Close your eyes and visualise the answer to the following questions;
What brings a smile to your face?
Who brings a smile to your face?
Who are the people in the world with something to smile about?
“In terms of challenging stereotypes and representations of black boys this [image] was so powerful for me … because it’s not an image that you’re used to ever seeing, and you question why it has such an impact on you,” - Kay Rufai, photographer and mastermind of the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys Project.
Kay Rufai started the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys Project (short for Send Me Inspiring Loving Energy) in response to the government’s harsh response and the media’s violent stereotyping of young black men after the rise in youth stabbings in 2017-18. Kay felt certain that the rise in knife crime was a “symptom of something bigger” and decided to provide young black men with mental health support and tools.
The project’s research stage took Kay to Denmark, Sweden and Bhutan to study the Happiness Institute’s eight pillars of happiness (trust, belonging, wealth, freedom, democracy, health, balance and purpose) and how they can be implemented into society. He then created workshops, based on these pillars, harnessing a variety of art forms to enable participants to express themselves.
With the help of teachers in South London schools, Kay selected 20 - 50 black boys from three schools to participate in the project. These boys participated in the workshops, engaged in photographic, creative writing and film projects, visited exhibitions, had their own work exhibited, produced a poetry album called Boy and a Bike (Miseducation of Black Youth) and accessed mentoring. The workshops aimed to identify factors of happiness which were within the boys’ control and to create a safe space for them to express themselves. One activity the boys undertook was taking photographs of the things in their lives that contributed to, and worked against, their happiness, which they later discussed together.
The project’s impact was evaluated through questionnaires, films, focus groups and interviews with the boys and their teachers. The project saw an improvement in the boys’ well-being in many ways and a 28% increase in their overall happiness. The boys themselves had really positive responses:
“Before the project, I wasn’t as confident, and I wouldn’t share my feelings as much, but the programme has helped me build my confidence. Whenever I feel something, I’m not scared to let it out. Since I’ve started coming here, it’s not about people judging you, it’s about trying to get help and trying to work with our imperfections.” - Abrar
“Kay told us to take pictures. He really inspired me. He taught me to always stay off the road and stay in school to get my studies and my education. He’s really a joyful guy, a guy I can really speak to. Since he came here, it’s opened up my mind to so many things. It makes me want to wake up to the morning and see him speak. It’s inspirational.” - Darnell
“It’s been amazing to hang out with other black boys and to learn that we don’t have to change who we are to be accepted in society.” - Isaac
“It’s opened my eyes about things I can change in my day-to-day life to make me feel happier and it’s inspired me to be a leader because I have it in me.” - Zion
As this stage of the project ends, a peer mentorship scheme has been set up so that the boys can continue to support and encourage each other to make positive choices. Upon reviewing the project, four conclusions have been drawn and will be explored in future workshops. First, that there needs to be more well-being focused approaches in school and youth services. Second, creativity is key to unlocking wellbeing, but art spaces need to reflect this demographic better and make them feel welcome. Third, projects like this should be used to challenge negative perceptions of young boys of colour. And finally, more targeted wellbeing initiatives for young people of colour need to be provided, and at an early age.
This project has put a smile on our faces and we hope it has for you too.
Words: Rachel Finegan
Photography: Kay Rufai