Justice Williams tells Jo Ind how she turned her troubled life around to become a businesswoman and MBE.

A friend of Justice Williams said she should write a book about her life and call it “From HMP to MBE in seven years.”

At the age of 21, Justice was serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Brockhill, then a women’s prison in Redditch. At the age of 28, she has been awarded an MBE for services to young people in Birmingham.

That was Her Majesty’s pleasure, I am sure.

Justice, who lives in Birmingham city centre and is a social entrepreneur, literally could not believe it when her nomination came through her letter box.

“I was flabbergasted,” she says. “I had to read it three times. I thought they were asking me to nominate somebody else. I went into shock. I was baffled.

“I’ve done some research and I believe I’m the youngest black woman in the UK to receive this honour. The second youngest was Beverley Knight, the singer. Other young people who have receive honours tend to be in athletics, celebrities or things like that.

“When I did believe it, I was re-energised and re-motivated. I always believed in what I was doing but when somebody else recognises it, it makes so much difference.”

Justice, who is also recognised as the 30th most powerful person in Birmingham in the Birmingham Post’s Power 50, is the editor of Tru Life magazine and managing director of the Inner City Creative Media Group, a social enterprise she founded three years ago training young people between 17 and 26 in media and business skills.

As a result of Justice’s work with ICCMG, young people, who might otherwise have struggled to find their way into work, have gone on to set up businesses like an internet cafe, a dance academy, a street theatre company, or work in graphic design. More than 100 youngsters have used the service called Creating Successful Entrepreneurs, which has received funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

“There are so many projects out there which try to do something for young people, and then it’s ‘bye bye, see you later’. I wanted to do something more sustainable.

“I realised they needed to understand about business, the market, shares and generating an income for themselves. I set up ICCMG so they could learn how to make money in a legal and positive way.”

Justice has put social media skills to very creative use with young people who are inhibited from moving about because of the fear of passing through an area where they are at risk of being attacked. Through ICCMG, she has enabled them to learn skills online and use social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to make contacts and develop their businesses without getting into threatening territory. She has also used Facebook to mediate between young women in rival gangs.

“Social media and digital culture is the future. It has created a global community and I have done business on an international level through Twitter alone,” says Justice.

“It allows young people to be in control. Young people who engage with it can think outside the box, be at the forefront and create their own media. The mainstream press have a tendency to portray young people in a negative light. It was because no one seemed to want to listen to us or talk about the issues that affected us as young people that I created Tru Life.”

Tru Life magazine is another of Justice’s entrepreneurial projects. Launched in October last year, as an urban chic lifestyle magazine for aspirational young women, it is aimed at Birmingham women aged between 18 and 26, who influence their peers by their lifestyle choices.

“I’d grown tired of the warped view the current mass media presents of this world, with its size zero debate and all that kind of thing,” says Justice.

“Our ethos is to provide a platform and a springboard for young creative talent and to encourage young women to aspire and achieve their full potential. We also wanted to provide work experience for photographers, designers, illustrators and fashion young entrepreneurs.

"It’s very difficult to get work experience in the mainstream media especially with the current state of the publishing industry due to the recession.”

Justice is a whirl of energy. She speaks at a rate of about 180 words a minute and evidently leads her life at the same dynamic pace. She is not only an editor and a social enterprise director also for ICCMG, but a promoter and artist manager, an actor, an event manager, a playwright, a business consultant and a blogger.

How does she fit it all in? “I don’t see my friends,” she laughs. “No, seriously. Fortunately, what I do is very sociable.”

But she has not always put her considerable talent and energy to such constructive use and spent 15 days in jail in 2001 for theft and possessing an offensive weapon.

Justice, who was brought up in a middle-class family in Harborne is bright and did well at school. She left school with six As and three Bs and one C in her GCSEs and went on to study for her A-levels. At that time, Justice decided to leave her family home and go and live in Handsworth, where her mother had a house.

“I was feeling I needed my own space. I wanted to be Miss Independent.”

But being independent was more challenging than Justice had realised. “I was stressed,” she says. “I needed a job to pay the rent, but no one would give me a go at the age of 18 and it was harder with a B21 postcode.

“I was trying to study as well but I got sick of it. Then the Jobcentre stopped my benefits and told me I couldn’t claim and study, which was the straw that broke the camels back. They were unsupportive and had a couldn’t care less attitude. I started to feel a bit socially excluded, isolated from society in general. I got in with the wrong crowd and fell into being naughty. It was easier.”

When Justice ended up in jail, she was shocked and her parents were distraught.

“My dad was so disappointed,” she says. “I was the clever one in the family and there I was in prison. It shook me up. I thought to myself: ‘what are you doing? Get a grip.’ Being in prison, didn’t really bother me. It was just so boring, but seeing how much it upset my family, really broke my heart.

“My dad had always instilled in me that the sky’s the limit and you have to get educated. I knew that I had choices, where a lot of people don’t.”

After prison, Justice did voluntary work with Young Disciples, a charity working with hard-to-reach young people in inner-city Birmingham. Justice worked there for two-and-a-half years, first as a volunteer and then as a full-time project administrator and then training and development manager.

Through that work she grew in her understanding of young people who were facing disadvantage, whether that was a broken home, or having parents on drugs, or being involved in gangs, or taken into social services care.

From there, she branched out into being self-employed, setting up social enterprises to enable youngsters to turn their creativity into thriving businesses.

“I’m not ashamed of being in prison, but it’s not something I’m not proud of either,” says Justice. “It’s enabled me to be a role model because other young people can see that if I’ve got to where I am from where I was, then they can do that too.”

Weblinks:
Inner city Creative Media Group: www.myspace.com/behindthedreams 
Tru Life magazine: www.wix.com/trulifemagazine/Holding-page 
Young Disciples: www.youngdisciples.co.uk
Justice Williams: www.linkedin.com/in/justiceamariah
Barrow Cadbury Trust: www.bctrust.org.uk 
>Birmingham Post Power 50