Hackney People: Emeka Egbuonu
Author Emeka Egbuonu tells his story and gets set for new book launch
“I mean, the amount of self doubt you have to deal with,” he continues. Adding: “There are all these questions crowding into your head, are people going to turn up, and all that? But I don’t have the powerful engine of a major publishing house behind me. So I have to make a lot of noise to get heard. And you know what? It’s 2017. There’s Twitter, YouTube, and everything else. I can make it happen.”
Emeka has form when it comes to making things happen. Born in Nigeria, he came to Hackney as a seven-year-old.
He laughs: “I was shocked by the cold, but adjusted pretty quickly to the culture.”
As a kid he showed serious footballing talent until, suddenly, an injury destroyed his hopes of going professional. Instead, aged 18, he took up an offer to coach a local under-15s club.
He says: “It turned out to be a very powerful time for me. I used the football as a tool to get these kids together, bridge the rivalries and hostilities between them, and give them a sense of responsibility.”
Since then, he has built a career in what he describes as ‘youth empowerment’. He has written three books on the subject, made two documentaries and spoken in front of audiences around the world.
Where does his determination come from? “I guess it’s about my Dad. He had no opportunities. No schooling past the primary level. His parents died when he was really young. But he built his own little empire. He made himself a success story through determination. It’s all about the mindset you bring to things,” he says.
After finishing university in 2008, Emeka came back to Hackney and started volunteering at The Crib, the local youth club where he himself had spent time as a kid.
“I was mentoring young people and trying to break down the negative cycles of gang culture and youth violence that stop these kids from meeting their potential,” he says.
One of the exercises he used involved setting them a project. He explains: “We looked at gang capitals around the world, analysing what made them that way, and I thought: wouldn’t it be great to get the funding to take these kids there?”
With little more than determination at his disposal, he both managed it and then filmed the resulting cultural exchange, turning it into his first documentary ‘London to LA’.
“The whole experience was a huge learning curve for all of us who went, the young people and me too,” he laughs. Adding: “But it was amazing. We went into prisons, we met with the district attorney and the biggest projects tackling gang violence... It changed our views of the world and of ourselves.”
Then in 2011, his first book was released. Called ‘Consequences: Breaking The Negative Cycle’, it was based on his experiences working at The Crib. He says: “One of its themes was the helplessness among young people. It came out three weeks after the riots in 2011 and, suddenly, the whole world could see it clearly too.”
The book received a whirlwind of attention. The Guardian, for example, commented that it ‘had much to teach policymakers following the riots’.
“Suddenly I was being invited to speak at universities and major venues,” says Emeka. Adding: “I was looking out at audiences of 400, instead of a few people at the youth centre. But I did it and I enjoyed it.”
And so his CV expanded to include public speaking alongside youth work, film-making and writing. In 2013, however, it changed again, when he accepted a position as a lecturer at Barking and Dagenham College.
Last year, it evolved once more, when he took a break to focus on public speaking and writing the book that he will launch this month.
‘My Sister’s Pain’ is a tale of two sisters and the ‘lemons life throws at them’. He says: “My skills are with the young people who are on the edge. There are people who are fantastic at teaching a room full of well-behaved students. My skills are in reaching the ones that others think are unteachable.
“It’s hard to quantify the effect of breaking down some of those barriers between them and success. You can’t measure it in the same way you can with exam results. But for me, it’s what matters most.”
Emeka is holding a book launch for 'My Sister's Pain' at Hackney Empire on 10 February.