Althea Smith works full-time as a Southwark councillor in a large number of projects involving teenagers and young adults in a community plagued with a bad name nationally because of gun crime and murders.
She doesn’t like anyone to call her “councillor” because it creates distance from those people she works with. To most youth she is “Auntie Althea” rather than “Councillor Smith”. For Althea it is so important that the young people know that she is on their side. “The babies must be given their milk until they acquire a taste for the whisky”, she says as a quaint allusion to the transition from youth to adulthood.
Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, she has lived at Peckham for almost 30 years and has three children; Serena, 26, Fiona, 24, and Kienda, 21, and three grandchildren.
Althea nurtures young people through a programme of cultural, sporting, health, educational and leisure activities funded mostly by the council itself to which she was first elected five years ago (she is currently serving her second term as one of the three representatives of Nunhead ward). It would be difficult to give Althea a job title of fewer than 10 words, since hers is no ordinary nine to five occupation.
Her work encompasses a handful of quite specific issues, such as tackling London’s highest teen pregnancy rates, unemployment and lack of education among 16-24 year olds in the borough that includes Peckham, Elephant and Castle, Camberwell, Bermondsey and leafy Dulwich. For example, she explains quite candidly how, “since Southwark is such a deprived area, sex is a popular ‘activity’ and this raises several issues for local government. Firstly, it is very evident that there is a considerable lack of education among people of all ages about sexual health”.
One way Althea and others like her are tackling this is through free community “health talks”.
It is hoped that new approaches towards the issue will see teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates fall in the coming years. Also, the council is keen to offer better support to young rape victims, many of whom choose to keep their babies.
The issue of high youth joblessness has been addressed by the local education authority by the opening of new academies which have seen sixth form attendance increase and academic standards improve over the past few years.
Southwark Council's website reveals a plethora of schemes aimed at improving the lives and opportunities of the people of the south east London borough such as adult learning, community safety work, youth media projects and the new John Harvard Library.
Althea was promoted to the power post of chair of the council’s Planning Committee when Labour took control of the town hall from the Lib-Dem Conservative coalition in May 2010. This has put her in political control of some big residential and commercial developments worth more than a billion pounds.
Althea gleefully notes that: “As part of these urban regeneration schemes new accommodation is becoming available, much of which is aimed at students.” Southwark has a large student population as a result of further and higher educational institutions like South Bank University and the London College of Communication falling within its boundaries. It must be said that there are some locals who object to the increasing numbers of students in the area but Althea and the new rulers at the town hall are not among them.
“Young people under 18 can’t vote but they still have dreams and aspirations that politicians should sit up and listen to“, she adds. Althea says a vital aspect of her job is educating young people about politics “since they are the voters of tomorrow “. Students have shadowed her at the town hall to get a flavour of what her work entails. Politics, she explains, must be made accessible to young people before society can expect them to take an interest in it.
Althea says she tries to educate young people about issues like the MPs’ expenses scandal and why, despite it being a hammer blow to public confidence in the political system, it should not be a reason for them to abandon the democratic process. Instead, she says elected representatives should see the controversy as further proof that politics needs the active involvement of the public to free it of corruption and abuse.
I was mightily impressed by the wonderful role played by Althea in her community and beyond (she is also chair of the London branch of Jamaica’s People’s National Party, for which she does political and welfare outreach work). She is clearly very hard-working and driven by a burning desire to do good and make a difference to the lives of ordinary people in general and young people in particular.