You are able to
break the label
Darren Keenan, 20, London
By all accounts, I shouldn’t be standing here today.
Parents who were drug abusers, council estate upbringing, currently looking for work.
I wasn’t meant for this stage. This camera. These lights.
In one way or another, all my life I’ve been told I don’t matter. That my voice doesn’t count. That I’m defined by my disadvantage.
Not born with a silver spoon but a black mark.
And sometimes, I believe them.
I first remember being called a chav when I was six.
A group of men - white and middle class - took one look at me and spat out that word like it was my name.
Society will remain broken until we learn to look beneath the surface. We see a tracksuit, a skin colour, a hijab, and that’s all we need to know.
But we know nothing.
CHAV - Council Housed and Violent.
Moorland’s Estate in Brixton may be my home, but those men didn’t know my circumstances. They didn’t know that I took the bus to school by myself every day Because of how badly I wanted an education. They didn’t know I’d never start a fight. They judged me on my appearance and not my values. In reality I was busy looking after my Nan.
When things were really bad at home I would go sit in the community centre. I was five or six, and staying out past midnight. And there were gangs there. But rather than trying to recruit me, they gave me money to buy chicken and chips and sat with me to make sure I was safe.
Most people aren't all bad. Or all good.
And then at secondary school, In and out of care, I saw the students with As and A*s were the ones getting all the opportunities. The chance to go on trips, to do debating, to become leaders. But there’s no correlation between academic success and leadership skills. A simultaneous equation can’t tell you if someone’s respected. I might not be the most book-smart, but why was I labelled a failure? Why was I destined for lesser things? Its like judging a fish on how well it can climb a tree. Fish have other talents.
I became Governor of my College, and got to ask Vice Cable questions at the election hustings. I joined the Labour Party, and interned with Helen Hayes in her Parliamentary Office. I was selected to join The Advocacy Academy and Campaign Bootcamp, two crazy competitive activist training Fellowships. I worked with Citizens UK to secure genuinely affordable housing for struggling families in South London.
And now, the chav from the chip shop is here, talking to you.
I could have risen to the label and dropped my aspirations but I was determined to defy everyone’s expectations of me. And people like me.
I set my sights on Parliament.
Parliament. The place to fight inequality, right? Except that the majority of our MPs grew up privileged, much more privileged than the majority of people they represent. The likelihood of a poor black kid becoming the next Prime Minister is one in seventeen million. But if you’re a white privately educated boy, it’s just one in 200,000. And the top six private colleges in the UK send the same amount of people to Oxbridge as 1051 state colleges together.
1051. I have a better chance at winning the Lottery. But I’m still going to try. Because someone has to be the first, so why not me? Or you. And because if I try, then maybe another mixed race kid growing up in Brixton might think that he can too. The more of us that stand up, and stay standing even when we’re laughed at and labelled, the more society will begin to accept that a young person of colour from a low income background is a crucial part of the democratic story of this country, tracksuit and all, whether they like it or not.
I believe that the most aspirational place in the world isn’t London or Los Angeles, it’s the graveyard. The graveyard is packed full of
inventions never created, businesses never built, books never written, ideas never shared. Row upon row of the dead, who were told
- who believed - that bigger things “weren’t for the likes of them.” Don’t die with your dreams still inside you.
I could have addressed all this to the haters, but I’m speaking to you today, not to them.
You - who remembers the first label you were given. Failure. Special needs. Future criminal. I see you, watching me and thinking -
“that could never be me.” I know that feeling. It’s called impostor syndrome - like our dreams are too big for us. I’m done being told who I am and what I can do. Are you?
People see a mixed raced guy with a slit in his eye - obviously means he's about to commit a crime. What if that "crime" were to inspire the next generation? To make them feel like they have no limitations, whether they are mixed, black, Latino or Asian? Then yeah, I hope I can commit many "crimes" and change our nation.
Because my identity is more than my appearance, and just because you're white doesn't mean you should get clearance while black kids get stopped and searched, but police fuel our perseverance.
We must continue to strive for our goals.
In a world where the lighter we are
means the brighter we are;
Where being a minority means
we have no say
And must do the jobs with
the lowest pay;
Where being a girl means you
should have no flaws
and should look just like the
Its time for us all to say no more.
Students only make up 20% of
But we are 100% of the future
We should be taught that our
identity is more than
Or what we wear, and
what people think.
Because everyone's identity
And it's really the values we hold
That makes us the individuals
we want people to see,
not our hoodies
or the way that we speak.
So next time you see a six foot tall guy,
Big build from Brixton,
Don't instantly think
he's going to prison.
Because he could have a vision
to become the next politician
to bring an end to sexism,
racism and every type of "ism",
That create a system
of oppression and
Because a section of our
population are being
Just for being born "different"
than the standard tradition.
You are able to break the label.
Darren is a member of our Young Leaders programme. The Almeida Young Leaders is a scheme giving young people with something vital to say the tools and platform to do so. Each young leader has been mentored by a writer and director to develop their ideas, structuring a speech and skills in public speaking.