The turning point in Phillip Thompson’s life came when two of his close friends died from drug overdoses and another was stabbed to death in a fight.
He made the decision to leave behind his Wolverhampton gang and apply to university. Now he is an architect in a Birmingham firm – and one of 20 black men chosen as role models in a new national initiative.
Phillip is one of four Midlanders in the programme devised by the REACH group, a body commissioned to provide the government with recommendations on how to inspire and support young black men.
Phillip, 27, said: “When I was younger, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I was only interested in rappers, football and girls.
“I hung around with the wrong crowd and was involved with a gang.
“The wake-up call for me came at 15 when three of my close friends died through violence and drug abuse. Many of the friends I went to school with are now in prison for serious offences.
“My father Randolph, a college maths lecturer, sat me down and told me of the sacrifices he made. He came to Britain from Jamaica in the 1960s so that I could have opportunities but I was wasting them.
“I realised I was going down the wrong path. I went away to university and that saved me. I turned my life around and now I feel I have to give something back.”
Phillip graduated in architecture from the University of Central England, now Birmingham City University.
He volunteers as a youth worker at Gloucester Street Community Centre and the Church of God of Prophecy in Whitmore Reans, one of the most deprived areas of Wolverhampton.
He adds: “I understand that challenges teenagers face but I tell them there are opportunities out there.”
Peter Brown, director of Phillip’s employers Nicol Thomas based at Fort Dunlop in Birmingham, said: “It is highly commendable that Phillip willingly gives his time to help out in his community. He is very mature and a gentleman. We are very proud of him.”
Businessmen, servicemen, lawyers, media figures, a teacher and a firefighter are among those selected in the first-ever national role model programme for black boys.
The other Midland role models are Wolverhampton probation officer Junior Crawford Brown, chartered surveyor Mark Sutherland and Karl George of Birmingham.
Karl started his own mentoring organisation at 20 and established Black Link, helping black professionals to work with young people.
They were chosen by a panel including fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, Apprentice winner Tim Campbell and Metropolitan Police Superintendent Leroy Logan.
The REACH report to government last year stressed that too often the only images of successful black men were those of rap artists, who can glamorise crime and gangs. Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said: “The election of Barack Obama and Lewis Hamilton’s success is a powerful signal to young people that they can achieve.”