A former prisoner made an OBE for dedicating his life to tackling gang violence and reoffending has said that “everyone has got something to give back” to society.
The painful lesson of being sentenced to 12 years in prison for the importation of crack cocaine was a wake-up call which eventually led Junior Smart to set up the SOS Project.
The organisation works to transform the lives of troubled young people and ex-offenders, who are at risk of being exploited through gangs and serious violence.
The 43-year-old south Londoner, whose award is for services to tackling gang violence, said: “I am doing what I am supposed to be doing which is giving back to society and have dedicated my time since I left prison in trying to stop this epidemic of violence that we are seeing on the streets.
“There have been multiple killings and, to me, it is unacceptable for a parent to bury their own child.
Describing his award as “a huge honour”, he added: “I think it will also mean a lot to anyone who wants to give back to society who feels they will not be believed. I am truly humbled by it.
“It means the world to me and to my family because for them it is a recognition to see that actually people can change.”
With the help of the St Giles Trust, the SOS Project works with people who are involved in violent lifestyles while preventative work is carried out in schools via its sister project SOS+.
The schools project aims to focus on prevention and diversion for young people and to raise awareness of potential issues among parents and professionals.
The St Giles Trust states: “Mr Smart, who was employed by St Giles Trust in 2006 on his release from prison, established the SOS Project to work with young people in Southwark (south London) involved in gangs.
“Since this time, SOS has grown from one single caseworker to becoming a team of 30 and spreading its reach beyond the capital to help young people across England and Wales.
“In particular, the team have been at the forefront of helping vulnerable young people exploited as drug runners through county line activity.”
Mr Smart believes the OBE is “a big thing” not just for himself but also for people who are written off, may be hard to reach or feel they have no support.
The softly spoken but passionate campaigner said: “It says to everyone – ‘you can do this’. In the beginning (when I was trying to set up the project) people were saying it will all backfire, that people like me with a criminal record should never be trusted.
“Even without this award, I was out there doing the work anyway and this is telling people that ‘things are possible and what are you waiting for’.”
He suggests a starting point in trying to overcome reoffending rates, which are at an “absolutely massive level”, is to look at the policies of countries who have cracked the issue.
He also feels “it is more important than it has ever been” to try to sort out youth violence, adding: “I think it is more important now to include young people’s voices in their own solutions.
“Too much, I think, happens at a prescripted level from the outside and from people who are so-called experts.”