Real Leaders

A Journey of Change: From Gangster to Social Entrepreneur

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

The story of Junior Smart. Pulled into the world of offenders and now helping the very people he once was.

The first, most important thing I could say (especially as an ex-offender) was that my upbringing was not too dissimilar to the lives of many of our clients I serve today. I was raised in a good family home, two sisters, and one brother. My mother and my father tried to instill good family values; which were to work really hard, achieve success and help others. I was the youngest, which meant I was spoilt, but having sickle cell anemia meant that I was treated with kid gloves because I was always unwell and was really slow in terms of physical development. When my dad died my mother and I became even closer.

She always tried to push me in terms of my comfort zone. I was always very creative as a child – wild imaginations and all that. I wanted to be a doctor and help other sickle cell children. That was my goal as a child. One of the most important lessons I learned as a child growing up was that for some people it was almost natural to victimize or take from the weak. For some they have no shame or even reflective capacities in doing so. Suffering from sickle cell anemia meant that I was regularly in hospital, especially as a child.

My mother did the best for me whenever I was ill, encouraging me to read and learn and sometimes this meant that when I returned to school I was not necessarily behind but ahead. This meant that when the teacher asked the class questions I would normally have my hand up first. Unfortunately this meant that I was bullied quite a lot. Midway into secondary school I kind of gave up because I was tired of being seen as weak and unpopular.

I failed every single one of my GCSEs but my mum pushed me to go back to college and retake them. I got a full house – a complete pass on six subjects. But what was most exciting was that over the six week break I shot up from 4.5 ft to 6ft and the world changed for me, girls started to notice me (which wasn’t bad for someone who was called a geek) and at college I was actually respected and given responsibility. It was a great time.

I had landed a place at university, which would have been the beginning of great things, but then my mother died. My sisters took it really badly and I tried to be there for them rather than to focus on myself. We were left in tons of debt and at one point homeless because the property we were living in was built for disabled families only, so we were given just two weeks to vacate.

I decided to defer my university placement for what was originally only going to be a year. Before I knew it, I got caught up in the world of working to pay bills and spend money. Before long my attention became focused on how to make more money and so I developed a music promotion business because there were many young people in the community who wanted to break into the music industry.

We held club nights and this boosted my ego as well as giving me an extra income from my day job. I was a pillar of the community and all the kids knew me. However mixing in these circles opened the door to illegitimate groups too. After a confrontation with a rival promoter on the radio, I needed a tougher circle around me – that led to my later offence.

Personal epiphanies

When I was 17 I was robbed at knifepoint by a group of boys. I was going out with this spectacular looking girl, my first ever-proper girlfriend. One of those women that made me look in the mirror and think ‘Hey I am a man!’ I had arranged to meet her at a local funfair when these boys followed me, approached and then threatened me. We had a bit of a scuffle and they ended up taking my money, I managed to escape and get on a nearby bus but I found out to my horror that I had no money left and the bus driver kicked me off the bus to face my perpetrators again.

I remember storming into the house really upset. I was determined to take a knife from the kitchen but my mother was there cooking food. However, my sister sensed that something was wrong. She gave me this long, everlasting hug and asked me what happened. I told her what I intending on doing and she made me think of the various consequences – including losing my own life to these people who were less than me.

I decided not to go through with it. But I’ll never forget that night because it was the time I decided I would never again be a victim – of circumstance or otherwise. The night I was arrested was a huge epiphany for me. A lot of people have questioned whether I changed my mindset the night I was arrested. Nothing prepares you for arrest or custody. It’s nothing like anything you see in films. It’s scary; the cell confining and has a stench even now I cannot describe.

I remember pacing up and down the cell, asking for water and having it poured on the floor, the officers rubbing their hands with glee at my arrest and arguing over who was going to claim it as their own. I remember thinking that over the years I had gone from being a victim to a perpetrator and back again. The phone call I made to my sister was one of the worst calls I have ever made. I had been living a dual life; one person to her and my family, another to my friends and another to my peers’ enemies.

That night all the worlds came crashing together. The worst thing now was there were no way out and no support. I remember asking a police officer if there was any support for people like me and he had a smirk on his face as he told me that “where you are going to mate, you can ask to speak to the ‘Listeners’ (a group of prisoners trained by the Samaritans to support inmates going through crisis). Ha ha you can talk to them all night long…” with that he closed the flap. I think he misunderstood me. If there was no support for people like me then I was determined to create it. The next day I was sent down to Highdown prison.

I did call the Listeners but did so to find out about the application process. Eight weeks later I was on their training course and that was the start of a long journey of change. The last epiphany I want to mention occurred when I was in prison. I could see the systemic failures of the penal system. I had two cellmates. One was a cockney lad called Ricky who just seemed to love prison. Every morning he would get up like a radio broadcaster, run into the centre of the wing and scream “Good Morning World!”

My other pad mate, Len, was a huge bulk of a man but like me he had never been in prison before and he used to spend each morning and evening crying because he missed his children. Right there I had the spectrum of the beginning and the end. Ricky had been in and out so much he was institutionalized, he had repeatedly served short sentences which did him no favors, whereas Len and I were looking at so long that the chances were very likely that we were going to have to become acclimatized in order to survive and in the process there was a danger that to survive mentally we were going to have to become like him.

I started to think what would be needed in order to break the cycle. Talking to Ricky, he knew he shouldn’t return, but I was horrified to find out that none of his underlying issues were ever being addressed. He was a drug addict, yet the prison system seemed never to address the real issue of his addiction. Instead they had him on anger management courses for assaulting a police officer, CBT for a burglary charge and had him serve a 16-week sentence for stealing a car.

When he told me his girlfriend was expecting a baby I was filled with thoughts of how my life would have turned out if my mum was an addict so I decided to work with him, and offer him my personal support day and night and in due time got him to talk to the officer on the wing and explain his addiction. They gave him the help he needed, got him on Subutex to placate his addiction and I was eventually pleased to see him get released.

But no more than eight weeks later he was back in again. The reason? Well, his prescription for Subutex didn’t follow him back into the community, his benefits hadn’t kicked in on his release, he was back in the same area with the same associates, the list goes on, but it all led to a relapse. Now he was back in prison for beating up his girlfriend. I couldn’t believe it. Why on earth do they keep doing what doesn’t work?

Is it so blindsided that you only see an individual as a criminal as an excuse to ignore the underlying issues? I couldn’t understand why I was the only one who could see this. When you think how much it costs, (£77k a year per person) it’s incredible to think just how much money is wasted and with as much as 75% offenders being reconvicted within two years it seems foolish not to do something about it by making changes.

Journey of Change

The SOS Project was the first complete exoffender led project in the country, utilizing a team of ex-offenders to provide a two-tier intervention on both practical and personal levels. That was a big one – taking on the culture that says offenders cannot change, be trusted or given responsibility. However the real question is why, when so many other services such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), Domestic Violence Support, drug and Rape services all incorporate user involvement to sculpt and improve the efficiency of their service.

Furthermore, offenders are disproportionately affected in terms of employment – it makes clear sense to have a service whose main priority is to give the right offenders an opportunity. We provide an holistic, tailor-made service which adapts to the client’s needs depending on their issues, we befriend and provide intensive support – helping those caught up in negative cycles when they are in prison and in the community to navigate the Social Services, to find housing, to get training, to find jobs.

The aim is for the client to reduce and cease offending altogether and to prevent further victims. Once an individual’s needs are met, SOS service becomes one of general support and mentoring, for weeks or months, and sometimes even years if necessary.

Unlike many other services, our cases are never closed. Even when a client has successfully reintegrated into the community their case is always open and we are always contactable. I’m aware this tailored approach is rarely used outside of my project because it’s resource heavy and time consuming, but I know it works.

I adapted and developed the core principles of putting offenders at the centre of the solution because I saw what didn’t work first-hand and there was so many areas where the ideas matched the ethos of St Giles Trust, such as starting the mentoring process prior to release that it further enhanced our results and gave us greater credibility.


I am very hands-on with my staff and very practical in the way I deal with things. Even now I have an active caseload; I never want to be distant from the plight, the fear and the sadness of the young people I work with. I always say to my clients they can expect the absolute truth from me and I will always try and do what I say I am going to do. The team shares this vision because they all know what it is like to be let down or have others give them false promises.

The service has grown greatly since the time when it was just me, fortunately I learnt some really good skills from SSE (School of Social Entrepreneurs) and my business mentors which genuinely believe in me and in what I am doing. I take things very personally both with the clients and in the project. But I am still learning as well and still understanding what it is like to be part of a larger organization when sometimes my mind runs away with itself and I just want to make things happen! I hope that I inspire everyone I come into contact with but I would be happy even if I just had a positive effect on just one.

One young person that springs to mind was a young individual called Darren; a young man whom many services said was society’s worst and would never change. But he was more than that – he was a son and, when I met him, a soon-to-be father. His transformation did not come easily – in fact it took 5 years of consistent work, support in overcoming challenges and to leave his old associates and many, many hours in face-to-face contact with himself, his family and his support network.

I am pleased to say that he is now a catalyst for change in his own right. Two years ago he won an Ambassador for Change award through the South London Press and what he is accomplishing for himself will go on to effect many other people in his community. That is the positive effect of the service, and the positive ripple effect that an effective intervention and a changemaker can create.

Neuro Linguistic Programming says that ‘where there is a need there is a supply’, meaning that every need has sparked an invention. My mum used to say “No one ever came up with a good idea whilst they were celebrating” and one of my most favourite writers and entrepreneurs Jim Rohn says “Everyone can but not everyone will”. I think to be a changemaker once you are touched or motivated by something you have to know that you can make a change and that you will get to it.


My work is so important for me because it provides me with a real vent to create a positive change in the world in which I live. I remember reading about the life of Mahatma Ghandi and my favorite quote of his was to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Every day gives me an opportunity to be a positive difference to others in a proactive way.

Everyone can make a difference to other individual’s lives; it doesn’t matter whether you are a teacher, a doctor, a manager or work as office admin or even a bus driver. The key thing is to really look at others as special unique individuals and to care for them with real compassion.

For me, I have just been given an incredible opportunity to take that one step further. Rather than being ignored as an offender, St Giles Trust gave me a real chance at changing my life, and for many others too. Today, I have just found out that funding has come in which means we can offer two more ex-offenders work on our team. This means that they will have the prospect of real employment with an employer that sees no barriers and a rewarding job that will make a real difference to society.

I don’t know many people I knew back then that could say that about their job or life. It sounds really sad that I had to come through so much to be where I am now but if it serves to change others then it’s a bitter pill well worth taking. Ashoka Network (ASN) has been so helpful to me.

Firstly, by bearing with me in the earlier days; there was so much I did not understand about the world of business and social entrepreneurship, and was still very raw in my approach. I think there is this thing where I always got fired up and had loads of ideas I just wanted to make happen all at once. I also felt isolated because there was no one else in my immediate peer group I could talk or relate to or that I could really bounce ideas off and be critical of my idea.

My mentor Catriona (I am going to mention her name because she was so fab) arranged for me to enroll at SSE which really gave me the hands-on learning curve that I needed and there I met loads of talented individuals with brains like spark plugs, suddenly we weren’t seeing obstacles we were seeing opportunities. The other way that Ashoka really worked for me was in the form of my ASN member who opened up quite a few networks for me which included building a new website for the project (, a project film, helped me get into more areas such as Kensington and Chelsea and provided continual guidance to me.

Actually Kensington and Chelsea was an interesting one because when he first suggested it to me, I remember thinking “How can a Royal Borough really require a gangs worker?” However, when I did my research it actually has the highest division between rich and poor (in some areas this can literally be a matter of crossing the street) and the residents were contemplating having a security company come in to make residents feel safer.

My ASN member John Grumbar saw the value of dealing with the underlying issues and also being involved in recruitment. He was able to give me feedback on my management style, which was really insightful. With his help we organized fundraising events, got the project going in the borough and I saw the value of real networks first hand. Ashoka is simply incredible.


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