Meeting the Attorney General at Downing Street to receive an award, hugging Alistair Darling’s wife and taking turns to sit in
the former Chancellor’s chair (consensus: comfortable) – all taken in their stride by boys participating in the ’Step Up’ project, a collaboration between The Twist Partnership, a not-for-profit consultancy, and Simmons & Simmons.
Twist’s experience of working with groups of disadvantaged young adults, helping them develop skills for employment, led the organisation to devise Step Up, an innovative youth inclusion project for young people in Tower Hamlets, who are considered at risk of offending or exclusion from school. Step Up won Best CSR [corporate social responsibility] Project at The Lawyer HR Awards earlier this year.
As Simmons, and in particular senior partner David Dickinson, had been an ally on previous projects, Twist director Shankara Angadi thought that linking up on Step Up made perfect sense.
The seven boys taking part, all from Bangladeshi backgrounds, are aged between 15 and 16 and live on a Tower Hamlets estate, where gang rivalry is a particular problem. The aim of Step Up is to encourage these boys, who have all been in trouble at school, to develop aims and aspirations.
On meeting the group for the first time, Angadi asked them what they would change if they could. The boys responded with a barrage of complaints about school. Angadi, however, was having none of this.
“I told them there was one rule if they wanted to work with me – they weren’t allowed to complain,” he says. “Instead, they needed to put the issue right.”
His words prompted a discussion among the group as to how they would run their own school. With assistance from Simmons trainees the group then devised a two-day interactive workshop for 15 primary school pupils.
As one of the boys taking part, Rahmat Ali, 16, explains: “We wanted to help the kids understand and cope with the differences between primary school and secondary school.”
Feedback from the pupils indicates that the project was a great success and that the boys are clearly proud of their achievements. “We’re happy to accomplish something in life without our teachers,” 15-year-old Ali Reza enthuses.
Simmons then organised two weeks’ work experience for the boys in departments within the firm, including IT, finance, marketing and the print room.
Simmons corporate responsibility and diversity manager Mary Gallagher explains that the aim of the work experience was “to give the boys a taste of life working in the City”.
So which were their favourite departments? Most plump for marketing, where they were given a creative brief to redesign and market Simmons water bottles. Finance, too, was popular. “We thought finance would be really boring,” says Nadeem Ahmed, 16, “but payroll was actually really interesting and we got to check out some of the lawyers’ salaries.”
Simmons hopes to be able to offer further work experience in the future. “This is a project that really does make a difference,” says Gallagher. “It’s a good example of the way a law firm can team up with the community and involve people from across the firm.”
The idea now is that the boys will become leadership trainers themselves, assisting pupils from schools across London to devise and run community-based activities. Angadi hopes that, with extra funding, the project can become self-sustaining as the group passes on what it has learnt to new groups, creating a cascading effect.
What is clear is that the boys feel the project has made a big impact on their lives. Asked about their plans for the future, the boys mention medicine, law, accountancy and teaching among the careers they are considering.
“We thought we’d always get in trouble; now we think there’s more to life than fighting,” explains Reza. “We can focus on a goal and know the routes to get there. Also, everyone at school wants to be like us now.”