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'There’s more than one way of being a black man'

INSPIRED: Donovan Morris wants to show young black boys a different vision of a successful life through art [Pic: John M Fulton]

“BELIEF” IS the quality that Donovan Morris credits for his successful career in fashion design which spans Central St Martin’s art school to Jasper Conran’s design house to dance performances in Saddlers Wells and art exhibitions in central London.

However Morris gave up the glamour of the fashion world to become is an intervention co-ordinator at Lark Hall Primary School in Stockwell – a job he came to after years of using his background in art to help children imagine an entirely new future for themselves.

But what took him away from the dark glamour of fashion and high art and into the graft and grind of an eight hour school day in the streets of south London?

Morris says he is on a mission to show young black and minority ethnic kids he works with that there is more than one version of successful, aspirational black masculinity.

When he started working in art departments in schools a few years ago he was shocked to find that young black men had more to battle against in terms of stereotypes than he had to contend with in the 1980s when he was a teen.


“Before I started working in schools in 2010 I saw a statistic that said that the biggest failing group in schools was black boys,” he says.

“I was a black boy who could have failed if I didn’t have people who were supporting me. No matter how bright I was, I could have failed. If I hadn’t had teachers who understood and believed in me I would have fallen through the net. I would be another one of those statistics.”

So he decided to focus on ways of helping young black men through unconventional methods such as artistic expression in a bid to combat what he saw as a culture of lowered expectations.

While Morris admits he could be unruly in school as a youngster, he eventually bucked down and won a place at the prestigious Central St Martin’s art school before going on to work at Jasper Conran.


He chose to further satisfy his artistic leanings by embarking on a career in dance, art and performance.

But what gave Morris, the son of immigrants who lived in Hackney, the belief to embark on a career that seemed closed to people like him? Morris is clear about the answer to that.

“My mother was a wonderful woman. She made me believe I could do anything that I wanted to do,” he says before adding with a laugh: “I don’t know where she got that idea from because we had no money.”

And that belief is something he feels duty-bound to pass on to young people now because, as he sees it, too many children limit themselves before they even know what they are capable of.

“The first way I started working in schools was through an art project. I met so many kids who by the age of eight had limited their horizons about what they could and couldn’t do.”

This lack of self-confidence is something that Morris feels he can tackle by simply showing them that people who look just like him can achieve absolutely anything they want to. And for the former fashion designer part of helping children realise the breadth and scope of their ambitions is showing them that there is more than one version of successful black masculinity.


“One of the problems when explaining black masculinity is the idea of the super-macho. And in some senses it is tied to slavery. The legacy of that is a need to be hyper masculine because your masculinity h as been taken away from you.”

He adds: “I want to show them there is more than one way of being a black man. I see my role as showing kids that there is more to life than dreams of becoming a rapper or footballer. Or that the only way of getting rich, of earning money, is to become a gangster or a criminal. These are the only mainstream models of black men that are seen in the media, and I am trying to counter that by showing them that my success came through art and academia.

“Not all of them will accept that, but even if it makes a difference to just how one kid thinks then I’ve made a difference.”

And with his latest project to encourage more boys in the school to take up ballet, albeit under a martial arts rebrand, it seems as though his vision for using unconventional methods to help young children realise their potential is starting to hit home.

“The corridors of power are not closed to any child from any background. They just have to believe they can get there, and that is where I come in.”

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