Michael Groce: ‘I am not a gang member but a community citizen’

No one can quite believe Michael Groce doesn’t get a grant from Lambeth council.

He has run a string of employment programmes for youngsters from his neighbourhood.

Mr Groce gets them a free haircut and a suit for interviews. Or he coaxes their passion out of them so that they can build a career out of it – music, sport or furniture making – you name it.

But his grants come from a string of various funding streams and entrepreneurial spirit and statutory bodies.

He’s not one for handouts from town hall chiefs. He said: “If something needs to be done, we say ‘let’s get it done.’ “We do not have regular funding – which just set up projects and apply for money to run them.”

Mr Groce knows how easy it is to go down the wrong path.

He was on the run in 1985 when police raided his home and accidentally shot his mother, Cherry.

She was shot in the back by police and paralysed from the waist down. She died 26 years later in 2011, never blaming her son.

He now runs two organisations which help young people follow a more positive route – Rooted & Booted, for ex-offenders, and Cherry Orchard, named after his mum, which grows vegetables and gives it to families in the community.

He began working with ex-offenders four years ago.

He said: “I ask them what they did on the landings in prison. “I used to write love letters for the fellow inmates – a poem and that got me the Cheltenham Festival’s poetry prize.

“So a starting point is what they enjoy doing. “When you are in prison, IEP is Incentively Earned Privileges and I decided to use those initials and called it Information Engaging and Progressing – something ex-prisoners would recognise.”

Clients are trained in CV writing, interviews, reading and writing and employability skills. It helps them create and enhance websites.

“It is Rooted because they are in their community; and Booted because we dress them for the part,” said Mr Groce.

“Without those skills, they get disheartened. And start offending again.

“We want to unlock people’s potential. We try to get them into self-employment, help them with housing or reading or changing their behaviour – anything which will get them going.

The probation service has got involved and we started an employment hub on the Stockwell Estate. “We help them set up businesses, so that instead of getting bulls**t from people, they can use the system.

Outside, in the world, prolific offenders think they will never get a job. “But one of our supporters is a barber who gives them a good haircut.

Another gives a suit to those who can show him a letter proving they have an interview.

“If they look right, they are on their way.”

Mr Groce got one cocaine-addict ex-offender housed and working, and that brought him many more people who wanted the same help.

“Some of them are doing massive sentences of up to 20 years and coming out when they are still young,” said Mr Groce. “Addiction is the crux of their behaviour. “They may come in a crisis. But they know if they cause trouble, I will fight harder to help.

They know my history. “They have to help themselves – they have to really want to change. But that means being honest with themselves. “You have to listen and not judge – because that will kick them off. Then we talk to each other as straight as we can.

But some are just bullsh**ers. They will probably end up back in prison. I want to say ‘if you think it’s bad out here, wait until you are back inside.’ “The ones who work help each other out. “I believe in not running away from your community.

We try to reverse whatever damage has been done – to enable them to contribute, rather than disrupt.”

Cherry Orchard started when he had an allotment and won planning permission to turn it into a therapeutic garden experience. He has started a crowdfunding campaign to train gardeners on the Mursell Estate.

It grows vegetables, much of these on flat balconies, and gives them to families in need on the estate.

Members make things like affordable picnic tables out of pallets. It also needs bigger premises. “We wanted to create a local skill set and industry and help local firms be sustainable,” said Mr Groce. “But we also want to make sure young people have something to do.

“I am very lucky because when people want to start things, they ask me to come in and help. “We will always try to help. It might mean we cannot plan ahead much, but the variety is good for my soul.

There has never been a plan for what I wanted to achieve. If it needs to be done, let’s do it. “I am not a gang member – I am a community citizen.

If young people are stabbing each other, the community needs to do something.

“Stormzy pays for bursaries for two students a year, which save two people. But if he came out and said knife crime is no good, it could help many more. “I am very adamant that you cannot just tell people to stop. You have to meet the family – they have to have faith in you. It is a long-term investment of time.

“The most important people in our community are mums. If they don’t like you, it is not a good thing. But they can be part of the solution.”

Mr Groce is well known in Brixton. He stood as a candidate for the Greens in last week’s Coldharbour ward by-election in Lambeth, and managed to conjure a 12 per cent swing to the party since the former incumbent, Matt Parr, who died in July, was elected just three months previously.

It must have helped that his HQ, the Green Man at Loughborough Junction, was mentioned as the kind of project which should be expanded across the borough.

The literature was circulated by his Labour opponent Scarlett O’Hara, who won the seat on September 13 with 31 per cent of the votes. It is good that she is not afraid to give credit where it is due.

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