Extraordinary People

Black boys’ smiles light up London as project challenges their portrayal in media

Incredible new campaign is helping reduce anger and violence.

While it’s all very well to teach about mental health and race while reading from a text book, kids need someone who’s going to light up the classroom when they walk in.

And that’s exactly what Kay Rufai does, help young people get to grips with issues that play a critical role in their lives while also connecting with them on a human level.

The campaigner is on a mission to change the narrative of how young people of colour are portrayed, by helping to give them a voice to express themselves.

His S.M.I.L.E.ing Boys crusade began as an exhibition, in which beautiful photographs of black youths smiling were showcased in a rare glimpse of celebrating their worth.

[Credit: Kay Rufai]

So far, the portrait series of 13-year-old black boys has been showcased in City Hall and at Brixton Village market with a host of infectious smiles decorating the spaces, from cheeky to cute to coy the expressions are heart-warming in their individuality.

The project also delivers an eight-week programme of workshops in schools to give black boys an opportunity to explore their wellbeing and joy in facilitated sessions.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust & Arts council, Kay’s project was created as a direct response to the rise in youth stabbings, which sparked a series of reactionary approaches from the government regarding tougher criminalisation of youth, more stop and searches and greater police presence in minority communities.

[Credit: Kay Rufai]

Speaking about his initiative, aimed at BAME [Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic] boys in London, Kay said that his “saving grace” as a teenager had been finding solace in creativity and so he tapped into those visionary genes to help those struggling today.

Kay said: “I saw myself in all these young boys. I recognised that my saving grace was the arts. So, I created a project that enabled me to provide the tools that I wish I had as a 13-year-old black boy, to instil a sense of value about my identity as a black child.”

The British-Nigerian artist, who also delivers talks across the UK with The Self-Esteem Team, travelled to an array of countries that rank amongst the happiest in the world to explore the themes he wants to share with his students – namely joy, freedom, security.

[Credit: Kay Rufai]

In particular, he found great results in Sweden and Denmark, where they value the notion that each individual deserves and flourishes from a sense of belonging and purpose.

Talking to Positive News, he also reflected on the opening of the exhibition for the photography series, when one of the participants was late.

Kay said: “I asked the others where he was, and they gave him a call. They said he’d been stopped by a couple of guys with weapons from another area on his way.

“Rather than get into a fight, the boy had handed over the money he had, £10, and made it to the exhibition. For young men like those on this pilot programme, walking away rather than escalating the situation was a big step.”

View this post on Instagram

👊🏿😊💛 . . Young Kings 👑

A post shared by Kay Rufai (@smilingboysproject) on

He continued: “The fact he did that and was able to come and talk about it was huge.

“That was evidence of a young person understanding the power of consequence, when previously his first port of call would have been violence and that would have led to the kind of regurgitated narrative we hear about young black people all the time.”

And Kay’s work is only just beginning.

Having seen a significant improvement on the boys’ lives – with them able to manage anger and reduce violent outcomes ­– he hopes to introduce it into every London school.

There are also plans to adapt the programme for black girls as well.

For more info, click here: S.M.I.L.E.ing Boys.

[Credit: Kay Rufai]

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