Meet Faith Johnson: Founder of Caramel Rock
Caramel Rock, the educational charity founded by Faith Johnson, is unique in its work, using fashion as a tool to bring young people in need to engage with education while enhancing their creativity, providing them with valuable skills to enter life beyond the programme. Faith Johnson, who grew up in East London, explains that she founded the charity based on her own experiences of feeling lost amongst the underdeveloped and underfunded setting of Newham.
Quite uniquely, she set out to change this experience for herself and others in her first year of university. Caramel Rock has since been running for 15 years, with a focus on young offenders and those from NEET backgrounds (not in education, employment, or training). She takes on the important, yet challenging role of nurturing young people from these communities, to provide educational opportunities and more importantly a sense of belonging.
“It’s not just about getting them an accredited qualification or a job, it’s about giving them the confidence and skills to believe in themselves and their abilities” explains Joshnson. It is clear that Johnson leads with intentions of emboldening individuals beyond the realms of fashion, leaving them with lasting change to their life and personal development, which she hopes will reverberate into the wider community.
Why did you start Caramel Rock?
Growing up in East London, particularly in the deprived community of Newham, inspired me to start Caramel Rock 15 years ago. Despite the area’s progress since the 2012 Olympics, it was a different story in the late 90s and early 2000s. Back then, the area was rife with crime, abandoned buildings and fields. While there were plenty of interventions for young boys in the form of music, youth clubs and football, I noticed that there was a glaring lack of support for young females who found themselves in relationships or close friendships with gang members.
Having lived through the realities of growing up in this environment, I knew I had the lived experience to make a difference. I had a deep understanding of the culture in Newham and the types of programmes that young people would benefit from. So, I took it upon myself to do something about it, starting Caramel Rock at the same time as my first year at Central Saint Martins.
I focused on developing our policies, hosting community workshops and building the foundation of what would eventually become Caramel Rock. We received our charity status in 2010 and have been making a positive impact ever since.
What advice would you give to someone looking to build something community led from such a young age?
In 2008, I stumbled upon an opportunity – the youth Dragon’s Den being hosted at UEL. I was working at a youth sports organisation at the time, and my director shared the information with me. The premise was simple; young people could pitch their community project ideas and receive £2,000 in funding.
My director was particularly instrumental in this endeavour. She had experience with fundraising and saw potential in my idea. With her guidance, I applied for the grant and was successful in securing the £2,000 funding. It was my first grant, and it felt like a huge accomplishment.
So for me I think having a support system is crucial when it comes to pursuing something. I was lucky to have mentors and friends who believed in me and encouraged me to apply. Whenever I needed resources or equipment, I would reach out to my support system, and they would help me figure it out. We would put it in the proposal, and the trust would sign off and confirm that the funds were spent appropriately. This system was a huge help in making my project a success.
You focus on participants from NEET backgrounds, including young people and young offenders. What inspired you to focus on this?
From my own personal experience, I’ve seen a lot of young people in my area get kicked out of school and end up in a pupil referral unit. Unfortunately, many of these programs aren’t tailored to the needs and interests of young people who are more drawn towards fashion. That’s why our organisation has made it a priority to cater to this demographic. We’ve identified a need in our community, specifically in East London, where young people are being expelled from school or not being engaged by statutory provisions.
It takes a certain type of passion and people to support these young people, as it’s not an easy task. If they are going through a difficult situation, like a hearing, it will certainly impact their behaviour, emotions, and mental well-being. The root of these emotions is often due to underlying circumstances that they’re going through, such as where they were born or raised. But we firmly believe that these circumstances don’t have to be a barrier. It simply takes skilled and passionate people to help these young people in need.
Do you have an example of one of your mentees that you’d like to share?
We’ve had quite a few success stories in our programme, but in particular there was one boy,
who was referred to us by the probation office. Initially he was a bit resistant to the idea of our programme, but after about two weeks, he was hooked. Even when he didn’t need to be there, he would come in just to be around and see what we were working on.
Then, when it came to the hearing that was coming up and we did a report on his progress in our programme. To our surprise, they actually read it out at his hearing, and it had a huge impact on the outcome of his case. We are still incredibly proud of him and the progress he made while he was with us.
It’s stories like this that make us even more passionate about what we do. We believe in each and every one of our students and do everything in our power to support them in achieving their goals. Even when they may become challenging or difficult, we never give up on them. We see their potential and strive to help them reach it. It’s not just about getting them an accredited qualification or a job, it’s about giving them the confidence and skills to believe in themselves and their abilities.
I saw in your blog posts you touch on matters of sustainability, such as how to spot greenwashing? How much does education play into what you are doing at Caramel Rock?
One of our key pillars at Caramel Rock is sustainability, which is integrated into our curriculum and programme. As a society our goal should be to move towards circular design practices and become more sustainable, but to achieve this, education is crucial, that’s why we have built circular design practices and sustainability into our programme.
Our tutors have a strong background in these areas, and we prioritise hiring individuals who understand the importance of sustainability in fashion. We’re proud to work with natural fibres and dyes, and we teach our students about materials and their impact on the environment. It’s amazing to see how our students interpret and apply this knowledge to their design briefs, coming up with innovative and sustainable ideas.
What are some of the things you are working on at the moment?
We’ve now launched a manufacturing subsidiary called Petra Fashion. We offer quality garment manufacturing services to our customers. We have even had the opportunity to work on three different commission projects, and allowed our students to work on the design process and then manufacture the garments themselves. It’s a huge accomplishment for us and for the students.
You can find more information about the charity, how to get involved with its schemes or alternatively how you could be a part of the change, by volunteering, here.