Pictured: John Okusanya, former offender who has changed his life through entrepreneurship.
John Okusanya, 29, was born and raised on the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, the biggest council estate in London. Before Ferrier was demolished, it was notorious for its extreme violence and high crime rate - shootings, drugs, postcode wars and stabbings were commonplace.
At just 11 years old, Okusanya was arrested at school in the middle of a science lesson. After being permanently expelled, he found himself being lured into a life of robbery and violence.
Most of his teenage years were spent living two lives – days spent working on his creative writing, and evenings spent robbing shops to finance his “ambitious” and “lavish” lifestyle.
It was not until his late teens, when a mentor he met at college intervened, that he was able to start again and take an entrepreneurial path. He spoke to Backbench on how he believes helping perpetrators find their purpose and become mentors will help tackle youth violence.
“I have been both a serial perpetrator and serial victim to knife crime and youth violence", he said, "but I made a conscious decision with the help of my mentor to distance myself from the circles I was tied into and focused on bettering myself.”
He insisted that "the senseless killings and violent acts taking place in our communities is a result of the lack of ambition, exposure, misuse of resources, peer pressure, dysfunctional parenting and negative associations within young people.”
Pictured: Ferrier Estate, the largest in London, where John Okusanya grew up.
134 knife attacks were recorded in London last year, and in the first six hours of 2019 alone, two people were fatally stabbed in separate knife attacks.
Reacting to these figures Okusanya said, “We need to provide mentors and role models who have been through the criminal justice system and transformed their lives, to help empower individuals with the self-discipline needed to steer away from peer pressure.”
“There are plenty of them willing to help and turn the traits picked up from gang culture into the skills needed to succeed.”
With encouragement from his mentor, Okusanya started reading books such as Rich Dad Poor Dad and his mentality began to change. He said he managed to understand exactly where his weakness and strengths lay, and found himself drawn into the field of entrepreneurship.
Deciding not to go to university, he started his own business instead.
Now Okusanya owns two corner shops in Glasgow and works in prison rehabilitation, providing workshops to offenders across the country through his ‘University of Life’. The organisation offers practical training and advice in a chosen career path, and supports inmates with their business and entrepreneurship ideas upon release.
“Most of the people involved in gangs are some of the best businessmen who are simply selling the wrong product.”
Pictured: Amani Simpson, who works with youth groups to prevent the spread of violence.
Like Okusanya, Amani Simpson also found himself caught up in the cycle of crime.
He was stabbed seven times when he intervened in a dispute over stolen goods, and in a separate event, he was nearly arrested for possession of class A drugs.
It was then that Simpson met Fusion, his mentor, who worked at DV8 College, in Walthamstow (now called Big Creative Academy).
Now he, like Okusanya, believes that more mentoring from relatable role models is essential in turning around the rise in youth violence.
“Young people need to regularly engage with older figures with lived experiences and street credibility who are able to guide them towards positive outcomes,” he said.
“As soon as I decided to leave that life, I made the relevant sacrifices to turn my life around and keep it that way. This is easier said than done at 16, but as they say, when a student is ready the teacher appears.”
Simpson believes things will not change if people from different generations don't first collectively believe they can make a change. “Blaming other people or the government for our problems will not solve it.”
He praised several campaigns like the VCPB - chaired by Dr Neville Lawrence and Dr Angela Herbert - as well as Manhood Academy, 4Front Project and Access UK, but believes that increased collaboration - sharing resources, contacts, and practices - should become a priority for these charities and organisations.
Together, Okusanya and Simpson are planning to tour schools in London and across the UK to spread their message. Simpson said “We must lead our young people and empower them to reach their potential by being aware of the potentially negative choices they make daily.”
A Backbench report by Abbianca Makoni