Hackney People: Janette Collins

Founder of youth project The Crib reaches young people in Hackney across postcodes and backgrounds

"I MOVED here when I was just one,” says the woman known as ‘Mama Hackney’ to countless teens across the borough. 

Janette Collins founded youth project The Crib in 1999 and has been running it ever since, reaching young people, between the ages of 10 and 21, across postcodes and backgrounds. 

“When I was growing up, things were tough but they were different,” she explains. Adding: “I suffered from a lot of racism. We moved onto an estate in Homerton and were the first black family there. My parents had come over on the Windrush, they were just grateful to be in this country. I’d tell them about the bullying and they’d just say, ‘don’t worry, they’ll get used to you’.”

Aged 10, Janette found solace in the church. She says: “People at the church were different, they were friendly.” But still she became, in her own words, ‘a bit of a rebel’.

Janette and her friends formed a gang but, she explains: “It was completely different to the gangs you see today. Back then, older people got respect and they weren’t scared of the young. The community as a whole brought you up, that’s what’s changed.”

Janette had her first child at the age of 14. She recalls: “Parents didn’t talk about sex. I hid my pregnancy from my mum. When she found out, she dragged me to the doctors and when he told her I was eight months pregnant she fainted.”

By the time she was 17, she had two children and had moved to Stoke Newington where she heard about Milton Gardens, a space that had opened for young people who otherwise had nowhere to go. Janette says: “I volunteered to go along and it was just chaos. I thought, ‘I want to get involved and do this properly’.”

What followed was something of a one-woman whirlwind. Through sheer passion and perseverance, sheds on a housing estate were turned into a youth club. She then studied youth work, nursery nursing and got a degree in media. She opened a nursery, worked with play centres, fled from personal experiences of domestic abuse, lived in America for two years and then finally, in 1999, returned home to Hackney and set up The Crib.

“Only it wasn’t called The Crib back then,” she laughs. Adding: “It was called the Hoxton Community Safety Project. We used to go out onto the streets and the kids would hide from us. A policeman helped us identify the ones that were causing trouble, and when I saw them I thought wow, they’re just kids, like the way I was on the estate.”

Soon, suspicion of Janette and her business partner, Karlene Fontilio, faded and, she recalls: “150 kids would show up at a session. It was so successful, we decided to turn it into a charity. When we asked the kids what it should be called they said ‘The Crib’. It’s a place that’s like home. But like a home, you leave when you’ve grown your confidence.”

The Crib has been based in De Beauviour since 2006. It’s a place where young people can get help with their CVs and housing applications, or get an advocate for a court hearing. They can go on residential trips and learn new skills, or take part in ‘Trading Places’, a three-day scheme in which police and young people play each other’s roles to explore issues like stop and search. 

They can also get involved in 'Boroughs United', the cross-borough talent show organised by The Crib each year to break down postcode rivalry. Or they could just have a hug.

“I cuddle every single one of my kids. No matter how big they get. We want to bring back trust in communities and we stand for family,” says Janette.

No wonder they call her Mama Hackney.