Since 2012, Spark Inside has been a pioneer of life coaching for young people in prison. Our flagship programme, Hero’s Journey, has empowered over 1000 young people to unlock their potential and carve out bright futures for themselves.
In 2019 we developed Black Hero’s Journey.
The decision to create this programme came following feedback from young people in prison, who told us that it would be beneficial for our coaching workshops to acknowledge the specific challenges young Black men face. With young Black men being massively over-represented in the justice system, and facing significant barriers relating to institutional and systemic racism (Lammy Review 2017), it was clear that tailored support for young Black men was needed — something that was rooted in a strengths-based approach, that was hopeful and focused on potential. That provided a space for these young men to explore their identity and come away feeling empowered by their blackness, and proud of it.
To develop Black Hero’s Journey, we first established an Advisory Group, comprising of people with lived prison experience, representatives from HMPPS/the Youth Justice Board and the Ministry of Justice, and academics. In 2020 the project reached pilot stage, and two specially trained life coaches, Samuel Onagoruwa and Jeffrey Wotherspoon, delivered the first Black Hero’s Journey programme in HMP/YOI Isis. The young men who participated fed back positively about the experience, but unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the pilot of the programme was paused.
In the two years since the original pilot, Spark Inside worked with Black practitioners to reflect on Black Hero’s Journey and develop the content of the programme further. We were delighted to deliver Black Hero’s Journey again in Summer 2022 in HMP/YOI Isis, with seven engaged and committed young men.
Michael Roper, one of the two coaches who delivered the recent Black Hero’s Journey programme, told us about his experience.
“On the morning of the first workshop, my co-facilitator, Jeffrey, and I met in the car park before walking into HMP/YOI Isis together.
Our hope for all Hero’s Journey programmes is that each activity lands well and makes a positive impact on the group, but after months of development this felt like a particularly important session. I felt excited and nervous at the same time. Jeffrey and I hugged and made our way into the prison with positive anticipation.
When delivering our flagship Hero’s Journey, it is vital that we as coaches build a synergy with one another, supporting each other and co-facilitating as though we are one. Whether you are male or female, Black or white, our aim is to create a space where the young people feel comfortable; this is no different for Black Hero’s Journey.
However, where Black Hero’s Journey differs from the original programme is that both coaches are always Black. This is so that the participants feel they can open up and be themselves completely, and be seen without any explanation needed, because we, too, have lived similar experiences and understand where they are coming from.
Black Hero’s Journey examines how the participants experience their identity: how they see themselves, how they perceive the world sees them, and how that shapes their choices, actions and relationships.
This is very powerful. It was clear that whilst we were all Black and had many shared experiences, there were also significant differences, which, if you’re not Black, you would not be aware of.
As the participants began to realise that the Black Hero’s Journey workshops were a real safe space for them, you could feel the energy in the room shift from the young people feeling apprehensive and unsure, to knowing and owning the space as “their space, their time, their expressions and their impressions”: no one was going to shut them down, ridicule or judge them.
We witnessed them removing their personal masks, no egos, no bravado: just young human beings with potential, able to express themselves in-depth, raw, and unlimited. We saw them shift as they made multiple realisations about themselves and each other – it was a joy of ‘ah-hah’ moments to witness.
A notable difference from the original Hero’s Journey programme is the introduction of a Hero that is relatable to the participants and their life stories. The Hero has no sports career, no music career, and no celebrity status, but has lived their life at all levels and beyond. With each session, the room gradually buzzed with excitement, a curiosity to learn, and a willingness to engage. Some participants told us that they engaged more in Black Hero’s Journey than at any other time in prison, a testimony that the environment felt natural and comfortable for them. Several young men told us that they gave up their social time to attend the workshops, which is virtually unheard of in our experience of coaching in prisons.
What has inspired me about this programme is the full engagement of the young men, most of whom would have mentally checked out of education because they found it either boring, unengaging, or unfulfilling. In contrast, Black Hero’s Journey seems to engage them in a way that that many may have thought not possible.
At the end of the workshop, we have a session dedicated to celebrating being Black and Black Joy. We ask the young men to reflect on the most significant events in the Black historical timeline – which unsurprisingly almost always points to their ancestors having been enslaved. But we also remind ourselves of the many heroes and heroines within our history, who can be brought to life for them, but who they may not yet know about. This can impact their self-belief, self-determination and self-esteem, opening their mind to their potential success.
I am so excited to see how the rest of the pilot is received and how the team will further adjust the programme for the most positive impact.”
Following the recent Black Hero’s Journey programme in HMP/YOI Isis, independent facilitators hosted a reflection session with the participants to share their experiences.
One young man said:
“Black Hero’s Journey is about realising our own skills and potential as a young Black man in today’s world, truly identifying our qualities and successes, and how to overcome barriers in order to get there, regardless of today’s challenges or our current and past situation.”
“I found that the intervention, like it helped me. I feel more empowered, more comfortable around Black people. Cause before like I’d look at Black people and maybe see like opponents and things like that, but now I can look at someone from a different area or another Black male, like me, and I see we have more similarities in common.”
The 2022 pilot of Black Hero’s Journey is the product of extensive research, design and workshopping and remains in pilot stage whilst we continue to evaluate, collaborate, and collect feedback from participants. The next Black Hero’s Journey programme is due to begin in HMP/YOI Isis in November and we look forward to sharing the progress with our supporters.