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A different school of thought

Written By Grace Vogiatzis

How to describe the powerhouse that is Respond Academy? Essentially they work with disadvantaged young people, and they do good.

Founded in 2004 as a voluntary youth initiative, the organisation has grown and transformed, now offering an Alternative Education program: students that fall out of the mainstream school system can achieve the equivalent of GCSE’s in more creatively based subjects. But this runs alongside the Academy’s original mission, which is simply ‘giving opportunities to young people from the community who, because of barriers of past behaviour or language, would normally feel excluded from being involved in local activities.’ 

Art and music are central to what they do, but the program has also run impressive initiatives that have taken students to the houses of Parliament, and they have even been featured on BBC's Newsnight. The team at the Academy are not about to rest on their laurels or marvel at their achievements: speaking to one of the founders, JC McFee brushes away discussion of how they got started, “that’s not what’s important- what’s important is now and the next ten years.”

Looking around the Academy’s Silchester Mew’s base, a little off the thoroughfare of St Leonards London Road, the walls are crowded with photographs of former shows and students performances, as well as their proudly displayed art work. In the midst of a bit of a clear out, there’s piles of stuff stacked along walls- JC tells me they’re not precious about the space, or their equipment- letting students take instruments- from guitars to electric keyboards- home with them: “why have it just sitting here when someone could be using it?” Supported by many kind sponsors, the academy has a single donated piano that, having survived the Dresden bombings, is now resident at the Academy for students to practice on. 

Through art and music the Academy looks to help young people. ‘It’s wrong to say that we only work with “the worst kids”,’ JC tells me, ‘that isn’t actually true- we work with high achievers also.’ 

Music wise- they support students to learn, improve and perform- encouraging them to use music as something to build their own confidence, putting them in contact with new styles, new ways of thinking and new people along the way. 

With regular music shows, students are given the opportunity to perform both covers and their own original material. They also organise, publicise and run the events themselves, giving them very real skills and experience. JC describes how one of the project managers had some reservations about doing music shows at first, which were soon overcome when they saw the high standard of playing the students reached, and their commitment to it. Though looking to build young peoples confidence and belief in themselves, JC says they always give realistic feedback to students; they have to work, to achieve and perform quality. 

Music is a big part of what they do, but its not everything, JC is keen to not reduce a description of the Academy down to that. With canvas artwork, graphic design, film, photography- they find what a kid is good at, what they enjoy, and push them to pursue it. “We do projects, we are not a drop in centre”- the word projects is an important one: they look for their students to commit, to persevere, deal with difficulties and improve. Collaboration between students seems key; getting students from diverse backgrounds to interact with each other as well as with adults. As I’m talking to JC there are two students working on a rap video- one performing his original material, the other having filmed it, though a little bashful they seem eager for me to take a look. 

Yet another side of the Academy is its place as a ‘community hub’, something it has earned through the ‘organic and ongoing’ nature of its effect in the community- ‘we now have the brothers and sisters coming in, we have people who came to us as 9 who are now 18 and peer trainers. It’s mind blowing.’ 

Providing a space for discussions and performances, through the year they are holding ‘First of Many” Intergenerational Music nights, bringing professional and accomplished musicians into contact with their students from different genre’s- from Jazz to classical Indian. Taking their project truly beyond the Academy’s walls, they are also launching RESPOND RADIO 87.7 Fm. Broadcasting live from Monday 9th June to Sunday 15th June, the radio will be run by students and academy volunteers, supported by BBC trained professionals as well as Local Musicians, Artists, Families and leading figures in the community. ‘The radio is very important for us, because we’ve been asked by the community: a community radio station would be fantastic.’ Playing some of Respond student’s own music, the radio will look to reflect the diversity of the St. Leonards community- as I’m leaving some a section involving African languages is being pre-recorded. 

‘If this article does nothing else’ reflects JC ‘we’d like it to bring people in’: the Academy is ever in need of volunteers to help out on their many projects; having raced through their ten years as an organisation they’re in need of help organising themselves, and planning future events. They’re on Facebook and online- why not get in contact and get involved?

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