We spoke to Faith Johnson, founder of London-based creative arts education charity Caramel Rock
RD: How did Caramel Rock get started, and how would you best summarise what you offer?
FJ: Caramel Rock started back in 2008, the same year I began my first university degree. Everything I was learning at university I brought with me to a local cafe where Caramel Rock first began, teaching a small group of girls how to make their own dress out of basic pattern blocks. Fast-forward to 2021, and we are an educational charity that provides training and job opportunities to inner-city youths through resources, courses, work experience and job training. We focus on empowering and supporting young people, helping them to access varied training and opportunities within the fashion industry. We also provide masterclasses and courses for a wide range of age groups, in a wide realm of creative expertise such as pattern cutting, illustration, fashion design, make-up artistry and hair styling.
Working with some of the most challenging young people, we aim to advance education and job opportunities that’ll give disadvantaged young people a second chance. We have been fortunate enough to receive a number of opportunities in the industry where high-level brands are trying to reach a network of young people who may not have had the same opportunities as others, and we are proud to have a great network of young talent who we can support with that. Caramel Rock bridges the gap between students past and future, making it their purpose to illustrate that no matter your roots, you can grow and flourish into this highly competitive industry.
RD: What career trajectory led you to start the charity? What made you passionate about this cause?
FJ: I was a coach at a local cheerleading troop in East London, supporting local inner-city youths with team building and leadership skills through dance and performance. I had been a participant of the troop myself from the age of 7 up until 22; the organisation truly shaped me and supported me through some of my darkest years. As a young youth I was abused and was in a domestic violent relationship as a teen. The organisation was so much more than cheerleading to me – it truly helped me and I always wanted to do the same thing for others. I seemed to be really good at fashion and started small, building everything up from that initial passion.
RD: Fashion and creative work is a fantastic outlet for self-expression - how do you think studying it and participating in it helps to develop confidence, both in and out of the workplace?
FJ: Fashion and the creative industries is not only a vibrant sector, but very profitable. With the social groups we work with and the beneficiaries we impact, their parents really need the awareness we provide to help them understand the direction their children want to go in. We find that with the demographic of people we work with and their household incomes, fashion isn’t always thought of as a serious career, especially within particular cultures — mine included! We provide awareness for parents and the pastoral care that students need; not just to learn academically, but to build the confidence to get out there and hold their own in the workplace.
RD: What does a typical workday look like for you? How has the business adapted for the lockdown?
FJ: Fortunately, we have been able to pivot and offer provisions online. We have had to look at the change of behaviours in our industry and what the world of work looks like for our future, recognizing where we may need to review things in future. Throughout the pandemic, we have been able to provide blended learning online and in-person with access to resources packs for all our students who are learning full time.
RD: What do you like to do to switch off?
FJ: In my early to late 20s, I could work all hours of the day. Now I have a family, I have had to really adapt my work responsibilities to make sure that I get proper family time in the evenings. Gone are the days of 5am starts and 11pm finishes — well, the 5am starts still exist! I would say there are still certainly periods I have to work really long days and those are the hardest being away from my son, but I try hard to strike a balance. I do still love cheerleading too, it played such a strong part of my childhood. From time to time I do try to take a class.
RD: What has been the most valuable business lesson you've learnt so far? And what has been your most tangible achievement?
FJ: My best business lesson is to find people who are as good — or better — in certain areas of the business than you to work with. My most tangible achievement would be the memory of a particular young guy that we supported. He was referred to us from the young offenders unit as part of his probation, and at the start of the course he didn’t want to be there at all, but after two weeks we could get him out the door! We later went on to study sports science; before our course, he never considered that he could go to college or do an apprenticeship and make something of his life. It’s the success stories like these that keep us going.
RD: In five years time, where would you like to see the charity?
FJ: We are opening a manufacturing CMT (cut, make trim) factory in September 2021. The factory will employ young people, supporting more youths into technically skilled job opportunities.
RD: If you weren't in this line of work, what other career would you love to have?
FJ: I would have likely been a professional dancer. Fun fact; I'm actually in Olly Murs ‘Dance With Me Tonight’ music video!
RD: Lastly, a very important question – how would you describe your own sense of style?
FJ: I have no idea! Only joking - I would say I go through phases and seasons of changes, expressing however I feel on the inside at the time. But even when I play with fun colours or accessories, I do like to feel elegant and tailored. Just like we teach!
To learn more about Caramel Rock, visit its website.
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