The transition from youth to man is tough, but some find it a lot harder than others. Wendy Wallace visits an award-winning mentoring project that offers disaffected inner-city black boys an alternative to the dead end of drugs, violence and macho rage
Sitting with a group of other boys in a room in west London, 14-year-old Max leans back in his chair and expands on his life. His father is a successful businessman in the West Indies, he tells his peers. A millionaire, in fact, and soon Max will be leaving his housing estate in Kilburn to go and live with him in Jamaica. Workers at the Boys2Men project know otherwise. Max's father is not successful in any area of his life, and certainly not in his role as a father. It is true he lives in Jamaica, but he wants nothing to do with the children he left behind in London.
All children have issues to face as they grow up, but black boys maturing in the inner cities without fathers have more than their fair share. The high rate of exclusions of black boys remains a burning issue for urban schools. Now, a grassroots initiative, devised and run by black men for black boys, seems to be shedding light in a murky corner of the system.
"Schools need support. Families need support. And children individually need support to cope with their dads not being around," says Melvyn Davis, 40, co-ordinator of the Boys2Men charity. Its work is funded primarily by Brent council's Children's Fund programme, Brent Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and the Coram Family charity. It has an annual turnover of Pounds 600,000 The scheme's remit is summed up in its name. Workers aim to help boys ease into adulthood, to show them that manhood is more than height, age, or the ability to father a child. "A boy is in a state of transition and a man is defined as someone who has a purpose and a great sense of responsibility,"
runs the project motto. Started by Mr Davis, a social worker, the project is sustained by volunteer mentors from the black community. Boys2Men won a Department of Health social care award at the end of last year, and inMarch it is being upgraded to a "department" within the respected Coram Family organisation. Discussions have also begun about replicating Boys2Men in other London boroughs and in Brighton.
The inspiration comes from Mr Davis's own childhood, growing up as one of five brothers in Tottenham, north London. His father, a strict disciplinarian, was a distant figure, more feared than loved. "He was technically present, but functionally absent," says Mr Davis. Beaten and not valued at home, Mr Davis turned to stealing money at primary school to buy sweets and, through that, friendships. At secondary school, he gravitated towards the "bad guys" and became a self-confessed bully. "I responded to peer pressure so much because I needed to belong somewhere.
There was a void there that anti-social behaviour filled for me," he says.
"At least when I was out, I was somebody."
It wasn't until Mr Davis began working with young black men leaving care that he began to make sense of his own experiences. When the boys talk about respect, he says, what they mean is "value". "They don't feel they are important in any area of their lives. Their parents don't value them.
So little things - someone stepping on their trainers - trigger all that rage."
Boys2Men, which began in 1998 as a programme for boys leaving care, was born out of Mr Davis's desire to break cycles of violent or absentee fathering. "I didn't want other boys to have to go through the same alternative rites of passage that I went though. Unhappy children don't learn, don't thrive and don't aspire to be." Now with 12 permanent staff, Boys2Men is based in Providence House, a large, three-storey building in a Kilburn back street open seven days a week. The meeting and ICT rooms are well used and the walls are decorated with images of black heroes: Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley. Other images are less straightforward: a man pulling up his shirt to show a group of boys the scar tissue on his back ("You don't want them to see it for real," says Mr Davis); a boy with his eyes closed kissing the nose of a baby alligator. (The animals were brought in by a pet-shop owner in a workshop on fear aimed at training the boys to manage their own "fight or flight" responses.) Mentoring is the heart of Boys2Men. Boys are referred to the scheme by their schools, youth offender teams or sometimes by worried mothers or relatives. The mentors are recruited by word of mouth. They work with around 40 boys each week, reaching some 250 pupils from eight primary and secondary schools in Brent and Camden. Boys2Men provides learning support assistants and specialised PSHE and drug and sexual health education in the schools. They also have workers in eight Sure Start fathers' groups.
"One of the things that surprised me was the amount of people that do want to make a difference," says Carl Ellington, who left a 20-year career in the motor trade to manage the mentoring scheme, having been one himself.
Mentors are trained for eight weeks and asked to commit to four hours a week for at least one year. It is important, says Melvyn Davis, that the mentors are black. "For boys who don't have any positive black male role models, for whom the images are negative, it is hard to grow up without incorporating some of that into their own identity. To see caring, nurturing men, who know how to be vulnerable, how to relate to women, and don't feel their masculinity is undermined by that, is vital."
"Young black men have issues of pride and masculinity. It makes a difference when they see someone who kind of reminds them of themselves,"
says Machel Hunt, 25, a counsellor for the project. Counselling - for boys and parents - is now central to the work of Boys2Men. There is also a parents' support group (see box), which was set up when staff realised that many of the mothers were at breaking point.
The message - that men can be calm, loving, sensitive - is embedded in the culture at Providence House. All the workers greet each other and the boys with a manly hug. They provide meals after sessions, give lifts home, and answer crisis calls at three in the morning when the occasion arises.
Mentors don't write off the boys' interests - Max's mentor took him to Park Lane to see the cars in the Porsche showroom - but the mentees also experience things they might otherwise miss out on, such as trips to sports centres and the theatre. Another important element is to give them experience of nurturing others. The boys go to old peoples' homes to talk and serve food. They might also help out with feeding the homeless, or cleaning a school playground. "Activities in the community help them recognise the importance of caring for others when they've been very focused on fighting for their own needs," says Mr Davis.
But it's not all emotional support and development. There is a basic skills class on Wednesday evenings, when Rafael Alleyne, 28, helps boys catch up with literacy and numeracy. Formerly a head of year at a school in Hillingdon, Mr Alleyne says the small groups at Boys2Men - and the fact that it is not school - allows the boys to relax. "They know when they come here that it's for support. We put a stop to negative behaviour straight away. And they get something to eat after the session. A lot play up in class because they haven't got confidence. They pretend to be confident, but they're not. They think, because you're a teacher, you must have had this lovely plush life somewhere. I let them know: I'm just like you, but I wanted to be a teacher. If they can relate to you in any way - and it's not a racial thing, necessarily - it puts you on a level."
Boys spend between two and eight hours a week with the project. For those who are excluded from school or at risk of exclusion and needing "high end support", there are structured daytime activities. Relationships with the eight schools are "close", says Mr Davis, with heads ringing about particular boys in crisis. "Once the school knows we are putting in support for a child, they feel supported too."
Some of the boys are seriously disaffected. Benni has been involved with Boys2Men for a couple of years. Now 17, he was excluded from school shortly before GCSEs and is currently on probation. "I was very bright in Year 7, but in Year 8 things turned around," he says. "I started to smoke weed, was bunking every day. I wasted a lot of my time." Things are still not easy for Benni, but he is trying to stop smoking skunk and with help from Boys2Men is signing up for an apprenticeship.
Single parent Maggie John's teenage son benefited from a mentor. "He could talk about sexuality, about his feelings, about his father. These are real issues that the boys have to deal with, that your parent doesn't want anything to do with you."
Families that are frightened of appointments with teachers or social workers are more relaxed about Boys2Men. "It's about being prepared to throw the book to one side and say, 'What does this family really need?' "
says Mr Davis. "We provide practical and emotional support that is often missing. We mirror and model the nurturing we want to see in clients. We do more than just talk about it."
Although it was set up for Afro-Caribbean boys and their dads - with a high proportion of the children in care - Boys2Men is evolving to work with other ethnic groups, and with girls and women. But, says Mr Davis, black boys remain the focus. "We've got a niche. We can't be all things to all people."
All boys' names have been changed. For more details about the Boys2Men project, phone 0207 604 5960 or visit www.coram.org.uk or email Melvyn Davis at email@example.com