Royal Docks: How UEL’s Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability brings people together

Director Robert De Jong and his team aim to drive the green agenda in east London by convening stakeholders at the new facility

Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability director Robert De Jong

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On a dark day, it might be tempting to look at the state of the planet and be discouraged.

Globally we’ve had the warmest February on record, yet ministers seem content to water down green policies. 

Populist politicians and commentators bewail what they see as the madness of abandoning coal and gas.

Others argue that the UK’s emissions are so small in comparison to other parts of the world that there’s no point in making any changes at the supposed expense to our quality of life. 

Early withdrawal symptoms for a culture hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels?

Perhaps. But nevertheless the voices have become a potent lobby. 

The eastern extension to ULEZ hardly raised a peep when it came to Docklands.

But west London was a different story, with opportunistic politicians hijacking a poorly articulated campaign to target the Mayor Of London and, arguably, scrape a by-election win in Uxbridge.

There’s danger here. People like the status quo and yet, ULEZ has seen some pollutants fall by as much as 46% in its first year in central London.

That’s cleaner, fresher air – with around 290,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions prevented from fouling the atmosphere and contributing to the heating of the planet. 

Will this single measure save us? No. Not on its own.

But it’s a measure taken in a major capital city, that’s delivering myriad benefits.

This is a strong recipe for inspiring others.

The RDCS is based at UEL’s Royal Docks campus

It matters what we do here because the ideas and technology necessary to address the massive problems we face, need both places of generation and implementation.

That’s why projects like the University Of East London’s recently launched Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability (RDCS) are vital for the survival of our species.

Part-funded by the Mayor and Newham Council though their Royal Docks Team initiative, the facility provides space for projects, will be open to the community and will soon boast a “vibrant cafe”.

But beyond the, doubtless, sustainable coffee, it has another role.

Its task is to bring people and organisations together to improve sustainability in an area that’s undergoing billions of pounds of regeneration in a borough fighting deprivation.

“If I could have one wish, it would be that this centre has a driving influence on the Royal Docks, that the innovation created here really plays out and makes sure that this community and London itself become exemplars,” said Robert De Jong, RDCS director and the man whose job it is to steer the facility as it evolves and develops.

“We have a regeneration scheme in the docks that is forecast to grow significantly over the coming years and it should be sustainable.

“The centre’s role is as a convener, both for our schools at UEL, our research centres, the local community and industry. 

“Our aim is to bring them all together through effective programming and setting themes for ourselves. 

“I would like to see ambitious goals set for the Royal Docks such as the establishment of a clean-tech cluster so the businesses that come through here are really innovative and set up for the future.

“Also that the plan for urban design – the way the buildings are made and how transport and urban connectivity flow through the docks – is really low carbon.

“There’s a lot of talk about this but, when it comes down to reality, there can be stark differences in what’s delivered to what was mooted. We have a real opportunity here to unleash these ideas and ask what we can do differently.

“How can we engage with the waterways, the transport system and boost biodiversity as well?”

To address some of these questions, RDCS comes fully equipped with some powerful tools and facilities, namely a Sustainability Research Institute, a Sustainable Enterprise Centre, an Augmented + Virtual Reality Centre, a Renewable Energy Lab and a Maker Space.

The Mayor Of London, Sadiq Khan officially opened the centre earlier this year

Then there’s a Data Centre, a Living Lab, a Living Library, a Careers Office, a Hackathon space, Business + Community Tax And Law Clinics and more besides. 

It stands as both a physical connection to UEL’s schools as well as a conceptual one, aimed at spotlighting the work the university does and mixing it with ideas and influences from other organisations and groups.

“We take a holistic view,” said Robert.

“Sustainability means that we’re governing with an ethical outcome for society and the environment, that we’re thinking outside of our own jurisdictions and that we’re also really understanding the stewardship of products and striving to improve how we use resources.

“We can’t just keep creating pollution and heating the globe.

“We need to think about how to manage the whole balance of our ecology. 

“At the moment we’re at a certain rate of growth, so we need to ask if that is sustainable.

“The centre is based on a number of things – firstly collaboration and creation in the holistic sense of sustainability, driving it across east London, around Newham and in Royal Docks in particular.

“In a couple of years’ time, I would like to see this centre established at the forefront of pushing the sustainability agenda – that we’re able to make a measurable impact in terms of social outcomes.

“At UEL we already have great diversity in the student body, among staff and in our policies, but how far can we go?

“That’s not just looking at employment, it’s in the supply chain and it’s driving that wider agenda and our goal of a healthier planet.

“I’d like to see this centre become a catalyst for enabling these things and also to act as a demonstrator.”

Part of the three-storey centre’s mission then, will be to constantly shine spotlights on the work being done in UEL’s schools, while simultaneously supporting and showcasing the work of businesses.

“There is sustainability in each of our schools but it’s hidden away and we’re not always good at shouting about it,” said Robert.

“For example, the Sustainability Research Institute is doing amazing work on bio-based building materials such as Sugarcrete, made from waste products when sugar cane is refined.

“But equally there are fantastic projects in engineering and fashion too.

“Then there’s the wider ethos around our campuses themselves, with a opportunity to embed sustainability in the governance of UEL itself and to ask how we involve every member of staff in that process.

Visitors examine blocks of Sugarcrete, a new material made with waste products from the sugar refining industry

“We’re also about to launch an accelerator programme, starting with a small number of organisations with combined interests.

“We have a focus on fintech and how to develop financial technology and also on entrepreneurship with a faculty looking at how we organise training around creating a business and skills development.

“We can all come up with business ideas but in reality growing a company and overcoming the hurdles of finance and development can take many years.

“However, with the right support and education, firms can really grow successfully.

“We want to create cohorts through these programmes, but we also want to talk with external partners to run some of them, so it’s not just UEL.

“Key to the whole project is that the centre is a place where we can bring in local stakeholders such as Excel, London City Airport and Siemens, which is leading on UEL’s work to achieve net zero.

“Before, we were promoting the story of how exciting the centre will be, but since it’s opened, the dialogue has changed.

“People understand its principles and how we’re really striving for local impact, employment and engagement as well as picking up new ideas.

“Those from the community, wider industry and UEL itself who have seen the centre, seem really pleased with the space and understand how it is relevant.

“There will be entrepreneurs and scaleups based here, but people can also come for advice with clinics that can be used free of charge by locals from the community.

“We also want to bring in more international organisations – we need the whole mix to be right – to ensure that what we’re creating here is a framework of approach so people will feel this centre is a new space of inspiration.”

There you have it, a beacon of innovation in the Royal Docks, that people across the world can look to.  

Find out more about the Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability here

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Royal Docks: How NASSA’s match with the Met is more than just a game of basketball

Newham All Star Sports Academy contest with police marks 15 years of CABNAB partnership

Anthony Okereafor founded Carry A Basketball Not A Blade

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At 5.30pm a game of basketball will begin at UEL Sports Dock on January 25, 2024.

But the players will be doing more than making passes, shooting hoops and competing.

It’s not the first time that a team from Newham All Start Sports Academy (NASSA) has taken on a squad of serving Met Police officers. 

But this year is the latest in a series of events marking the 15 years of partnership between the two organisations.

Son of NASSA founder Natasha Hart – Anthony Okereafor – founded Carry A Basketball Not A Blade (CABNAB) in 2008 following the fatal stabbing of two of his friends within weeks of each other. 

Its programme reaches thousands of young people each year, alerting them to the dangers of knife crime and carrying knives through basketball coaching and question and answer sessions.

The annual game is held to show the strength of organisations working together in the community, but also to remember those who have died as a result of knife crime locally during the year – with a hoop shot for every life lost.

“We come together to play a game of basketball, but the most important part of it is remembering those lives,” said Anthony.

“The event allows people in the community to see Met officers as human beings.

“It helps to break down the barriers for young people – to show them police officers enjoy sport just as they do.

“Trying to build a safer community isn’t just about removing the knives.

“It’s about making sure the right relationships and structures are in place to try to reduce the number of people who fall through the gaps.

“The game is common ground, it changes the dynamic.

“One of the things NASSA and CABNAB participants say is that when they meet officers in these settings they talk and have conversations and that’s something to build on.”

NASSA engages with young people through sport to help tackle knife crime – image Ilyas Ayub

That’s also something the Met is looking forward to with Chief Superintendent, Simon Crick, set to take part in his first game against NASSA since taking over as borough commander for Newham and Waltham Forest.

“It’s the engagement with young people and the diversion away from anti-social behaviour that’s so important,” said Simon, who began his career as a police constable in Newham.

“This part of London has seen more than its fair share of homicides and violent incidents over recent years and I’m really supportive of what NASSA and CABNAB are trying to do.

“Having been down to Sports Dock and seen all of the things the charity has achieved, it’s really good for us to be a part of it and to try and do something positive with young people. It’s really empowering. 

“As for the game itself, we’ll get annihilated, without a doubt – I’m sure.

“I’m really looking forward to the game – anything that we can do to show a willingness to engage with young people, work with them and have a bit of fun, is really positive.

“Building relationships is what it’s all about – there’s too much animosity, so we need to do more of that. 

“Alongside me, some of my senior leadership team will be playing and they understand the need to engage with young people.

“There will also be some neighbourhood officers in there, whose purpose and role in life is to do that – to support young people and divert them away from crime and anti-social behaviour.

“I think it will be really empowering for our officers – it always helps build that trust, whenever something is fun for those taking part, and it will help make their jobs easier.

“The uniform can be seen as a barrier sometimes and, if people can see you’re human through playing sport, that’s really important.”

The charity plays its games at UEL’s Sports Dock – image Ilyas Ayub

For NASSA and the young people that participate in its programmes, the game is a chance to explore those relationships and find some parallels.

Anthony said: “When people put on a uniform, there’s a certain reputation they have to uphold.

“When we play basketball, we put on a uniform and we preach that to our young people – it’s the same with school uniforms.

“When wearing them, you have to represent certain things, to look at the bigger picture of what that means, how you carry yourself and the importance of that.

“There is a natural tension with the Met, but police officers are also the first responders – they are the people you call when you’re in trouble and they also go through traumas related to the work they do.

vWhen the officers are playing, you don’t see that tension with the young people and that’s a seed that can be planted to grow into something better.

“Who knows, one of our young people might end up saying they want to join the police themselves.

“I’ve never worked for the police, but I can imagine officers are always on high alert for themselves and those around them as they work to keep people safe.

“This game is an opportunity for them to let their hair down – a bit of a break in a safe place and a chance to communicate with young people.”

With a reduction in youth services locally, that’s a welcome prospect for Simon and his colleagues.

He said: “There’s a lack of youth engagement opportunities following austerity – we saw huge cuts to many of those services locally and what NASSA does is phenomenal – bringing young people together locally.

“It gives them the ability to work as a team, to enjoy themselves, to get fit and have fun.

“It gives them somewhere to go and a sense of purpose.

“Having young kids myself, I know how important sport can be when they’re growing and everything is changing in their lives.

NASSA is set to take on the Met in a symbolic game on January 25, 2024 – image Ilyas Ayub

“That continuous focus around sport can be crucial.

“NASSA also provides a sense of family – speaking to Natasha, you really understand it’s a close knit organisation and people coming into it will really feel that.

“That’s important because I think lots of young people feel very alienated in the modern world. What NASSA does is very powerful.

“Knife crime is an issue that goes far beyond the police.

“We deal with situations where people are on the street carrying knives or when they’ve been the victim of a homicide or serious assault.

“There are things we do – very well planned and coordinated partnership activities – to try and reduce offending.

“But tackling this issue starts a lot earlier than that. It often begins in the home with good parenting and at school with education. 

“There are so many factors that play into it.

“Where we’ve seen success across the country and across the world, has been when a public health approach is taken.

“That’s where numerous partners including charities, police forces and other organisations, come together to look at all the different factors that feed into knife crime, such as deprivation

“This game is a good example of how we’re trying to reach out and encourage young people to be part of that. 

“We’re a long way from solving the problem, but we’ve recognised as a service that only a partnership approach will address it. 

“If you speak to young people and ask them why they carry knives, a lot of them would say they are for self defence or to make sure that they are safe.

“If I had a magic wand it would be used to make people not feel unsafe or at risk so they wouldn’t feel the need to carry a knife.

“That’s the ultimate aim – it’s difficult to achieve that because of all the factors that affect it.

“For a young person to say they need to carry a knife to feel safe speaks volumes and that’s that we need to address first.”

  • While the game on January 25, 2024, is not open to the general public, organisations or individuals who would like to support NASSA can get in touch with the charity and may be able to attend.

Support from businesses, either financial or through volunteering is welcomed so NASSA and CABNAB can continue their vital work.

Find out more about NASSA and CABNAB here

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Royal Docks: How UEL has unveiled the Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability

Mayors of London and Newham attend the launch of the facility aimed at supporting innovation

The Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability

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The University Of East London has officially launched the Royal Docks Centre For Sustainability (RDCS) at its Docklands campus.

The mayors of London and Newham joined UEL’s vice-chancellor to unveil a wooden plaque to mark the December 6, 2024 opening, hailing the move as the “dawn of a new era in innovation and sustainability    

“The opening of this centre is an incredibly special milestone for UEL and for the future of our city,” said Mayor Of London, Sadiq Khan.

“I believe this centre is best seen as symbolising two of the most profound changes happening in London right now – our shift eastwards and our shift to net zero.

“The RDCS embodies London’s direction of travel.

“City Hall moved to this area because I believe great things will be done in the Royal Docks. 

“This centre is now integral to one of the most significant regeneration projects in Britain and will help drive the entire venture forward over the coming decades – delivering good, inclusive growth as well as well-paid, high-skilled, meaningful jobs for east Londoners.

“The work that will be done here presents an opportunity to demonstrate how we can achieve both economic progress and environmental protection.

Sadiq Khan, Mayor Of London

“There’s also the chance to accelerate the sustainability aspects of existing work in the community – the list of possibilities is long, but the time in which we have to act is short.”

The RDCS is billed as a “regional hatchery for innovation, skills and enterprise” offering local people, companies and UEL students access to affordable workspace as well as academic research and expertise.

Headed by director Robert De Jong, it will also run programmes aimed at launching and growing businesses or boosting east Londoners’ skills.

“As a centre we have to be an enabler and bring people in,” said Robert.

“We’re not starting from ground zero.

“We already have some amazing initiatives – the talent is here. RDCS will be a platform for us to connect, collaborate, form new partnerships and also strengthen existing ones.”

The RDCS itself is arranged over three floors of a building at UEL’s Royal Albert Dock campus.

Part-funded by the Royal Docks Team’s Good Growth Fund, it’s intended to be a hub for innovation and creativity, forming part of the university’s plans to become carbon neutral by 2030. 

Alongside other facilities it will house UEL’s Living Lab, a partnership with Siemens that aims to offer students, researchers and local businesses a place to test, research and adapt technology to real-world environments.

“The RDCS is not just a building, it is a vision brought to life,” said Professor Amanda Broderick, vice-chancellor at UEL. 

“It is a space where researchers, students, alumni, businesses, and local residents converge to create ideas, goals, and ambitions. 

“It breaks down the barriers that often separate academia from its neighbours, offering a space where fresh perspectives and the cross-pollination of ideas flourish. 

Professor Amanda Broderick, vice-chancellor at UEL

“And recognising that the success of any enterprise rests on the calibre of its workforce, the centre is poised to supply the region’s businesses with a skilled, green workforce ready to tackle the challenges of a rapidly evolving world. 

“Aligned with the objectives of London’s only Enterprise Zone and building on UEL’s lead in business incubation and acceleration, this is a ground-breaking investment into our communities’ growth and development within east London and in our gateway to the world.”

Aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the centre has ambitious goals to contribute to the local economy, address challenges here and across the planet and to help foster a cleaner, safer world.

“The RDSC brings together entrepreneurial ingredients from across Newham to support the development of future skills while driving needed collaboration between industry, academia and our people,” said Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor Of Newham.

Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor Of Newham

“Partnerships and collaboration resulting from the launch of the new centre will help to implement the borough’s Just Transition Plan, upskilling residents and providing opportunities to deliver new solutions that will be essential for adapting to climate change and transitioning towards a green economy.

“This new space allows Newham and broader east London to convene with partners from various sectors to help collectively solve all the interconnected challenges that the climate emergency presents us. 

“While the challenges may be known, the solutions will look different in every sector, in every neighbourhood, so it’s critical to have a centre like this helping solve global challenges in a local way.”

The launch of the centre was also a platform for UEL to launch its Year Of Science, which is set to culminate with hosting the British Science Festival – a gathering of scientists, innovators, inventors, researchers and artists keen to show their work to the public.

Next year will see the 193rd iteration of the festival and mark the first time it has been held in London for more than 20 years.

Find out more about the RDCS here

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Royal Docks: How UEL student Ashlea Cromby won a £5,000 grant for her startup

How Mansimble Tea And Estate impressed at the university’s Female Founders Demo Day

Ashlea Cromby, co-founder of Mansimble Tea And Estate and UEL PhD student

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Business is about remaining agile.

Mansimble Tea And Estate – an importer of rare Kangra tea from India – was founded by University Of East London alumni Ashlea Cromby and Vanessa Browne in response to a problem. 

“I never thought I’d be in the tea business – my whole family is from Hainault,” said Ashlea.

“I grew up wanting to be a hairdresser – a stylist at London Fashion Week, because I always had pretty high goals.

“But I went to Epping Forest College (now New City College) and studied piano, then came to UEL to read music as an undergrad for three years because it was the university closest to my house.

“That’s where I met Vanessa – we lived a bit of a wild life for a few years and then I started working in schools, teaching music.

“I’d been to India when I was 18 and volunteered in some local schools – then I went back in 2018 after my masters at UEL in special educational needs. 

“On my last night during that second trip, I was speaking to the owner of the Mansimble Tea Estate and he told me he wanted to build a school – I said I’d love to work with him on that.

“We did extensive fundraising at UEL with cake sales, music events, fairs and auctions – and we built the school.”

But then a problem arose. The arrival of the global pandemic saw a drop in donations to keep the school running.

Ashlea and Vanessa needed a plan to fund the school sustainably, protecting it from the ups and downs of charitable funding.

“It hit me like a lightning bolt that the estate’s Kangra tea could be used to fund the school,” she said.

“I Whatsapped the owner and asked if he exported the tea to the UK and he said no, so I messaged to say: ‘Now you do’.”

Now studying for a PhD at UEL, looking at autistic identity and internet memes, Ashlea had no experience in the sector, but she and her business partner dug in and launched Mansimble Tea And Estate in 2021. 

Mansimble’s Kangra tea comes in hand-tied cotton bags

“In the early days there were issues with borders – much of the world was still in lockdown – but we got the tea and launched it as an ethical brand targeting Yoga studios and hippy communities,” said Ashlea.

“The estate is owned by Indians who pay the pickers a fair wage and provide free education for their children through the school.

“However, we did some market research, looking at the big afternoon teas at the Dorchester and the Ritz and we realised we could target them.

“These hotels always want rare teas that come with a story, so we looked at branching out – offering heritage and rarity, but also an ethical brand that is sustainable.

“Kangra tea accounts for less than 1% of production in India and our teas come in hand-tied cotton bags.”

Combined with a blossoming gin collaboration that’s set to be stocked by Sainsbury’s, this all makes Mansimble a compelling story of a business starting to gain real traction.

That’s perhaps the key reason why Ashlea’s presentation to UEL’s Female Founders Demo Day – a competition that recently saw six women pitch their business venture ideas to win a £5,000 grant – won out.

Held at UEL’s campus on Royal Albert Dock, the contest saw a total of £10,000 in grants awarded to female entrepreneurs with support from Ankh Impact Ventures whose founder, Pierre Rolin, chaired the judges. 

“The money will make a huge difference to Mansimble,” said Ashlea.

“It will allow us to pay up front for tea chests, that will help us to scale the business and then we can start really expanding.

“That will help the core part of the business, which is to raise funds for the school in India.

“With regard to the tea itself,  we want to be the leading Kangra specialist in the world – the Coca-Cola of that business.

“We want to see it featured on as many afternoon tea menus as possible and to truly re-establish it.

“Going back to Victorian times, it was the most prized tea in Britain.

“It won gold and silver awards in Amsterdam in the 1840s and was the very best of the Victorian high society teas.

The tea is grown on an Indian-owned estate, which pays its workers fair wages and provides education for their children

“Then there was an earthquake that hit the region where it is grown and, because of that, the British pulled out.

“They already had Assam and Darjeeling and the rest of India so they decided they didn’t want to waste their money on this tiny place and its crop of tea.

“Today the estate is owned by Indians and it produces this incredible product.

“It is not bitter at all – it’s the smoothest, most amazing tea, served with no milk or sugar.

“If you liken it to the spirit world, then you’re getting a beautiful, full-bodied whisky.

“The tea itself – which is called a liquor when it’s brewed – is smooth, full of flavour and amber in colour.

“What we want to do is return Kangra tea to where it used to be in the UK market – right at the top.

“As a brand we are doing something different to what’s out there.

“There are lots of ethical tea brands and there are many speciality, high-end tea brands. Then there are everyday brands like PG Tips and Typhoo.  

“With Mansimble, we are both an ethical brand and one that is targeting the top end of the market.

“We are approaching tea in a different way, because the Indians are in control of the estate in contrast to its colonial past.”

  • Two other students were also given grants at Demo Day. BSc computing for business student Nicole Ihemadu was recognised with £2,500 for her Uzuri Tribe venture aimed at using AI to create a bespoke selection of products based on customer preference and aimed at black women.

Kiri Scamp, who is studying business management at UEL, also received £2,500 for Millér, a brand developing muti-purpose, recyclable and sustainable makeup kits and vegan and ethical products to go in them.

Also presenting on the day were Angela Rixon with coaching venture My Wisdom Career, Jasmine Shroder’s trauma-based therapy business and Ashantae Samuel-Maragh of ASSM Waves, making workout gear from recycled fishing nets.

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Royal Docks: How Blackout Dance Camp combats mental and physical health issues

Founder Levan Peart talks dance at UEL, Britain’s Got Talent and expanding his London operation

Blackout Dance Company founder Levan Peart
Blackout Dance Company founder Levan Peart – image Matt Grayson

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“Dancing feels liberating – to be present and grounded in the moment gives me an outlet and a medium to express, be and present myself and to connect with others – it’s powerful,” said Levan Peart, dancer, student, choreographer and social entrepreneur.

The founder of community interest company (CIC) Blackout Dance Camp is constantly striving to harness that power as a way to combat mental and physical health issues.

“I really think they are synonymous – when you address one, you address the other,” he said.

“In the digital age, we can be frequently distracted – with social media, for example – so it’s great to come into a space, connect with others and to have that freedom of expression. 

“The exercise also releases endorphins so it generally improves your state of being and it stimulates your cognitive abilities because you’ll be using your brain in ways you’re not used to.

“You’re having to think and coordinate with your body but at the same time, release and let things flow.”

As a child, Levan danced with his siblings, discovering a passion that has been the foundation of his activities and one he is driven to share.

“I’ve loved dance since I was young – getting home from school and watching dance movies like You Got Served, Stomp The Yard, Streetdance, Step Up and Honey, and dancing to the music channels non-stop,” he said.

“Then two of my sisters and me joined a dance school having seen a story in the local newspaper.

“I’m from Telford originally – a very small town with not many opportunities and not much diversity, but we joined that group and that exposed us to the street dance world a bit more.

“Then my sisters, me and some other people split off and formed our own group called High Definition, which appeared on Britain’s Got Talent.

“My sisters and me also did Sky One’s Got To Dance when we were growing up as well.”

Levan now studies at the University Of East London
Levan now studies at the University Of East London – image Matt Grayson

While still in his teens, he first created Blackout at school, entering national competitions before the project evolved further.

“I’d been approached by some parents who wanted me to involve their dependants in dance, so we formed a group, with regular classes and entering competitions,” said Levan.

“From there, things just snowballed – I was getting into working with schools and meeting more and more teachers who wanted our services.”

Next came a partnership with local community centre The Wakes, offering free dance sessions to young people from low income backgrounds.

“That felt incredible – to give that gift of dance, because it was something, growing up, that I struggled to access,” said Levan.

“It was a real pleasure to be able to give that for free and there was a massive demand for it as well.”

Through that project, he was put in touch with Nicky Kent of Social Heart CIC who helped him set Blackout up as a social enterprise, before a move to London’s Royal Docks beckoned.

“I knew I wanted to get onto the Dance: Urban Practice course at the University Of East London (UEL), years ago,” said Levan.

“It’s the only course of its kind and I knew with my roots that this was the sort of environment I’d feel more aligned with.

“I’m not classically trained, I don’t have that background and this programme covers dance from other origins.

“But it was a bit of a lost dream. I didn’t have the right credentials to get enough UCAS points to be accepted.

“However, I did manage to get onto the New Beginnings access course at UEL – that meant travelling every week from Telford to London, a round trip of five hours.”

Having completed that programme and been accepted onto the undergraduate course, Levan is now seeking to develop and expand his activities with Blackout in both Telford and London.

“For me, it’s being able to balance Telford and London, because Telford is part of my roots and it’s somewhere I’m passionate about,” he said.

“The course at UEL has exceeded my expectations. For me it’s been an incubation period, a time of transcendence – spiritual, mental and physical growth.

Levan started Blackout in Telford
Levan started Blackout in Telford – image Matt Grayson

“Being exposed to new networks and meeting new peers – it really is a different life coming from a cold spot in the UK to such a bustling city, which is thriving and full of opportunity.

“With Blackout, we’re at the stage now of establishing a presence in London and the course I’m on at UEL is exposing me to a whole group of people we can look to work with in the delivery of our own funded projects, going forward.

“We offer a range of specialist dance, education and wellbeing services, integrating Caribbean-style dance with commercial dance to create our signature style.

“Our organisation is split into three segments. There’s the educational element, where we go into schools and deliver mass movement workshops where we can reach up to 400 children at any one time.

“We have our participatory element, which is our dance camps, workshops and intensives.

“The main aim of that is to bridge the gap between industry settings and community settings – to level the playing field for those from marginalised backgrounds. 

“We welcome beneficiaries from all walks of life, however we do have a focus on members of black and ethnic minority communities, LGBTQIA+ dancers, neurodivergent groups and those living in low-income areas.

“The third element is performative, where we have showcases and the opportunity for beneficiaries to take part in short films and screenings.”

Right now, Levan, 22, is focused on growing Blackout’s operations in the capital. 

“I want to continue to build up our programmes in schools in London – to build up a strong roster of people that we can use to deliver these services,” he said.

“There’s only so much you can do with a small team, so collaboration is key for the kind of mission that we have.

“I want to expand the team, expand the roll-out and also the organisation so there’s more time to focus on the artistic vision.

“Eventually it would be nice to create full-length films to raise awareness about issues we’re tackling through our work.

“Potentially, in the future, we’d even like to look at theatre.

“At the moment the programmes we offer in east London with our short films are on a call-out basis, so people should keep engaged with our social media profiles (@blackoutdancecamp) and keep an eye out for project opportunities.”

Levan is expanding Blackout's operation in London
Levan is expanding Blackout’s operation in London – image Matt Grayson


Levan has recently been honoured for his achievements at the Student Social Mobility Awards organised by charity upReach, attending a ceremony at the House Of Lords hosted by Baroness Helena Kennedy.

As well as winning the top Creative Industries Sector Award, he was also named as one of the upReach 10 in recognition of his grit, resilience and determination.

The accolade comes on the back of his success in winning the top prize of £2,500 in an incubator pitch competition organised by HSBC, where he impressed the judges with his entrepreneurial vision.

Levan said: “Winning that money didn’t feel real for a moment, especially as UEL is so close to HSBC’s tower.

“I was shocked but really grateful. It means a lot when you know where you came from and what you’ve had to do to get to where you are. It felt really good to get that external appraisal.

“With the Social Mobility Award, I didn’t think someone  from my demographic and origin would ever enter the House of Lords and take these awards with me.

“It’s a demonstration of what we can achieve if we work for it.

“This recognition has made me more determined than ever to succeed. I feel like this platform has made me more accountable to myself.

“I’ve set a benchmark and I know what I’m capable of. 

“I’m ready to spread my wings and help create a better society for Blackout’s beneficiaries.

“That’s the core of what I’m doing with Blackout – improving the lives of others.”

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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