Art & Culture

Key4Life x TJ Sawyerr

This collaboration between charity Key4Life and TJ Sawyerr aims to better the lives of former offenders.

In our previous issue, we spoke to writer Carl Cattermole about his exceptional book Prison: A Survival Guide. It got us thinking about the state of the justice system in the UK, and the imperative need to shift the stigma around former prisoners. 

Model, director and activist TJ Sawyerr is also keen to break down the stigma around former prisoners, and hopes to create avenues which lead them to full-time work within creative industries. The first step in his journey has been partnering with Key4Life, a charity dedicated to helping reduce youth offending and gang warfare. Their first workshop was held over the summer, and was an opportunity for former offenders to receive vital information about going into creative industries, with insight from experts working within fashion. They were also given the opportunity to try their hand at their own designs. 

We sat down with TJ to speak about the initiative… 

When did you first become interested in reform and rehabilitation? Is it something that you’ve always been passionate about?

As an activist, and a proud black man, I have, for years, been particularly vocal about issues of racial inequality, especially centred around the treatment of black youths within the criminal justice system. Living in Clapham from a young age, I have seen increasing numbers of young black men who have fallen victim to a system that is seemingly designed to orchestrate their demise. Over the past couple of years, I have made it a priority of mine to understand why the lives of so many young people are falling apart as a result of small sentences, and, most importantly, to figure out ways that we can combat this concerning pattern. 

What are your thoughts on the justice system in the UK? Do you think that offenders are given enough support to prep them for life on the outside?

In the UK, 74% of inmates under the age of 21 reoffend within 2 years of being released from prison. Does that answer your question?

Tell me what inspired you to launch these workshops for young offenders?

I feel really strongly about rejecting and countering societal stereotypes of young black men, especially those with criminal records, in the workplace. In today’s society, one conviction can ruin a young person’s entire working career and, in many cases, their life, so I felt that it was super important to provide these men with an avenue into an industry that is far less judgemental. Anyone with the right mindset and creative process can succeed in the world of fashion and art, so I see it as a duty to provide bright young minds with the same tools that I have at my disposal. I know that, being a young black man in London, I could very easily have found myself in the same situation as any one of these guys, so it’s important to appreciate and share what I have with my people.

Was the workshop open to all? What was the process of reaching to former-offenders?

I conceptualised the workshop to specifically cater and provide opportunities for the young men supported by Key4Life’s fantastic rehabilitation scheme. Key4Life is a charity that I worked extensively with over the summer, and so my pre-existing working relationship with them made the preparation process a lot easier. In order to remain compliant with COVID-19 regulations, we had to limit the group size on the day, so Key4Life chose 8 keen young men from the programme, with particular interest in the creative/fashion industry, to take part in the workshop.

Tell me a bit about how the day went?

Overall, the day was a massive success! I kicked off proceedings with a short introduction and briefing, before introducing a panel of industry experts, namely, BySlik designer Slik Syd, AK, the owner of Gramm Clothing and Damian Malontie of Converse and CareFree, who conducted a 90 minute talk and Q&A session for the group, providing insight into the creative process behind clothing design and key tips to kickstart a successful brand. This was undoubtedly the most valuable part of the day, as the entire group engaged with the panel and gained some priceless intel on the ins and outs of what is such a complex industry. After this, the men were then tasked with creating their own personal, marketable logo from scratch, sketching and mood boarding ideas before then digitalising their concept using photoshop. To end the day, each of the guys were then able to print their logos onto a t-shirt for them to take home, before tucking into some Caribbean food and shooting some photos in the studio.

What kind of things did the group learn? What skills did they develop?

The group learnt about the key steps to starting a successful business, including tips regarding finance, networking and marketing. They also learnt technical skills like sketching and mood boarding, as well as how to use a heat press to print t-shirts. This is all hugely useful knowledge that is needed to optimise the group’s success in the future, and is insight that is not readily available elsewhere, hence why the session was so valuable.

What was the aim of the workshop? What were you hoping to achieve in hosting them?

The primary aim of the workshop was to provide the young men with the tools and confidence to push their lives in a positive direction. Every one of the guys was so grateful for the opportunity to learn from industry experts and work in a professional studio with high end equipment. These are opportunities that they have never been provided in life, and that very few people from their background have been able to experience, so whether they decide to push on and become a designer, or decide that fashion isn’t for them, doesn’t matter. The most important part is placing belief in each of the men that they can succeed and turn their lives around, in whatever field they decide to pursue, regardless of where they’re from or what they’ve done in the past. That’s the biggest sentiment behind the workshop.

Tell me about Key4Life and the work that they do.

Key4Life is a non-profit charity that specialises in the rehabilitation and reformation of ex-offenders in the UK. Their programme admits young men during the final year of their prison sentence and provides care and guidance for them in a relationship that extends until years after their release. This guidance includes the organisation of activity days for the men to express and enjoy themselves while still in prison, as well as the providing of unique job opportunities post-release. The effect of the programme is undeniable, while national re-offending rates are 64% within a year of release, only 14% of men supported by the Key4Life programme reoffend within that same year period. 

Are you planning to do more of these workshops in the future?

Most definitely! This is just the start! Anyone can do a good thing on a one-off basis, but continual support is what these young men need and what they deserve! Over the next year I’d love to run numerous workshops, both for Key4Life and the ex-offenders under their programme, and also for younger kids in the Brixton community, where I work. Most definitely expect more from me on this front!

19 October 2020