allow for more innovation. Look at the TR (Transforming Rehabilitation) agenda, which gave us an opportunity to take on new approaches and utilise the expertise of charities like St Giles Trust at the very centre.  This provided the chance to expand the use of ex-offenders in helping others to change their lives – in effect mainstreaming the work of projects like SOS.  It also means we can all come together – probation, prison service, private companies and charities – to tackle re-offending in the round and play to each others strengths rather than competing with each other.

We welcome these sorts of changes and I think it gives projects at St Giles Trust the chance to step up to the plate and provide innovative solutions. Communities often already know what the best solutions are, so it’s just about giving them the chance.

Social Entrepreneurship and making an Impact

Aleron: How do you measure your social impact?

Junior: We do regular reporting as part of the project, which captures the work we do with clients on a monthly basis and communicates it back to St. Giles, who feed it into their strategy. As a project, we collect and monitor each and every hour we work with young people, the interventions that we provide, and our outcomes. SOS covers about 18 boroughs and each borough additionally does its own evaluation of the project, so we are consistently evaluated in different ways.

We’ve also had external evaluations, but one of the biggest problems we’ve had with that, is that there has been no equivalent cohort. A professional organisation did an evaluation, but even they struggled to find a cohort to compare to ours. In the end they came up with some really good conclusions, but ultimately we couldn’t ascertain the reoffending rate amongst our clients, at least not as accurately as we would have liked.

We do know that for every person we work with who doesn’t reoffend, the savings are incredible: Typically it costs £60-70,000 to keep someone in custody, or £99,000 if it’s a secure training centre. The cost of employing each one of my workers for year is about £60,000, and they each work with up to 30-40 clients every year.

Aleron: How has being an Ashoka fellow made a difference to your work?

Junior: It’s made a huge difference, and how it all happened was just astounding. An event came up on a Saturday, at the Institute of Philanthropy. It was typical, no one else wanted to do it on a Saturday so it came down to me. I went, I did a presentation, and I met some wonderful people. One of them nominated me for the Ashoka fellowship.

I remember sitting in the waiting room for the interview, and the guy next to me was Nick Sireau, who set up Solar Aid. He said that after he finished his interview he had to hop on a plane back to Africa. I was thinking ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ When I got through and they said ‘You’re a social entrepreneur now’, I thought ‘what does social entrepreneur mean?’

Ashoka has made a really big difference in two ways. First, Ashoka started a journey of change for me. When I arrived at Ashoka there were a lot of business concepts I couldn’t understand, so they hooked me up with the School of Social Entrepreneurs. When I came back to Ashoka I had graduated as a fully-fledged entrepreneur.

Second was the networks. This started with John Grumbar; an amazing man who was, at the time, the head of Egon Zehnder headhunting company. He came in and monitored what I was doing as a manager, and then he introduced me to his own networks, and he still continues to. It’s not about funding with John; someone like me would never by chance come across the likes of Simon Woodroffe, Edwina Grosvenor or the Kensington and Chelsea Trust. It just wouldn’t have happened, so I am very very thankful to him

Ashoka has ultimately introduced me to many other, like-minded social entrepreneurs, through the School of Social Entrepreneurs and through the Ashoka Network itself. Without them, who knows where I would be.

Ashoka (1)

Ashoka is a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and fostering social entrepreneurs worldwide. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale.
Founded by Bill Drayton in 1980, Ashoka has provided start-up financing, professional support services, and connections to a global network across the business and social sectors, and a platform for people dedicated to changing the world. Ashoka launched the field of social entrepreneurship and has activated multi-sector partners across the world who increasingly look to entrepreneurial talent and new ideas to solve social problems.