Kenny Imafidon’s tale of resilience and positivity shows that where you come from doesn’t have to dictate where you end up. We provide a sample of his insights from a video interview with BecomingX.
“When telling the story of your life, make sure you’re holding the pen,” says social entrepreneur, political commentator and activist Kenny Imafidon. “In this life, you can be whoever you want to be.”
Today, Imafidon is co-founder and managing director of ClearView Research, which focuses on research about young people and millennials. He has led innovative partnerships with global brands such as Uber, Tinder and Deliveroo to encourage young people to register to vote and turn out in UK elections and the EU referendum.
Described by Huffington Post UK as a “rising star making waves in UK politics,” he was hailed as one of the country’s top was black students in 2014, and named by Impact Squared as one of 100 young leaders around the globe making a social impact to transform our world.
He is clearly successful, influential – and wise beyond his 26 years. But this wisdom has been hard won. “I grew up in a deprived community. I saw a lot of poverty; just day-to-day struggling to get by,” he recalls of his childhood in Peckham, south-east London. “Hopelessness was a big thing in my community. You begin to do things by any means, whether that be selling drugs or whatever crime it may be. That becomes your norm. It’s very much like a jungle and it’s ‘eat or be eaten’.”
Despite this, Imafidon excelled at school, and, unlike many of his peers, had ambitions for the future, fuelled by his mum’s faith in the value of education. He passed 12 GCSEs and went on to study philosophy, politics, economics and history.
His world was “turned upside down” during his second year of college. Two days after turning 18, Imafidon was arrested for the murder of a 17-year- old athlete, shot dead on an estate in Peckham. He was charged, along with four other teenagers, in a ‘joint enterprise’ case (under which you can be found guilty by association).
“My life, my hopes, just went down the drain,” he says, of that moment. He was locked up for six months, awaiting trial, and facing the prospect of a 30-year prison sentence.
The case against him focused on circumstantial cell-site evidence (“I was literally there because of phone calls between me and my co-defendants”) and ignored his protestations of innocence and his impressive school record.
“My whole experience up to that point was that I very much enjoyed education,” he says. “I was keen to go to university to study PPE. The summer of my first year in college,
I got some work experience at City Hall, the Houses of Parliament and at my local council. I was trying to help practitioners and politicians to understand the difficulties that a lot of people like me, and from my community, are facing. There are so many talented people who end up just wasting their lives.”
As I look back, a lot of lessons I learnt in prison, I still hold with me today
Refusing to give in to despair, while on remand, he took his A-levels. “I used to pray every day that if this doesn’t break me, it will surely make me,” he says. “I was the first person ever to do A-levels in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. And I passed them. And that was what helped me to get through. I definitely knew that this would not be the end of my story.”
Pursuit of social justice
Halfway through his trial, Imafidon was acquitted of murder and cleared of all other charges by the direction of the judge. Remarkably, he was released having drawn resilience and positivity from his experience rather than anger and bitterness. “As I look back, a lot of lessons I learnt in prison, I still hold with me today,” he acknowledges.
Since then, he has achieved a degree in law (winning a tuition-free scholarship to study at private university BPP through the Amos Bursary) and is devoting much of his life to pursuing social justice. Following his time at Feltham, he wrote The Kenny Report, which looked at gangs and serious youth violence, and how government policy has a part to play in what happens in marginalised communities. He launched it in the House of Commons in 2012 and was proud to hear it referenced by academics and politicians.
“That was a big turning moment in changing my story and the narrative about me,” he says, explaining that it paved the way for further reports, including one with a team of 24 young authors, representing the biggest piece of youth-led research ever done in the UK.
Having taken back control of his own future, Imafidon is now helping to rewrite the narrative around young black people in the UK. “In terms of society’s view of young black men, it’s very much driven by the negative stereotypes they see in the media – of crime and hoodies – and that needs to change,” he asserts. “There are so many young black men – and women – doing exceptional things, despite their circumstances.”
BecomingX launches in early 2020. For a taster of their content, watch the promotional film of CEO and founder Paul Gurney’s interview with Kenny Imafidon at [insert link]