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Donia Narh’s remarkable story of how the ACES Project is changing the narrative for young people from London’s inner cities.

Since 2004, the ACES Youth Project has been working in the UK to give young people from the inner cities the opportunity to create the lives that they deserve by equipping them and their parents to be the builders of their own futures.

As the organisation moves into its 10th year of operations, it has launched a new initiative – Change the Story – to change the narrative about the destiny of children from deprived urban areas and to showcase the success stories of those who succeeded despite the odds.

ReConnect Africa spoke to Donia Narh, founder and Principal Director of the ACES Youth Project about the work of her organisation.

ReConnect Africa (RCA): What is ACES Youth Project?

Donia Narh: ACES Youth Project provides innovative projects and events that raise the academic and personal achievements of young people.

By providing a range of workshops and partnering with key organisations, ACES is doing more than simply inspiring young people; it is changing lives by providing practical opportunities, guidance and experiences that develops positive cultural identity and equip young people in inner city areas to succeed in education, employment and enterprise.

RCA: What is your background and what inspired you to set up the organisation?

Donia Narh: Unofficially, I have been a teacher since the age of 8, when I taught the poorer children who could not attend school due to ecumenical reasons on my grandparents’ veranda in sunny Jamaica. I vowed from a young age that I would ensure that every child had the opportunity to get a good education.

I came to Britain as a motivated and very high achieving 11-year-old child, having passed Jamaica’s grueling common entrance exams to attend one of Jamaica’s most prestigious high schools. I went straight into the top set in all my subjects when I arrived in the UK but soon boredom set in as did the reality of a being a high achieving and motivated black child in Leicester City’s worst school (which was closed a few years ago).

Despite a promising start, I left secondary school with a handful of grades ranging from B’s to E’s, having moved from top sets to set three in a few of my classes. I experienced the wrath of a teacher who made his ultimate goal in life to get me excluded by any means necessary, but I was fortunate to have been saved by one teacher who was willing to fight my corner to ensure that I was given the opportunity to stay in school.

My experience in the secondary school system was so traumatic that I would have gladly sought refuge amongst the kids who were clearly in gangs at the time. Luckily, I had developed a strong love of education and strong work ethics as a child in Jamaica, coupled with the fact that I was too untrendy for the gangs and popular students (I was the only child in the school who wore the school uniform).

My mother valued education and supported us as well as she could with additional tuition. However, there was a certain point where I was really clueless about what was needed to excel in education. I had no understanding of different exam boards and I certainly was not work ready, and she was none the wiser. It is sad to see that so many children are still in the same predicament and have very little support.

After completing a BSc. Politics and Modern History degree at Brunel University, I decided to complete my PGCE at the UK’s top teacher training university - the Institute of Education. I committed from the outset that no child under my care would fail and I maintained a 100% pass rate at GCSE level.

“My experience in the secondary school system was so traumatic that I would have gladly sought refuge amongst the kids who were clearly in gangs at the time… luckily, I had developed a strong love of education and strong work ethics as a child in Jamaica.”

I have been fortunate to have developed a unique 360 degrees understanding of the dynamics of the education sector, youth culture and keys to preparing students to excel in education and work.

Although largely unheard of in my sector, my experience spans from working directly with schools, students and parents from primary, secondary and the college sector, as well as with young people in care, students at risk of exclusion, getting 18- 25 young adults back into work and advising some of the UK’s top companies about getting young talent into their workforce. This experience has allowed me to gain specialist and practical first hand understanding of the issues facing young people in the UK and the catastrophic impact that a bad decision can have on the rest of their life if they are not supported during their early childhood.

I founded the ACES Youth Project to provide consultancy, workshops and events to schools and youth organisations in 22 of the 32 London boroughs. In 2008, I created the UK’s first Oscar styled award ceremony – the ACES Diamond Ball Awards - for bright and motivated students of African Caribbean heritage.

My inspiration? During my second year of teaching, one of my students at an inner-city London school scored the 5th highest grades in the UK in her history exams and it dawned on me then that any child can succeed if they are given the right information, guidance and support.

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At the same time, I was distressed at the nonchalant attitudes of most of the capable African Caribbean children and their parents in my school, and press reports of mass underachievement of African Caribbean heritage. At the time, only 35% of African Caribbean children were achieving 5 A-C grades in their GCSEs and there were more black boys in prison than at university.

There was a lot of focus on the problem and very little solution at the time, yet I could clearly see that there was a correlation between underachievement and lack of positive cultural identity.

I jumped at the opportunity to work as a activities and education project developer with Hackney’s Social Service Education Department. My success at Hackney made me realise that regardless of a child’s circumstances if they were given the right information, support and guidance, they could thrive. Based on my teaching experience and experience of working with students with emotional and social difficulty, I developed a positive cultural resource to improve the aspiration and academic achievement of students of African Caribbean heritage.

Initially, when I took the project to the head of social services she dismissed it as a project that could not work but I believed that it could help at least one child and I shared it with my pastor at the time, Pastor Agu at Jesus House For All Nations. He immediately saw the magnitude of the project and gave us the support to start the project in Brent and Barnet Schools.

In its first year, the lives of young students who had otherwise felt hopeless and were underachieving turned around. Many have now attended top Russell Group universities. We have worked with some schools since 2007 and continue to help their students to surpass their predicted levels.

My experience as a teacher, a West Indian student in Britain, the wife of a West African, and the mother of two young boys has also given me a unique experience of the similarities and differences in issues that affect the diaspora African, Caribbean and British children and parents in the UK.

RCA: What have been some of the major milestones and achievements of ACES?

Donia Narh: Since 2004, Aces Youth Project has had phenomenal success and has provided innovative and specialist workshops and events, equipping thousands of people to learn how to excel in education, enterprise and employment. Here are a few of our key milestones:

  • 2004-2007, we launched a range of successful personal development and cultural projects for inner city students with the support of JH Centre
  • 2008 Birth of the UK’s first televised Oscar styled award ceremony- ACES Diamond Ball Awards for bright and motivated students of African Caribbean heritage and organisations that support them
  • 2008-2011 Collaborated with top UK universities such as Brunel and Cambridge University to run university visit and talks for inner city students
  • 2010-2013 Arranged employers’ visits and talks with UK’s leading companies such as KPMG, RBS, LUSH Cosmetics and Errol Douglas Salon (Knightsbridge)
  • 2011 ACES and students received the Excellence in Education Award for contribution to Education at the House of Lords
  • 2013 ACES Diamond Ball Award Winners from inner city schools (Christian Nnchori, 2011 & Samara Linton, 2012) both settle in and take prominent roles at Cambridge University
“An African proverb states that “Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.” Our major challenge has always been our community ‘not knowing’ or ‘not wanting to know’ the dramatic impact of underachievement on our children.”

RCA: What was the particular impetus for the Change the Story initiative?

Donia Narh: Every child deserves to succeed, and the education system and the global market are changing constantly.

Having helped thousands of young people to achieve their potential we believe that no child should fail to excel simply because of their post code, social background or race. The campaign fundamentally empowers students and their parents to take control of their futures by giving year 6 and year 8 students tools to overcome the difficult transitional years from primary to secondary to the ever-important GCSE years, thus enabling them to access to positive information, guidance and support that will help them to attain their dreams.

There are 2 irrefutable facts: every child deserves to succeed; and education gives young people huge opportunities to fulfil their potential.

However, too many inner-city school students don’t understand what it takes to achieve in school and not enough students understand that making the most of their school years is important because in the UK, they will not get the CHANCE to repeat Years 7- 10. Few are accessing good employment opportunities and fewer still are ready to compete in the global marketplace or achieve their fullest potential.

RCA: Where do you see the future of the ACES Youth Project and what are your major challenges to achieving it?

Donia Narh: ACES Youth Project will continue to expand our work with students and parents in all of the UK’s major cities, partnering with reputable and youth focused organisations to develop and provide innovative programmes. We will also continue to share best practices and support other organisations and individuals that would like to support children.

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An African proverb states that “Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.” Our major challenge has always been our community ‘not knowing’ or ‘not wanting to know’ the dramatic impact of underachievement on our children.

The political climate has changed, the education system is being overhauled and youth unemployment is high. Without the active support and care of the community, our children will see gangs as a viable alternative, continue to underachieve and continue to leave university without the necessary skills to progress in the workforce.

We all need to understand that these are all our children and so if one is left to fail, we are inevitably impacting our own lives as the fabric of our community is at risk of the problems of disengagement and underachievement. This was evident in the London riots and the Woolwich murders. Professionals, business owners and leading organisations need to realize that there is so much that they can do to inspire and equip a generation to succeed.

https://www.facebook.com/Acesyouthproject

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/ACESYouthProject

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