Hackney People: Jack Graham

Founder of Year Here: putting young professionals on the frontline to help solve society's toughest problems

"IMAGINE you’re in your twenties and launching a cool new app. You can get mentors, funding, press attention… But if you’re the same person launching a charity aimed at fixing really gritty social problems? Not so much," says Jack Graham.

It’s exactly this imbalance that Jack is trying to correct. Back in 2013, he started a new institution called Year Here. It was launched with great fanfare at 10 Downing Street, but since then, the real work has been going on right here in Hackney, down an alley off Kingsland Road, in Dalston.

Described as ‘a postgraduate course in social innovation’, Year Here takes a select group of young professionals and supports them for a year while they try to build solutions to society’s toughest problems.

Jack explains: “It’s like a Masters degree, except the learning happens in the world, not the lecture hall. Not many of society’s leaders have experienced the reality of our toughest challenges, like the housing crisis or youth inequality.

“And you can’t fix real problems without having real experience of them. So, for the first few months, we put our fellows to work on the social service frontline.”

That could mean volunteering in a pupil referral unit, with children who have been excluded from school. It could mean getting hands on experience of homes for those with dementia, or hostels for the homeless.

Next, the young people are sorted into teams, and put to work for real organisations such as local authorities, housing associations and charities.

Only once they’ve had almost a year of frontline experience do they move on to the final stage of the course, coming up with their own charity or social enterprise idea to fix a specific social problem.

“Sixty three fellows have graduated from Year Here since 2013. Our fellows have volunteered more than 60,000 hours and 12 successful social ventures have been launched off the back of it,” says Jack.

These include Birdsong, a fashion brand selling clothes that are handmade by women’s groups, from elderly knitters to migrant seamstresses. There’s also Cracked It, which trains young people either involved in or at risk from gangs, to fix cracked iPhones instead.

Other ventures are training former prisoners to be fitness instructors, turning refugees into foreign language tutors, and creating personal development programmes for those leaving care.

The school too goes from strength to strength. Currently, they have about 20 applicants for every place.

Jack says: “We started with 12 fellows a year, now we take 35. Within the next couple of years, we hope to take about 50 each year. When we started, people were a bit sceptical that 22 and 23-year-olds could really fix social problems. So seeing these ventures really flourish has been hugely rewarding.”

He claims the scheme works because ‘it’s not about sitting in an ivory tower, designing policies and solutions for people’.

Instead, Year Here fellows get involved with local organisations, from Hackney Pirates literacy charity to the Inspired Directions School for children who struggle in mainstream schools.

“Hackney is the perfect base for us, because it’s this confluence of creative industries, social projects, spaces and opportunities. Lots of our partners are local,” he says.

One of Jack’s fondest memories is of an event held in the organisation’s first year.

He explains: “We had this idea for a 24-hour challenge, a bit like the ones they set on ‘The Apprentice’, but with a social focus. We decided to create Hackney’s first human library.”

They took over Hackney Town Hall and filled it with people with ‘unique experiences or world views’. Anyone from the borough could turn up and, instead of borrowing a book, you could borrow one of these people for a 20-minute discussion.

Jack says: “Loads of people came, and it was amazing. It’s such a cliché that Hackney is the embodiment of diversity. But the cliché is there for a reason. At the human library, we watched all these communalities emerge between people who seemed so different on the surface.”

Perhaps that’s exactly what Year Here is achieving, too.

For those interested in taking part, Year Here is accepting applications in the autumn for their next cohort of fellows.