This post was originally written by Megan for llustre.com.
Out of the Dark recycles and revamps unloved furniture while offering training and employment for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. A truly inspirational project run by Jade and Jay: who have combined their passion for design with their continuing work helping young people get back on the right track.
We traveled to High Wycombe to meet Jade, who showed us round the Out of the Dark workshop and told us about the remarkable story of Street Dreams – the charity she and Jay set up over ten years ago. They work in the Thames Valley area, providing young people with the emotional and practical support they lack in their home lives, which most us take for granted. At Out of the Dark, young people who have been through the Street Dreams workshops are given a unique opportunity to be trained while in paid employment. In this creative environment they develop practical skills as well as a work ethic, preparing them to enter the world of work, and often exceeding their own – and everybody else’s – expectations.
WHY DID YOU SET UP HERE IN HIGH WYCOMBE?
Well its actually a brilliant place to be making furniture – High Wycombe used to be the centre of British furniture manufacture – in the 19th century, this was the chair making capital of the world! The woods around here provided the timber for the spindles – the Windsor chair was invented here. The really important brands – Ercol, Parker Knoll and G-Plan were here until the 1990s. So there’s a history of furniture here, and Jay and I met at the University of Buckinghamshire, which also has a range of great design courses, and we never really left!
IT FEELS LIKE THERE’S A SLOW REVIVAL OF THE FURNITURE INDUSTRY – DO YOU THINK THAT’S THE CASE?
Lots of the big factories here have shut down, but now that there is less work around for young designers, there’s definitely a movement of designer-makers setting up for themselves. Students are tending to stay in the area after they graduate, and the council is making an effort to reinvigorate the town.
AND YOU’RE DEFINITELY A PART OF THAT – TELL US ABOUT OUT OF THE DARK’S WORKSHOPS.
This is quite a large space, with a showroom upstairs, and a workshop downstairs – that’s where everything gets done. We have six workstations at the moment, but we’re hoping to find a different place to store stuff so we will have room for ten workstations.
THERE’S THE MOST ENORMOUS PILE OF LOVELY (IF SLIGHTLY BATTERED) MID CENTURY FURNITURE HERE. WHERE DO YOU GET IT ALL FROM?
We buy some of it from flea markets or local charity shops, but recently we’ve had quite a lot of donations. There used to be lots of factory outlets in this area, selling really excellent furniture; quite a lot of our pieces are from people who bought from those outlets and who still live in the area, so its gone full circle.
WHY DO YOU CHOOSE MOSTLY PRE 1970S FURNITURE?
Both Jay and I love this stuff – we’re passionate about it. We’re nostalgic: we love British craft and the antiques road show! Also we think its criminal that this furniture is being chucked out or burnt. We try and show young people that it’s not about this throw away culture or IKEA – we think that sort of thinking has made young people develop characteristics that aren’t positive for the community in general.
This furniture is beautiful – it was made by hand here in High Wycombe generations ago, but it’s solid and can last another hundred years.
WHY DID YOU START OUT OF THE DARK?
We wanted to be able to offer a real job to the young people we were working with. There are so many kids out there who just don’t have a work ethic – its something outside their experience, to be around people who go to work regularly every day, and who understand how to manage having a job. We wanted to be able to offer supported work opportunities to help introduce them to the world of work.
Out of the Dark has been running for one and a half years now. We aim to create a process to help young people get on the right path. Some stay working here for a longer period, but others move on quite quickly. The system is flexible enough to give each individual the time they need to get the experience or training necessary to get them ready for the next step in their lives.
SO OUT OF THE DARK IS ONLY PART OF A LARGER SYSTEM?
Yes. Street Dreams is a registered charity, which was founded about twelve years ago, and Out of the Dark is one part of that. We run Street Coach – an intensive self development program – in schools, prisons, youth detention centres and with street gangs. You might not think that this area would have much trouble with gangs and youth crime, but the other day a boy got shot in the legs here in High Wycombe, and there’s been stabbings too – there’s rivalry between gangs here and in Slough.
HOW AND WHY DID YOU START STREET DREAMS?
Well Jay and I met at university – we were both mature students, but we were both really idealistic. We’d both misbehaved in the past, and we wanted to help other kids avoid the kind of mistakes we’d seen our peers make. Jay was kicked out of school when he was 15, and he had quite a rough life, until he decided to change everything and go to uni at the age of 28. He’s the only one from his group of friends who has managed to turn his life around – he’s a very strong person.
He decided to study criminology to see what they were saying about crime from the other side. He had grown up on an estate surrounded by crime, so he had that experience, but he hadn’t engaged with formal education since he was a young teenager – so I think it took a while for him to adjust!
Jay was working for three youth organisations while he was studying, but he thought that they just weren’t doing it right. So eventually we decided to do it ourselves. Through his course he had the opportunity to advise the Thames Valley Police on how to talk to ethnic minorities. The area commander really liked him, and asked him to set up a youth project in some local council estates. At first we were dealing with the clashes between the local youth and the police. This was in the very early days of community consultation, and our methods were seen as pretty radical!
WHAT WERE THEY?
We went onto the streets, and chatted to the young people, especially the ones the police were having problems with. Jay is a tall black guy with gold teeth, and when they saw him approaching, the kids automatically assumed Jay was going to sell them drugs or beat them up. We spoke to both the gangs and brought them together to discuss their issues.
The police trusted us, which was amazing. They took us at face value, and gave us funding. We had no experience, just ideas about the way in which things could be done. It is so unusual around here to see positive male role models from a black Caribbean background. I’d studied tourism management in Turkey where I grew up, so I had some business experience. In that first project – Oxford Youth Awareness – Jay’s communication skills and my business planning background came together, and it was a huge success.
SO WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO SET UP A FURNITURE WORKSHOP?
About five or six years ago, Jay had to have an operation which meant that he couldn’t work for two months. That made us stop and take a step back. The whole thing had been really exciting, but also totally crazy – we hadn’t had a break or a chance to evaluate. We realised that although Street Dreams had been a success, the work we’d done was quite surface: we’d solved arguments but the individuals hadn’t changed their attitudes to life. And that’s what we realised was needed: fighting was just one element of their lives – there was so much more behind that behaviour that they needed to work on.
We trained to become life coaches, and Jay also became a fitness instructor. We developed our own self-development program called Street Coach – it’s an intensive, military style training for young people, many of whom are recommended to us by their schools or youth prisons; it’s a whole new model of coaching, to give young people training that can enhance their whole lives. It’s all about asking them where they’re going, and if that’s what they actually want.
For example, Yasser’s school had identified him as at risk of going down the wrong path. He had a difficult home life and in situations like that kids are often left to their own devices. He got involved in Street Dreams when he was 13, when his school had basically written him off as a failure. He’s now 18, and having completed 11.5 GCSEs at A to C grades, he’s decided to apply for an engineering apprenticeship. He’s been working at Out of the Dark for about a year, and he’s now training some of the other guys here. If Yasser hadn’t been involved with Street Coach from the age of thirteen he wouldn’t have managed such success. It’s a long process, but 60-80% of the participants we work with turn around their attitude.
THAT’S AN INCREDIBLE STORY. HOW DO YOU HELP KIDS LIKE YASSER?
We try to wake them up. In a very simple way. They spend one day with us every week, with a specific task to achieve. For example, goal setting: we might ask them how would you boil an egg; what do you need to do that? Its incredible but many of the kids we work with don’t have the ability to plan a really simple task like that. OK, so to boil an egg you need an egg, and a pan. But you also need water, so you need a water supply. And you need a cooker, so you probably need a house. Very simple life skills, and the bigger issues they bring up just aren’t there – these kids might be the big man outside, but behind that front they really aren’t very grown up at all.
SO THE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO START AT STREET COACH CAN EVENTUALLY WORK AT OUT OF THE DARK?
When kids start participating in Street Coach and they show promise, they can then volunteer with any project in Street Dreams, including things like basketball, graffiti workshops, MC workshops. We’ll give them more training so they can become youth leaders in whatever area they like. However, we don’t have enough funding to just keep on employing people – we finally realised that we wanted to create jobs so we could teach the kids about working.
So we kind of head hunt the best young people who have been through that whole process. We choose the people who we think will be committed enough to come here every day, and who we think are going to be able to handle the responsibility. There are some surprise outcomes – for example, one guy turned out to not be too good at the practical side, but he had a go at selling at a Christmas market and he was really good at it. It’s a way to discover new skills they never knew they had.
SO WHAT’S THE PROCESS OF GETTING A PIECE OF FURNITURE READY TO SELL?
Jay, Yasser and I chat about what we’re going to do with each piece. Every month we give the team pieces to work on in accordance with their ability. The first process is cleaning and fixing. Then the pieces are sanded, then primed and painted – usually five or six coats. Finally the pieces are varnished or waxed. We’ve started upholstery too. There’s an upholstery company about 5 minutes away called Greengates, who offered to take some boys every Friday, teaching them traditional upholstery, as well as simpler techniques. Lots of people come with armchairs to be upholstered, so we’re keen to learn. The upholstery company next door helps too – sometimes they’ll come and upholster here so we can watch and learn how to do it. We’re not seen as competition to the other local furniture makers, which is really nice!
ARE YOU PLANNING ON EXPANDING?
We’re hoping to be financially self sustainable in the next two years. We are a social enterprise. We hope that Out of the Dark can take our whole company forward – it has revived everything – our whole approach to working with young people. About three years ago we had a bit of a crisis and we were thinking about giving up. We were finding it hard to get funding – there’s a lot of competition, and its ruthless! But then I did a course in business strategy at a local business school, and we started thinking a bit more creatively. That’s when we came up with Out of the Dark, which is somehow more tangible and fits in with the history of this area, and it also draws on my own expertise as a textile designer.
PEOPLE ON THE OUTSIDE CAN NOW SEE CLEARLY WHAT WE ARE DOING, AND WE’RE SUDDENLY GETTING A LOT OF RECOGNITION. ALL THE WORK WE’VE DONE OVER THE PAST TEN YEARS HAS NEVER HAD THE SORT OF RECOGNITION WE’VE HAD FOR OUT OF THE DARK.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR OUT OF THE DARK?
I think that this will take us to our retirement, if we can get the system sorted. We’d like to streamline all our projects, and get most of the young people coming through Out of the Dark – I think it’s going to be a great model. We’ve just worked with an architect on a kitchen in a shop called Fabrications on Broadway market in London. We’d like to develop the interior design side more – we’d love to do a boutique hotel or something in Out of the Dark style. I’ve worked with interior designers before, so I help work out how it should look, and Jay and the lads work out how it will work practically. We’re hoping that word will continue to spread and we’ll have more people coming here to contract us to do interior design work and commissions. We want this to really take off – so we can train more people!