NEW CHALLENGE: Ray Lewis with Boris Johnson at the launch of capital men
RAY LEWIS is made of some serious steel. In 2008, he strode into London’s City Hall as Boris Johnson’s no-nonsense tough-talking deputy mayor for youth.
But he barely had time to enjoy the view of the River Thames before making the walk of shame after resigning over allegations of financial irregularities.
And the knives were out.
Critics rubbed their hands with glee that the man dubbed by some media commentators as the Conservative Party’s black pin-up had not so much fallen, as crashed, from grace.
Two years later though he was back by the mayor’s side as big and bold as ever as Johnson’s ambassador for mentoring.
Where most characters would have shied away from the public eye to nurse their wounds that just isn’t the east Londoner’s style.
Lewis has returned to finish what he started. He is a little more guarded, perhaps, but very much the same man: direct, unapologetic and determined not to let young black men get sucked into gang life.
“It was absolutely right that I resigned”, says Lewis.
“Boris had an important job to get on with and he shouldn’t have to waste time defending me from my critics. I was honoured Boris wanted me back in this new role, working with young people and the community. That’s what I have always done.”
Last week, he helped Boris launch Capital Men, a mentoring scheme matching young boys from seven London boroughs with suitable mentors to help guide and encourage them on the right path.
“As much as I love glory, this is something that Boris wanted to do for black boys who are the group most likely to get involved in crime or be victims of crime,” he says.
“This is very much his initiative. Black boys, as you know, are the group that are the most likely to be victims of crime or get involved in it. But mentoring is not about a deficit. It is not a case of ‘you are broken and we are going to fix you’. Everyone benefits from having mentor. It can help an executive become a chief executive. It’s about helping someone get the best out of themselves.”
Pushing young people to get the best out of themselves is something the former prison governor specialises in. He set up the Eastside Young Leaders Academy in 2002 which targets some of most disaffected black boys and shapes them into leaders of tomorrow.
His military-style tough love has raised eyebrows, but it has also won him awards and faithful admirers like Conservative politician Iain Duncan-Smith and, of course, Boris Johnson.
The best endorsement of what he has achieved comes from his pupils themselves who join under contract, but stay on voluntarily long after it expires.
Lewis was born in Georgetown, Guyana, before moving to London as a small boy, and the influence of his Caribbean roots is apparent in his philosophy to youth work. The former Church of England priest makes no bones about being old school, but “in a new way” he adds, suggesting he has learned that perhaps his methods aren’t for everybody.
“Children have too much power these days”, he complains. “That makes it harder to discipline them. My boys always call me sir or Mr Lewis. They can’t call me by my first name because we’re not friends. I can like you and be friendly with you, but we are not friends.”
He adds: “But there are lots of things are going wrong with young boys of today. The biggest thing is the breakdown of the family and the absence of father figures at home or at school. Nature loves a vacuum. It doesn’t like empty space. The hole left by a father figure will be filled by something else.
"Boys need to feel validated as men and the streets can do that for them. The streets tell you if you rob that person and stab that person you will get respect, you will be considered a man. You can find somewhere you belong. We are trying to shift that by replacing ‘road models’ with role models to help boys find value in something positive.
"The good thing about Capital Men is that we have so many volunteers from all walks of life and can match the right people together. Some boys need an alpha male, some need a disciplinarian and maybe some might need someone who is a ballet dancer…” Lewis says with a cheeky glance at the mayor’s press officer.
Lewis, of course, is an alpha male. It seems ironic that the father-of-three girls, with Pamela his wife of 27 years, does not have a son of his own to benefit from his testosterone overload.
With a laugh, he says: “The boys at my school are my sons. I always tell people I have 85 baby mothers, but don’t tell them where I live because I can’t afford to pay child support. As a father, I am trying to create a generation of good husbands.
"On a weekend away with 20 teenage boys I asked them how many of them thought it was important to be married before having children and only one said it was. That’s a real problem. A lot of these troubles start in the family. If men and women can’t have a healthy relationship what example do they sit to their children?
"That’s how you learn, by imitating what you see. I think that’s why boys need a male role model. I am not taking anything away from single mothers, because they do a marvellous job, but it depends on the type of boy you want to raise. With me, one look from my mum was enough. My two older brothers have both served time in prison. I would say that they needed a male figure there to challenge them. So, trust me, I say these things from experience.”