The power of representation – how having a role model helped me become a role model

As we celebrate Black History Month, we asked some of our team to share their thoughts on the importance of positive representation. Here, Remel, a West London Zone Link Worker, tells us his story

  • October marks Black History Month, an important month for us here at West London Zone as we celebrate and acknowledge the diversity and cultural heritage of the area where we work
  • One of our Link Workers, Remel, shares his story with us about how having a role model inspired his own career path - to become a role model to others
  • Remel's story exemplifies the importance of positive representation, and why it is central to our work

As we celebrate Black History Month, we usually focus on trailblazers like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mary Seacole, or the more local icon, Claudia Jones, who all achieved amazing feats and left undeniable legacies. The need for important but unsung figures within our local communities however, is just as important, and is certainly invaluable to the children and young people I work with as a West London Zone Link Worker.

When I began writing this article, I admit I vacillated a little on how I could frame it. I feel very strongly about this topic - the importance and power of representation - as it not only shaped my own path but has given me the responsibility to shape the path of others. It would be an injustice if I trawled through the internet looking for quotes, statistics, and historical figures to cram into a post when this is something so personal to me. With that, I felt the best approach was to show my personal experience, so we can see how the human and accessible elements of representation can be just as powerful.

Why the need for representation?

Having said that, a few statistics are needed here. A glance at the GovUK website shows us that 85% of teachers in state schools are white, while 46% of all English schools have no teachers from ethnic minorities. Outside of the classroom, only 3% of barristers and solicitors are black, only 155 out of 22,000 academic professors in the UK are black, and the figures are replicated across many other professions. The pattern becomes clear. Although there are often positive black representations across the media, sports, and arts, it often limits the scope and opportunities of young people wanting to pursue other careers. Combine this with public funding cuts which have caused the closing of numerous youth clubs, and services for local communities, and we are at risk of losing positive representation and strong role models for a whole demographic of young people.

This information may not mean as much to some, but without positive representation it can be harder for children to aspire to meaningful roles, find a realistic career path, build healthy relationships, not to mention navigate all the other challenges young people face.

Finding role models that looked like me

I grew up in a single-parent household with a supportive family. The youngest of four, with siblings much older than me, I had a very different upbringing to them. My mum sent me to a secondary school that none of my siblings or even many of my friends attended, and I suddenly found myself in an environment where I stuck out like a sore thumb. Most of my peers were white, there was only one black teacher, and the majority of the people I was surrounded by had a completely different upbringing from me. I became disengaged and rebellious. I started spending time with dangerous people, and my behaviour at school had me on the brink of exclusion after my first six months.

As a result, my school introduced me to an external programme run by a Christian youth work charity called Ignite. Two youth workers named Jeronne and Sam ran a weekly session for a small group that consisted of playing sports, reflecting on our behaviour, and -most importantly - a space for us to talk. Jeronne and Sam not only looked like me, but they also spoke of experiences that I could relate to. They were young and successful in their careers, had houses and families of their own, and so I began to use them as a framework for what my future could look like.

Becoming the role model I needed

While my behaviour at school didn't improve overnight, I now had a reason to want to go to school. I was drawn to Jeronne and Sam for reasons I didn't quite understand as a teenager, but it became apparent as I got older; they turned an uncomfortable environment into a safe space, they showed me that my environment didn't define me as a person, and making something of myself wasn't this impossible task.

After working with them over time, my school experience and behaviour improved. I felt I could adapt to different social environments, and I was excited about my future for the first time in my life. The thought of going to university was no longer just something my parents wanted me to do! I started volunteering with Jeronne and Sam to build work experience to put on my CV. This helped me find part-time jobs working with young people while studying for my degree - setting me on the path I find myself today, working with children and young people as a West London Zone Link Worker.

Before Jeronne and Sam, none of this seemed possible; without them, it probably wouldn't have been. This is why I will continue to stress the importance of representation, not just in the media but within education and our local communities.

"You can't be what you can't see."

This quote from Marian Wright Edelman fits my thought process perfectly. I would not have accomplished some of the things I have today if it wasn't for those positive interactions, relatable experiences and good examples I saw early on. This is the power of representation; it's about relating to one's own journey, making the seemingly impossible possible, and it's about reflecting on how people from all walks of life have the potential to become who they want to be.

My role as a role model

During this Black History Month, while we celebrate all of the amazing things achieved by those before us, it is also important to recognise and celebrate the role models we have closer to home. Those who inspire, perhaps unknowingly, quietly helping to transform the lives of others through positive shared experiences. It is a role I aspire to, helping to create an environment for change, a trusted adult, and a champion for the young people I work with.

Building that trusted relationship is key

I recall that it took me a long time to feel comfortable when I was at school, so one of my main aims as a Link Worker is to make my office a safe space; a place for young people to express themselves in all the ways that make them unique individuals. Having students pass by during lunch or after school to unwind or update me on their day is one of my favourite parts of the role. It also enables me to be an outlet for the students; we can talk outside the confines of education, and it allows me to understand and explore their interests and hobbies (sometimes, they even teach me TikTok dances).

Connecting with the students on a more personal level helps build trusted relationships which, I know from experience, takes time and effort, but is key to the work I do. Take "Zee", a Year 7 student who is very bright, but his negativity toward adults at school was preventing him from reaching his full potential. He felt as if no adult understood him, and he often communicated simply by nodding yes or shaking his head to say no. When working with Zee, I immediately understood not to take this personally and respected his decision to communicate how he wanted, as it was all based on his personal experiences. I expressed this to him, giving him the option to speak as little or as much as he wanted to.

We explored his interests outside of school, where he expressed how he loves anime and the art style behind it. I offered him the opportunity to use my room during lunchtime as a space for him to create art, unwind, and be himself. Over time, Zee became more confident and vocal; he even asked if he could bring his friends along.

We have similar backgrounds so he can relate to me

- Zee

The quiet role of a role model

Watching this gradual transition reminded me of my own; having a variety of role models to look up to in the media or the arts or sports or academics is essential, but the quiet role is equally as crucial. A young person can relate in a more grounded way, can identify with personality traits, or have space to explore areas that they're unfamiliar with, with someone who offers no judgement because they share a similar experience.

This representation in role modelling is what drives me every day, and as I remember Jeronne and Sam all those years ago, I give thanks to them for inspiring me to support that change in others, specifically in those who may have no role models who look like me.

Remel Reimers

Link Worker

together, every child and young person can flourish.