The tale of what binds together Sunderland’s communities is my story.
It’s a story about quiet moments in factory floors when people wonder quietly and desperately about their purpose. It’s a story about the European Union, mixed martial arts, and giving people something to believe in.
When I was 19 years old I’d been looking for work for months, and finally an opportunity came up in the Nissan factory. To put it bluntly, this wasn’t the most exciting line of work. I stood in for a broken cutting machine and spent my time folding a piece of carpet under the back of the parcel shelf in the boot, tucking it under and in, smoothing it out.
Folding carpet for Nissan was not about personal development. It was about meeting my basic needs. But for me, a boy from Southwick, a rundown suburb of Sunderland, this was the best job I could aim for and everyone told me how lucky I was to get one.
I’m not alone – this was the case for all my generation. It’s a hard way to earn a living and it leaves many men bitter and disillusioned. Yet we are forced to cling to these jobs because, here in the North-East, it is all that we have. These jobs are prized, but they are inadequate to the task of keeping our communities alive.
But now these jobs have become a topic of national conversation, as they too are coming under threat from Brexit. The government is desperately trying to secure sweetheart deals behind our backs to keep these quietly hated factories afloat because if they don’t, thousands of lives will be decimated.
Far away from London, the alternatives are limited. It’s a world of call-centre jobs, zero-hour contracts, and benefits that come and go. ‘Vote for change,’ that’s what the Brexit elite told us, as they toyed with our lives like gods. That’s what people in Sunderland were looking for when they headed to the voting booth in June 2016, many for the first time in their lives.
The truth is that people in Sunderland need more from life than hard-to-come-by work in car plants. People like me try to lead in their communities to fill this need. It’s not enough to be complacent in disillusionment.
Today I run the Made 4 The Cage Fight Academy. It is a Positive Steps/Community Interest scheme that works with National Citizens Service and Groundworks NorthEast, which are largely funded by EU money. There is no government funding for schemes like this; youth and sports clubs that were struggling when I was a child have all closed down now through lack of money. Sunderland Council are currently proposing a 100% reduction in the funding they give to Youth Work projects in this already disadvantaged city.
Through the Academy, I try to change the lives of some of the young men who come to us. What it gives them isn’t just the dream of maybe one day fighting in the UFC, but the discipline, pride and self-respect that no call-centre jobs can provide.
Every week I watch as new lads come through the door, looking to prove themselves, to show that they are not hopeless, but strong men. This is an area where, historically, men were men, and where hard graft working down the pit was a badge of honour. Pride was rooted in the shipyards and steelworks that built Britain’s infrastructure. Today I help young men feel proud of themselves, and use that pride to support their communities.
With Brexit what I foresee is that these young lads who come along to my classes will not be able to any more, because when that EU funding goes and the economy shrinks I cannot see anyone paying for programmes like mine. The lads who come to my gym are going to be even more disenfranchised and who will cover the cost of Community Interest schemes when there is no EU funding left? What will happen to our community?
A no-deal Brexit would shutter community centres, close down vital programs, and hammer in the final nail in the coffin to the fragile sense of purpose that ties together communities in the North-East.
Instead the young men who come to me for guidance will end up frustrated, lost, on drink and drugs, sitting about doing all the things that are not good for the community, country or themselves. Our elected representatives are not doing enough to address the problem.
It is crucial we have a People’s Vote and that the people who I see around me who are finally realising what Brexit means and what the agenda of Jacob Rees-Mogg is can have a chance to pull us back from the brink. Our communities can only fray so much further before they come apart at the seams.
People in Sunderland deserve to have others respect our dignity, our communities, and our aspirations. The way forward for us isn’t a no-deal Brexit. Sunderland can only have the future it deserves by uplifting its own people through cooperation with Europe and the world at large.
• Steven France is a 39 year-old fitness instructor, small businessman, and community leader in Sunderland. As an advocate for young people in the North-East, he is a supporter of Our Future, Our Choice.
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