Changing the Story

St Raphael’s Estate in Brent is often depicted as a dangerous, troubled place. But author, artist, designer and teacher Andre Anderson knew there was a different, more positive side to life here. He gathered five writers who, like him, lived on the estate to produce a book about life in this part of north west London. A copy of the book was then delivered to each flat on the estate. We talk to Anderson about the project, his work with young people and the enduring appeal of print and self-publishing

Tell us about you, your background and how you became interested in writing and publishing
I have been interested in the creative use of words for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first poem when I was six. I completed my first comic book when I was eight. This was normal stuff when you consider the culture I was raised in. Growing up in North West London, the people who I was exposed to showed a great appreciation for the english language. If I was in school, my friends would do rap battles to see who had the best wordplay. If I was at church, the older guys would put great amounts of time and thought into the sermons they preached. So I was always writing, but it was only when I hit eighteen when I discovered the power of self-publishing. I realised I could say what I want, how I want, and have it in print without asking for permission. Not only that, but these printed words and images can reside in people’s homes all over the world; and would exist long after I’m gone. Self-publishing showed me a type of power I never knew I had. I have self-published six books since that realisation.

Andre Anderson photographed by Netti Hurley
Andre Anderson photographed by Netti Hurley

What was the original intention behind Authors of the Estate?
The estate I live in does not have the greatest reputation in the local area. More times than not, when I tell people I am from St.Raphael’s Estate, a hint of shock or disgust would show on their face. This is because of the crime and gang-culture that has been happening here for years. The problem is that there are over 1300 young people in the estate, but at maximum, 18 young people are involved in the crimes that gives the area its reputation.

Knowing the power of self-publishing, I felt that if such a small group of people can create a narrative that effects the whole estate in a negative way, you can likewise get a small amount of people to reverse that narrative. Through self-publishing, you can make a place known for crime eventually be known as a place of creativity. So I had the idea of gathering five writers to write a book. This book would be mass produced, and then given to all 1000 homes in St.Rapahel’s Estate. The entire project was an attempt to challenge the perceptions of those who live here, as well as change the way local residents see themselves.

Can you tell us about the team that wrote and produced it?
Beforehand, most of the writers were not necessarily best buddies, but we all lived in the same estate, so we knew each other. Five guys one girl. Jade Snyper, Nathaniel Telemaque, Kayden Bell, Raze, PredzUK and myself. Some were in their final year of uni. Some were just coming out of prison. We were all at different points in our lives, but our common denominator was that we all had a story to tell. When I first shared the idea of writing a book, it seemed a bit outlandish. Besides me and Nathaniel, none of us were regular writers. But to those who went to university I said ‘it’s like writing an essay’. To those who were rappers I said ‘it’s like writing lyrics’. We would be expressing ourselves like we normally do, it’s just that this time our words will go into a book rather than a song.

How did you select the writing – were the writers given a brief?
The writing brief was simple. I gave them one word which was ‘change’. How they interpreted ‘change’ was up to them. It could mean change in your life, change in the estate or change in your pockets. Throughout the timespan of around four months, I would reach out to each writer to discuss and refine ideas. The end result was a collection of poems, memoirs, essays and biographies based on a life being lived on a council estate.

What was Starbucks’ involvement? Was there support from anyone else?
Well, Starbucks has a funding programme called called Starbucks Youth Action which funds local youth projects. A friend introduced me to the programme and I thought I might as well give it a shot. If I’m honest, I only really went through with the Authors of the Estate project because I heard of what Starbucks was doing. Otherwise it would have been something I discussed but never executed. After the project was finished, they also gave an ‘Authors of the Estate’ poster to every Starbucks store in the UK. I can’t lie, it’s pretty cool to walk into a coffee shop in central London and see a poster of your estate depicted as a place of creativity. That’s why we did this project in the first place.

How did you distribute the book and what has the reaction been?
We got the books and put it through every single letterbox in St.Raphael’s Estate. It took us a day and a morning. The first reactions were weird, and rightly so. To see a young person march to your door is scary enough. To then see him walk off, leaving a book on your door step just adds to the confusion. The estate was pretty silent about the matter for about a week. Luckily, everything was filmed. It’s only when we uploaded the video of us handing out the books onto North-West London Facebook groups (and getting some attention) when the locals who received the book a week beforehand realised the magnitude of what was happening. Since then, I’ve had longer conversations with my neighbours than I ever had before. It’s hard to tell how much of an effect this project has had, but it has definitely started new conversations in the estate.

Can you tell us about your other work with young people and publishing projects?
I do creative facilitation with Rosebowl and Platform which are youth centres in Islington. I have created with them a project called Generation Us which is a youth generated brand that focuses on self-publishing. Our last zine was created in the space of eleven days, which the young people sold to the locals in their community. Self-publishing has really opened doors for the young people we work with. Some of them have even been offered internships at places like Penguin Random House because of it.

What do you think print provides for young people that is special to them?
This new generation is a weird one. Young people are creating more content on a daily basis than ever before. They publish this content daily on their social media channels. They have subscribers and readers, but they don’t see themselves as publishers. They don’t see themselves as authors, which they are. Because of technology, a child can write something online and be read by more people than Shakespeare when he was first published. Something happens psychologically when you take a young person’s words that they would normally tweet-and-forget and put it in print. When you place their ideas onto something physical, it holds more weight. That’s why I love the creative facilitation I do. This generation is a generation of authors. Print allows them to realise that.

How do young people think of print today – do they experience it other than at school?
Honestly, not really. There has been times when I have handed a teenager one of my books and they physically jerked their body back, as if I was handing them a something venomous. That’s the first reaction. After a while, they love it. I feel print needs to be reintroduced to the next generation in a way that makes sense to them. Beforehand we saw print as a way of containing content. But now, content is free online. Not only that, but this new generation has developed habits (because of the internet) which has changed the way we interact with content. I feel we need to now see print as a space for co-creation and discussion, rather than static information.

Tell us about your future projects and what you hope to achieve in the near future
Creative facilitation is definitely where my focus is at. Creativity has been the key to a lot of my personal successes. So my aim is to teach creative thinking to as much people as possible, young people and adults alike. Other than that, I don’t have much of a plan. For me, Authors of the Estate was a creative experiment. It was something that allowed me to learn how the world works around me. I want to continue these kinds of creative experiments for as long as my curiosity allows me.

More on the Authors of the Estate book here. Andre Anderson’s website, Freedom & Balance, is here. Follow him on Instagram  and Twitter @freedom_balance 

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