There's one story that Steve Smith tells with pride. It's the tale of a teenager who had the guts to stand up in front of a packed Elland Road and tell his friends that racism is wrong. Smith, the manager of the Leeds United Learning Centre, had been hosting an anti-racism workshop prior to a Leeds United AFC match. The message clearly got through to that local schoolboy.
"During the morning [he] began to see what the real issues were in his school," Smith said. "Because he knew his friends were in the stadium that afternoon at the match he came out on to the pitch with me, took the microphone and actually addressed the young people in the stadium. He said, 'I know some of my friends are here and I know we mess about in school and there's racism there, but I want to let you know I don't stand for that - I stand for something different. I want you to know you're wrong'. That was a huge thing for him to do, really powerful."
As European football prepares to meet at the forthcoming anti-racism conference in Barcelona, Smith's work with Leeds - currently playing in the English Championship - is setting the example for other clubs to follow, both in Britain and abroad. The Leeds United Learning Centre employs 13 full-time members of staff and an army of volunteers, who reinforce the unique role football can play in educating youngsters and improving community relations.
Football as the vehicle
Smith ensures that off the pitch the Yorkshire club is as influential as ever. "We work with the ten most disadvantaged wards in the city, something like 69 schools," he said. "It can be anything from a whole-school presentation to group work based on football and the power of the brand name of Leeds United and experiences of the players. We use football as the vehicle to deliver anti-racism and raise the issues."
Smith's remit was initially to rid Elland Road of racism. To do that, the club had to reach out to the community. "Racism exists in football but only because it's society's issue. I go into schools basically to ask for their help. I haven't got a chance unless they can kick it out of their classroom, their playground, their school, their street, their whole area. It's working in partnership with them."
The importance of that message in a city as culturally diverse as Leeds was brought home by the terrorist attacks in London on 7 July last year. As police traced the suicide bombers back to addresses in Leeds and the surrounding region, fears emerged of a backlash towards the city's Muslim population. Leeds United's place at the heart of the community has never been so important.
Smith concedes he may not be able to change the attitudes of a racist, but he can offer the next generation the chance to form their own opinions - and consequently hope for the future. "The young people, through the work we do, become aware of the reasons behind the tensions in communities and start to examine the reasons of where they might have come from," he said.
"You need to allow children time to reflect and think and to form a voice and their own opinion because there are an awful lot of people trying to foist their own opinions on young people. When you give children the space and time and a voice and you encourage them in a positive way, they can make a real difference." Just like Leeds United.
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