Kids, bikes and time. Not at all earth-shattering, is it? Yet here’s another simple initiative that’s helping us make progress. Rockford Copeland has come up with an idea to work with local kids and he’s not asking for your free funds, your loans, your ideas or mismanagement. He’s doing it without all of that. He’s getting on with the work and his family are right behind him – helping. I went over to their new workshop on the Rec. It’s the disused public toilet – finally in use – and guess what? It’s not a coffee shop.
It all started two years after Rockford retired, he had plenty of time on his hands, “I remember it was a Saturday and my eldest daughter (Shafiiqua) asked if I can take her and her baby sister, Kenzah (who was 3 years old at the time), on a bike ride. Some of the local boys heard, they were hanging around and asked if they could come.” He felt he couldn’t say no and asked them to go and check in with their parents. They all came back within 5 minutes and he noticed some didn’t have bikes. “For me, being born [in the UK] in the 50s, I grew up with a bike and my parents didn’t have any issue with that so I found [it] strange. How can [they] have trainers on for £100 and not have a bike?” The following day he asked neighbours if they could donate old bikes for him to fix up for the kids. It really bothered him and he felt compelled to do something, to arm them with an activity, a pastime, a new skill – to demonstrate his reasons at the time, he points to a box of tools. “Here are my tools, if I get a job I can do it because here are my tools. No problem. Any job comes along I can do it. If I don’t have the tools how will I do it, I can’t.”
“Soon after I fixed up a couple of the bikes, I thought ‘what you actually doing?’” He started to question his actions. “Are you not playing the same sort of role, in which everything is turned into why (especially) our boys are hopeless. They don’t even know what a pair of pliers is. [An] 18-year-old, when I say ‘pass me the pliers’, they just stand there not knowing, at 18.” He decided to have a rethink and come up with another way. “I thought, I’m not going to fix up any more of these bikes for young people, I will give them a bike, they will strip it themselves and then I will spray it for them, and once they put it back together again, that’s their bike. I also then thought a bike = transport, these guys don’t go anywhere, so we started [riding to] museums, and then asking them what areas they can’t go and we started to do that. We named it the Postcode Rides…It grew from there really.” The kids then came up with naming the group Bike Alley, which is now a private commercial business. It operates as one arm of the organisation that sustains the entire group by focusing on trips and group work. It loans money to the other arm of the organisation, the Rock Stone Foundation. The side concerned with all the workshops, partnerships with charitable organisations and takes on contracts. This part of the organisation is focused on giving out to the community, hence the bike workshop.
To turn his work into something a bit more than the random guy on the street helping local kids with their bikes; a clever but timely partnership was offered. “A lady from the Stroke Association came up, she must have heard about us and asked if we would like to do an initiative to help us gain knowledge, giving the local community information about strokes. It coincided with myself having a stroke and I was just coming out of it and thought it would be a good idea. So we were given the opportunity to get the children together and give them [a] sense of pride in a different way, we leafleted the whole of Tottenham High Road to Stamford Hill and it was exciting for the young people.” After the event, other NHS bodies heard about the group and one invited them over to St. Ann’s Hospital. It was to run a 10-week course in men’s well-being using the same framework (activity, time and bikes). It was offered out to locals and the patients at St. Ann’s. The course was such a success, they were invited to have a permanent space on the premises. “We now have 2 office spaces – a bike shop with storage. We have been at St. Ann’s for 4 years, going on 5 years now so they have supported us in what we are attempting to do and have given us access, which is great.”
In that time, Tottenham Hotspur has tried to partner up numerous times but Rockford is not interested. “The youths we work with do not go to Tottenham Hotspur [and] they get several million every year for working with youths in this neighbourhood but the only youths they work with are youths and children like mine who are basically settled. These youths would not go to Tottenham Hotspur because it’s too clinical so they know that, they’ve done their homework and know the type of youths we work with… it’s part of our local community.” Rockford is not working towards funding either, he says they don’t want it, need it and he has proof of that. Team Rockford want to do it themselves, to remain authentic, a breath of fresh air in these parts. “It’s not anything to do with anybody. We’ve decided to do this and we’re doing it. We’re grassroots and we want to stay that way so the children will know that they have something that is really for them.” He also says he wants to just get on with it, without the fuss. “I’m a great believer in doing the work. You do the work and people will appreciate the work that you are actually doing. You have to do the work. Forget the limelight and hype, forget that, do the work. That work is sometimes at 3am in the morning and you may get a call from a young person [saying], ‘I’ve had enough, I’m going to end it,’ that’s the work. No time for anything else… You have to make your chances in life. Not sit there waiting on this hope. You have to do it. Get up. You know everyone gets up at 8am, you have to get up at 7am. You have to. Simple as that.” I also sense it has a lot to do with a community project he worked on in the 80s. He tells me a story that clearly taught him some tough lessons. One of the lessons, I’m sure, was how small organisations can fail: the dreaded consequence of surviving on one funding stream. “All [these] community organisations operate but when funding stops they collapse. So how real is it really, they get 200k and 120k goes in wages. Let’s be real and it’s the children’s names that they have used.” Despite all this, they do believe in volunteers, they take on paid workers and they are also grateful to the council, who are helpful when they need something specific, like space around Tottenham.
A young boy interrupts our chat and right away Rockford reminds him of his manners and the respect is instant. The boy apologises and when he leaves, Rockford tells me he’s been labelled as having “learning difficulties”. He explains his take on labels: not a fan. He believes in spending time with kids, finding out what they need and reminding them to take pride in themselves. “I started as an apprentice bricklayer at MJ Gleesons and I was the only black bricklayer in the 70s. I learnt and gained respect by doing, not begging, I worked hard. We have an ethos here that whether we are fixing bikes, working in the school or mental illness, it’s got to be the same – to further our children and to get them to become proud of who they are.” Rockford has spent a lot of time with the youths in this area and he feels many adults haven’t got a clue and don’t know how to work with kids who have a hard time expressing their feelings. Having an understanding of what they can’t ever articulate is the most important thing: “A young man coming in first thing in the morning, he’s arrogant and he’s angry, to say the least, he’s angry at his life. That’s what it is, and then it takes a little time for him to settle down and [when he does], he gets involved. When you notice things like that, I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m just a normal human being, but I care and I notice these things. You can’t ignore them.” To Rockford, it’s obvious where it can all lead: the next step forward. “When you have young people whose concentration levels are not very high and they get involved in things they are enjoying, you can see where it goes, that’s something.”
“I have been [in Tottenham] long enough, 19 years. It’s very different to anything I’ve experienced before. I grew up in Kingsbury, very different. What a culture shock I’ve had. It’s taken me time to adjust. You have to take all sorts of precautions that I have never had to take. I remember one of my first reality checks was when I wanted to order a pizza from Pizza Hut and they said they don’t deliver and I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t deliver?’”