Niomi Daley, 34, is an award-winning British singer-songwriter and rapper who performs under the name Ms Dynamite. In 1978, Celia Greenwood founded Wac Arts, a London charity that gives performing-arts and media training to disadvantaged young people. She is still its chief executive
When I was 15, I left home. I wasn’t just being a hormonal teenager, I was suffering in lots of ways. There was a lot of tension and turmoil in my family at that time. So I lived in hostels, with other young people who were also struggling, some from addiction. Many of us expressed our anger in unhealthy ways. I drank and smoked. I missed a lot of college, I missed a lot of everything. I felt totally isolated, lonely, angry – really at rock bottom. But somehow, throughout all of that, I always managed to do two things: go to work – I needed to get paid – and go to Wac, Weekend Arts College. I’d been going, off and on, since I was five, but when I was a teenager living by myself, I don’t think I missed a single session. That was down to Celia, and her understanding of young people, her belief that she could help them find the best within themselves.
The classes Wac offers are just phenomenal. I did drama, street dance, video production. But it isn’t just any performing-arts school. Somehow Celia manages to make the classes affordable – they cost £1 when I was a teenager; today they’re still only around £2.50. Yet the teachers are of such a high quality that students can go on to become professionals – its graduates include [the actors] Sophie Okonedo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Danny Sapani. And Wac provides a wealth of skills beyond just the performing arts – life skills, relationship skills.
From speaking to Celia over the years, I know she thinks the British education system doesn’t cater to everyone. Every child is different; many don’t fit the mould. If you don’t, you can be made to think that the problem is you. Wac says, “Yeah, of course you’re different, you’re an individual. Now, how can we give you the basic skills that you need?” Celia has had a lot of success with a new arm of Wac that takes in GCSE students who have been kicked out of state schools. They come and do their exams, but through the performing arts. So instead of studying English in the conventional way, you might do it through popular song – engaging stuff that students can relate to. Wac will teach you in a way that you’ll enjoy, and it will provide you with a space to explore who you are, to discover how to feel good about yourself. It’s a place you want to be.
Celia is completely down-to-earth, very warm, loving and compassionate. But she’s also a living superwoman. In the decades she’s been doing this, she’s had practically no funding, but as long as there are young people out there that need a place like Wac, there’s no slowing her down. Take someone classed as off the rails or hopeless to Celia, and she will find a way in; she’ll help them see and bring out the best in themselves. I was there a couple of weeks ago and met lots of young girls who reminded me of myself in terms of their experience: they were homeless, some of them were addicted to drugs. Celia has managed to point them in the right direction so that, with luck, their journey won’t take them down an even darker path. When you’re living on your own at 16 and feeling that no one gives a crap whether you’re dead or alive, that means a lot. It means everything.