I have lived and worked across the best and worst of what Bristol has to offer. At its worst Bristol was the city that seemed to offer families like mine little hope of a future that was anything more than the backgrounds we came from. I was one of two brown-skinned children of a single white women. We were poor. We lived on an out-of-town housing estate called Lawrence Weston before moving to Lawrence Hill in the inner city. Both remain among the most deprived wards in the UK sitting in a city with some of the wealthiest wards in Europe. At its best Bristol was the city in which I found the support and opportunity I needed to escape my hopelessness, to get to university, to make a contribution to my community and city and take a life journey that took me to Yale University’s World Fellows Program and the offer of admission to Harvard Kennedy School.
The pity – I would call it an injustice – is that my story is unusual despite the fact that I know my abilities are not. I still live in Lawrence Hill. I see the kids that hang around on Stapleton Road, once described as the most dangerous street in Britain. I see their potential, the charisma, entrepreneurialism, the leadership, the resilience all going to waste and I have heard them express their hopelessness when they share their belief that the only equal opportunity industry there is for them is in crime. I saw my own peers go down that route and I am currently working to ensure my 17-year-old half-brother does not go that way.
I had an incredible time at Yale. There was lots to draw on but my overwhelming experience was of an institution that had overtly set out its stall to produce world-class leaders. Everything about Yale looked for, nurtured and expected leadership and its students respond accordingly. The university was proud of its record of producing global leaders including three of the last four presidents. And they were explicit about their intention to educate another. I returned to Bristol with a challenge. If a university could do this, why not a city? Could a city, as a city, develop a culture that proactively identified, invested in and produced leaders? What would be the impact on the city, its residents and the way it was perceived around the world, if became known as a place that produced leaders?
That is why, in July, I, along with visionary faculty Bristol University and the University of the West of England, will launch the Bristol Leadership Programme. Each year around a dozen young people from poor backgrounds who have shown high ability and high aspiration will take part in a two-week programme which will develop that aspiration, assure them in their promise and help them turn their global goals into practical life plans. We are unapologetically bold in the level of our aspiration for these young people. We aim to give a formative experience to a future government ministers, World Bank economist and judges.
When we initially floated this we were accused of being elitist and told a community-level leadership programme might be more appropriate. It’s a view we vehemently rejected. Quite aside from the fact that the critics failed to remember that the programme targets young people from poor backgrounds, it shows they’ve failed to grasp the scale of aspiration people from poorer backgrounds can have for themselves and their children. We are not content with getting our children from an E to a D. This is about ensuring those students who could have stratospheric life trajectories are not held back by their socioeconomic backgrounds. They need to know the options and have life plans that make those trajectories real. These sorts of young people are too easily under-served by schools and other city institutions, not least because they don’t appear on anyone’s radar for causing problems. In normal circumstances, young people like these will do OK. The problem is they could have done great.
It has never been enough for those in boardrooms or courtrooms to sit head in hands, bemoaning the loss of opportunity, the loss of the young generation. Neither is it right that we accept a culture in which leadership, like wealth and opportunity, creates itself in its own image. We must challenge the idea that it’s just the way things work, the inevitable outcome of educational attainment and opportunity running on a social gradient. But it’s a challenge that requires coordinated intervention because countercultures do not happen by chance and opportunity is not satisfactorily shared through trickledown. The model we are bringing forward in Bristol is an antidote to the tendency toward uniformity of leadership – and an opportunity to grow something which is both inviting for young people but also sustainable. It’s a model we hope to see develop as part of the Bristol way of doing business and an approach we hope to see replicated in other core cities.
The Bristol Leadership Programme is not simply about the liberal causes of social justice and equality. It’s about the vibrancy, growth and resilience of our cities. If postcode or parental backgrounds remain the most accurate indicators of where someone will end up in life, we have a problem. We need to seek out the talented, the aspirational, the grafters and we need to support them. We need to nurture them, inspire them, and we need to recognise that, in doing so, we can help build city and national narratives we can all own. Without that, we’ll have a weak society that remains fertile for the sort of disintegration we witnessed in last summer’s riots.
It’s time to do something different.
Marvin Rees is an NHS programme manager and is currently on the Labour party’s Future Candidates Programme and tweets @marvinrees
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.