Oration delivered by Nick Koral, Curriculum Team Leader for Childhood and Youth Studies at Bradford College, on 10th December 2013
"Principal and Chair, the Corporation has resolved that the Honorary Fellowship of Bradford College be conferred upon Rich Jones. The founder and Chief Executive of the Joshua Project is an exceptional young man who has transformed the lives of countless families and young people. He is a shining example of the cycle of positive change than be initiated within a community if talented people share their gifts.
Rich was born in Cambridge almost thirty years ago, but spent most of the first four years of his life in Nigeria, where his parents were building a college for a faith based charity. His parents formed the foundation of Rich’s concern for others. His mother was an occupational therapist and is now a university lecturer, while his father was a teacher, then a vicar for many years, before working in youth offending, and both are committed Christians. Once they returned home, Rich’s prodigious musical talent governed his life from being six until he was twenty-one. He was a chorister at Cambridge Chapel Choir and also played the violin, piano, drums and guitar. Another important influence was meeting his wife at Sixth Form College in Cambridge. He then attended Birmingham Conservatoire, where he took vocal and opera studies.
Rich loved being immersed in the world of music and he would have become a professional musician if he had not taken a gap year when his parents relocated to Bradford, ten years ago. Rich was captivated by Bradford; the vibrancy of its culture and the warmth and resilience of the people. While managing the café which was shop front for the charity, the Lighthouse Group, which was involved in community youth work and alternative education for young people; Rich unexpectedly discovered a vocation.
Young people were not allowed to go into the café unaccompanied, but one particular lad used to sneak in, and Rich would make him coffee and chat to him. He later discovered that he was an elective mute who had been unable to communicate after seeing his dad assault his mother repeatedly. His father was imprisoned and his mother suffered mental health issues, so the lad had been forced to fend for himself. This experience made Rich realise that he had a gift for reaching the most damaged young people and also to re-evaluate the indulgent world of music. The charity saw his ability and created a job for him as relational youth worker; working in the classroom and doing youth work with the most vulnerable kids. Supporting these broken and disregarded young people made Rich resolve to devote all his time to changing their lives.
When the charity decided to operate nationally and cut their local provision, Rich knew that more needed to be done to address the needs of the people of Great Horton, who were afflicted by social problems and accompanying hopelessness. He decided to establish an innovative charity that worked at grassroots and could respond flexibly to the needs of the children, young people and families. He wanted to tackle the educational needs of those who had be alienated at school or faced other barriers to learning, but also to work holistically to include social issues including family support, healthcare, debt advice, support for offenders and so on.
The best intentions did not make the task any easier, but Rich responded to problems effectively, if sometimes unconventionally. A group of young boys he worked with who were involved in drug dealing, burglary and street crimes, disrupted a large Friday night youth session by arriving high on ketamine and with armed with home-made weapons. Rich took the gang leader for a pizza and explored the problems driving his difficult behaviour so that he could help him, and he resolved to work with smaller groups in future.
Rich was so driven that he worked around the clock, delivering his three year project plan within just six months. As the charity’s reach expanded in response to desperate need, it outgrew accommodation twice and needed its own premises. Local businessman and philanthropist, Lee Craven, offered a derelict cinema and spent a substantial amount on refurbishment, but the charity still needed to contribute £75, 000 to open My Impact Centre. Rich appealed for help and attracted personal donations from the community and from around the world for the full £70, 000 shortfall in just four days.
Rich acknowledges the debt he owes to his wife, who now works for a charity helping the homeless. Rich’s work can be very draining and he is conscious that he is credited with living his mission, when it would not be possible without her. She shares his values and his joys, but she has made huge sacrifices to support Rich and the people of Great Horton. This was apparent before they even launched the Joshua Project. In autumn 2007, he and his wife bought a house in Great Horton, which is one of the most deprived areas of Bradford, as they felt that it was crucial that they were not perceived to engage in paternalistic patronage. They wanted to be alongside the people, be accessible and provide an example of family life. It was not about them coming in from outside to solve problems, but to empower people so that there was a beacon of hope not dependant on one person. At Christmas 2007, he resigned from his post at the Lighthouse Group, which was a financial risk as their first baby was due in February. While they were out with his parents-in-law on Boxing Day, the home that they had sunk all their resources into was burgled. Although this felt like a betrayal, Rich continued and opened the Joshua Project in February as planned. Later, Rich encountered one of the burglars in the course of his work and supported him through a difficult, but successful, rehabilitation.
Rich’s extraordinary commitment is shaped and sustained by faith, which he lives rather than preaches about. Motivated by love, he does not judge anyone he encounters or ever give up on them. Even when they let him down, he still believes in their potential. He says that none of us are the perfect product; we are all just on a journey towards it. Rich regularly feels heartbroken at the pain and tragedy young people and families are enduring, but the tears he cries are not of sorrow but of compassion. He says that compassion has passion within it and that leads to action. Rich describes the Joshua Project as an opportunity, not an organisation. It is not a tokenistic representation but somewhere that young people are really listened to. The number of young people needing support continues to rise. Many are Slovakian Roma who have been trafficked here and are socially excluded, vulnerable and at risk of occupational and sexual exploitation. A high proportion not in education and they are trapped beyond help as they are not officially resident. Rich sees third world poverty where the ultimate price is death and has witnessed three fatalities as a direct consequence. His first task in an official capacity was to attend the funeral of a young person’s baby.
From Rich helping and handful of teenagers, the Joshua Project now works with five to eighteen year olds, plus a parent playgroup. It now employs five paid staff including Rich, and they lead different teams of volunteers. Everyone is a team member and all contribute. They run a deficit budget and 98% of their funding comes from private giving and corporate sponsorship, so money is a constant worry. Rich personally raises essential funds by undertaking gruelling sponsored sporting challenges. These include cycling from London to Paris, a run and cycle ride of 500 miles in five days and Tough Mudder. While he is reluctant to sing as he is scared he may get a taste for it, he came out of retirement to do a fundraising Night At the Opera and can also be hired to sing ‘Live in Your Lounge’! The charity also received a cheque for £25,000 to develop a community cinema after being the subject of Channel Four’s Secret Millionaire.
Rich has also established partnerships with services and organisations including Bradford College. Students on the BA (Hons) Counselling and Psychology in Community Settings regularly undertake fieldwork placements with Rich at the Joshua Project and they report that it is a completely inspiring and life-changing experience. Rich has been to Westminster to address cross party groups about social issues and exclusion. He is determined to put the issues he confronts every day on the political agenda and also to put Great Horton on the map. After six years spent establishing the Joshua Project and having so many successes, his plans for moving forward include setting up similar groups elsewhere in Bradford which could be peer mentored. He loves the city and he believes that it has so much to offer the country.
In 2011 Rich featured in the Independent on Sunday’s annual Happy List, which celebrates a hundred inspiring people who make Britain a better place by selflessly enriching the lives of others. Meeting Rich is inevitably inspiring and life-affirming. He is a rare find; someone who doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk. Rich has made an outstanding contribution to the local community and to the lives of many young people. He is like the Gareth Malone of Great Horton – musically gifted and able to inspire people and bring them together to create something remarkable. He deserves the highest honour we can bestow.
Principal and Chair, I present to you Rich Jones."