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'Institutionalised Forms of Racism Are Still in Existence in Britain' - An Interview With the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust

Just as Black History Month draws to a close, I speak with the charmingly committed Sentain about why the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is a charity with a difference, why providing young people with relevant skills holds the key to their future and the trust's famously effective collaboration with the business world.

It was a moment of personal triumph. It was a moment of national triumph. Doreen Lawrence bearing the flag at the London Olympic Ceremony was a moment of truth for many .

"This was an inspired choice," I tell Symon Sentain of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. "It sent a powerfully positive message that echoed worldwide", I add with unmasked emotion.

"I saw a woman of great dignity and a relentless fighter for justice, but above all, I saw a mother carrying the torch for her son," I tell the attentive chair of the board of trustees, "it left a profoundly moving legacy on the country as a whole."

Sentain agrees empathetically. "The Olympic and Paralympic Games were about people coming together regardless of where they come from and what their backgrounds were and Doreen symbolised this," he says. "Doreen is a mother who lost a son in tragic circumstances, the mood of the country was that there was a need for healing and closure and Doreen has managed to capture that. It was about the county doing well as a whole."

Just as Black History Month draws to a close, I speak with the charmingly committed Sentain about why the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is a charity with a difference, why providing young people with relevant skills holds the key to their future and the trust's famously effective collaboration with the business world.

I start by sharing my disillusionment with charities as whole. I speak of a disturbing lack of focus and costly inefficiency.

Q Why do so many big budget charities continue to operate even when they show very little results?

A. Charities nowadays must be commercially aware, not just be clear about their mission but also their purpose and what they do as social businesses.

At the Stephen Lawrence Trust we have become a social enterprise attracting people from disadvantaged backgrounds, getting them out of their disadvantaged situation, transforming their futures to make sure their personal situations are not lifelong but temporary and do not become a handicap.

Q Unlike many other charities, yours seems to make a real difference in young people's lives and deliver results.

A We have become good at spotting young minds with potential and making sure they achieve. We enable social mobility and couple opportunity with strong mentoring. I believe we are also different in the sense that we look at long term commitment all round. We talk to corporates, the Police and other agencies about a five-year commitment because a longer commitment allows youngsters to benefit in a real way; within five years they can feel like 'the middle class person' born with opportunity and mobility. They can take off and we can stop the vicious of cycle of no opportunity leading to young people getting into trouble and losing out in life.

The positive reality is that businesses do want to help, they want to contribute in a real way and that is where we come in.

With regards to us being a unique force within the charity market, I believe that the fact we were founded on something tragic has a great deal to do with that. Something terrible that the country felt ashamed about. When I think about it, had Stephen survived, he would still have to battle, break down barriers, deal with obstacles that are not visible but are still very much there.

What we try to do is practice openness and transparency as well as teach skills. By helping an organisation become more diverse, we are making it a better business. As we collaborate with corporations and global companies, we consider what the business actually needs and how we can complement each other.

Q There seems to be a very positive vibe around the trust, an undeclared consensus that it is a power for good.

A Doreen's fight for justice was always done in a dignified way. She has never spoken out in a way that is not dignified. People sense and appreciate that. We practice the values we preach. We instil a sense of aspiration in young people, we go to schools and talk to young people about what a profession actually is and make sure they know they can be doctors or anything else they wish to be (and willing to work hard for).

Q Is England still racist? This might sound like a vague question but I am after your insight as an 'insider', facing this reality daily through your work with the trust.

A. The answer to this depends upon one's experience - though I have experienced racism first hand and witnessed its effects. There is no doubt that institutionalised or systemic forms of racism are still in existence, illustrated by the awful stats regarding the disproportionate number of black people experiencing poor educational attainment, employability, mental health, lack of access to senior corporate positions, for instance. This seen together with the overrepresentation of black men and women in prisons and the repeat stop and search experience that black men in particular face - all go to show that racism is still a problem. It is encouraging that there's a greater willingness to talk about this issue, as much in white middle class settings as in black power meetings. It is no longer acceptable for the most overt forms of racism to be perpetrated, such as monkey chants at football matches, racist attacks or racist jokes within the workplace. But it is when England properly gets to grips with the more insidious aspects of racism that strides will be taken forward to a more accessible, just and equal society.

Q I was looking at a publication of top 100 influential black figures in the UK. Does the existence of an exclusively black publication reflect progress or highlight existing racism?

The Black Powerlist is a force for good. It highlights the achievements of black men and women who have managed to break the glass ceiling and access the upper echelons of their professions and achieved high. The real question for me is whether their success does truly reflect social mobility i.e. they were not middle class to begin with and had a leg up from wealthy families and would have done very well, anyway. If that is the case then there is in a sense less to celebrate and those people - great as a their achievements have no doubt been - should simply feature in a wider publication about high achievers per se. If on the other hand one has had to strive, do without, sacrifice oneself and so on; in other words to be better than was one was taught and be better than one was programmed to believe then achieving this very real social mobility, happening against the odds, is to be applauded. There is a sense, though, that all black high achievers need to be celebrated. Regardless of one's upbringing and circumstance, black high achievers are still rare and so act to illustrate what is possible for our young people regardless of race, colour, creed etc. to see, celebrate and emulate.

Q Which individuals do you personally consider to be positive role models for the young you support?

Any black high achiever with a high work ethic, integrity, pride, ambition and determination and who has managed to combine this with compassion and inclusiveness to support young people to do the same. These are the quiet heroes who go about their business leading by example and who may not even know it. In this respect I have lots of mentors who have never even known they played a part in my life and that they inspired me to achieve. I hope in some small way I have helped young black people to feel the same. My parents were role models to me and I aim to do the same for my children. Its often the effects we can't see that are the most important.

Q What next for the trust?

A The trust that awarded tens of bursaries and saw beneficiaries qualifying as architects, is now targeting professions where there is underrepresentation of disadvantaged people. This includes professions associated with justice, law and order, where there is significant underrepresentation, particularly at the senior level. The Trust plans to hold the 2nd Criminal Justice Lecture in March 2014 and the speaker at the Stephen Lawrence Memorial Criminal Justice lecture will be Michael Mansfield QC. Michael Mansfield QC will make the argument that this country needs a Truth Commission and celebrate the perseverance and bravery of both Doreen Lawrence, Myrlie Evers Williams and others.

Twenty years after her son's murder, came the news that Doreen Lawrence is to get a peerage. As part of my journalistic research and to sense the mood of the nation, I visit one online forum after another and my heart fills with outrage as I reach the Daily Mail.

"Good, she deserves recognition," reflects one like minded reader, "tirelessly working to get to the truth and maintaining a calm dignity throughout while coping with her tragic loss.."

To my dismay, this deservedly positive comment merits 379 thumbs up and a staggering 2265 thumbs down. Tens of similar messages later, a reader expresses disgust at the multitude of red arrows, feeling "ashamed to be British."

The very last message perfectly captures my thoughts: "the red arrows on this subject" it says, "show the hearts of the British, disgusting. Imagine he was your son." (115 thumbs up, 1169 thumbs down).

Is Britain still racist? these readers' response to Doreen Lawrence's news tells me there are many British individuals harbouring racist thoughts, so blinded by hatred they cannot see a magnificent power for good. They cannot recognise Doreen Lawrence's remarkable ability to transform the ultimate personal tragedy into a force for good, or appreciate this strong woman's power to not sink deep in soul rotting personal grief, but instead, think of a way to benefit others.

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