BIG INTERVIEW: Choosing culture over crime - Geoff Thompson MBE, founder, Youth Charter for Sport, Culture and Arts

By Patrick McCurry

| 02 July 2003

As a young lad growing up in Hackney, east London, Geoff Thompson was bullied at school and could easily have ended up turning to crime.

Instead, he trained in martial arts and went on to become a five-times karate world champion.

Since retiring from martial arts he's brought that same determination to helping disaffected young people, through sport and cultural activities.

He founded a charity, the Youth Charter for Sport, Culture and Arts, in 1993 following the shooting of 14-year-old Benji Stanley in Moss Side, Manchester. Its key messages is that sport and the arts can be used to divert disaffected youth from crime, by building young people's self-confidence and skills - a message being taken on board by government.

For example, the Youth Justice Board's Splash initiative has reported significant success in using a programme of arts, sport and other activities to keep potentially disruptive young people out of trouble during the summer holidays.

Thompson welcomes schemes like Splash, now expanded and rebadged as Positive Activities for Young People, but says much more needs to be done. He is also adamant that young people need to run schemes themselves. "The Youth Charter is a social facilitator," he says.

As a catalyst to getting schemes off the ground, Thompson has been remarkably successful in recruiting the support of sports personalities, including Manchester United legends, Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex Ferguson.

The charter has helped set up more than 40 programmes and projects over the last decade, as well as campaigning and contributing to government policy.

The charity's work has led to millions of pounds being channelled into projects. An example is the Moss Side Millennium Powerhouse, a youth centre refurbished three years ago. It has been turned into a base for sporting, cultural and personal development activities.

As part of its Citizenship in Action initiative, the charter is aiming to create a network of 10 centres, including the Powerhouse, to be known as "social centres of excellence", in some of the UK's most deprived areas.

The plan involves recruiting 100 young people working as "social coaches" attached to each centre.

Even young people that have become involved in crime can help, he says.

"We talk to gang members and, while they think it's too late to change, they may be persuaded to leave younger kids alone."

He points to another example of a young man who had a keen interest in basketball but drifted into crime and ended up in a young offenders' institution on drugs charges.

"I met him and found he was keen to help other people avoid his mistakes so I wrote a reference for his parole board. The parole was granted as long as he got involved with the Moss Side centre.

"We try to show the negative routes young people can take and the positive routes. Then it's up to the young person to choose what they do."

The charter has put a lot of emphasis on the need to engage with schools and teachers, in reasserting the importance of sport and arts activities.

The charity has recently developed a citizenship programme through soccer, in partnership with Manchester United and Unicef.

The Soccerwise initiative will aim to use the window of citizenship within the curriculum to engage with young people.

Thompson says he would like to see a more joined-up approach: "Initiatives need to be more closely linked so there is a clear path for young people."

But his priority is raising money for the social centres of excellence.

"I'll be giving a presentation to City of London companies later this year, and I will also be targeting the Government," he says.

FYI - 1982: World heavyweight champion (karate) - 1985: World Games heavyweight gold medallist (karate) - 1988: Participated in review of sport in the inner cities - 1990: Appointed to Great Britain Sports Council - 1993: Founded Youth Charter for Sport, Culture and Arts - 1993-94: Ambassador for Manchester's bid for 2000 Olympics and 2002 Commonwealth Games - 1994: Awarded MBE - 1999: Contributed to Government's policy action team - 2001: Appointed to board of New Opportunities Fund - 2003: Relaunched Youth Charter

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