Marvin Birch has lived on the Kingsmead estate in Hackney his entire life. It’s never had a good reputation.
There was a terrible murder of a young boy there in 1985; in 1994 a newspaper article wrote the place off as “one of the most notorious estates in east London”. But Birch has always found it a place of community. “It’s a family,” he says. “When people who don’t live on an estate come to visit they always comment on how everyone is together: ‘You can go out of your house and kids are playing.’” That’s what inspired him, as an adult, to make a difference for children growing up there today.
As a teenager, Birch, now 26, was a prisoner of geography, subject to restrictions that made the simple act of visiting a supermarket a few roads away from a life-threatening gauntlet. “There were a lot of postcode wars,” he says. He couldn’t walk a mile in either direction without being targeted. At the time, a member of his family was a gang member, which put entire swathes of Hackney off limits.
As a teen, he got involved in crime himself. “I was arrested a couple of times,” he says, “for criminal damage and drugs – silly stuff.” The worst thing was seeing his mother cry. He hated himself for it. “I always thought I’d be better than that,” Birch says.
Now, Birch can walk anywhere he chooses. There’s no fear, only a feeling of lightness. “People know I am doing things for a good cause,” he says. “They say: ‘Big up, Marvin.’”
By day, Birch works as a mentor in a secondary school; at weekends, he volunteers with youth organisation Rise 365 – and all while bringing up his son, Josiah, six. Joyclen Buffong – who is the founder of Rise 365 and who nominated Birch for a treat from this column – says he is “always there, every week”. She tells me that just last week he drove for an hour across London after work to do a food collection because another supplier was closed.
She sees Birch as a quiet bulwark of the community. “He’s bettered his life and wants to give other people those same experiences. It always comes from a community-loving spirit.”
During the first lockdown, Marvin delivered hot meals to people in need on the estate. “It was about building morale,” he says, “because Covid hit a lot of people. There was financial loss but also family loss.”
In September, Rise set up a community supermarket. Along with other volunteers, Birch does shopping runs and helps bag up groceries for delivery to elderly or infirm people. “We want to be there,” he says, “to help out. It’s coming from love. The kids turn up at 9.30am and are basically there all day.”
He always wanted to work with young people. “I want to empower kids,” he says. “The ones at the supermarket might have issues in their home life. We get them away from home. We always say: ‘If you need help, come to us.’”
He mentors young people at Rise 365. “We do life skills with them, like saving and financial stuff,” he says. “When I went to school I didn’t know anything about saving. We’re trying to empower them: if they want to do a course, we’ll try and get them on it.”
On top of all of this, Birch was until recently working nights in a children’s home. “Ever since I had my son,” he says, “I’ve worked two, three jobs. I’ll do the day job in the school and then work from 10-8 in the morning, and then go back to school. I want to make more money to support my family.”
I ask him when he sleeps. “Sleep?” he exclaims. “Minimal. Minimal.”
His indefatigable work ethic is born partly out of gratitude. “Jocelyn from Rise helped me to get out of the stuff I had been doing,” he says. “She encouraged me to do better. She put me on courses. My friends were going to jail. I thought: I don’t want that life.”
Life is a coin flip sometimes, he tells me. It could have gone either way. “I’ve friends who died because of postcode wars.” His dream is to open his own pupil referral unit. He thinks he’d be able to relate.
“I was an angry person,” he says, with a chuckle. “I have a big nose. When I was young, if someone cussed my nose I would be so upset and fight them. But now they call me Nose, and I’ve embraced it.”
Every time I call Marvin Birch to arrange something nice for him, he swats me away. After much pestering, he suggests an afternoon out for the teens who have been running the community supermarket. All Star Lanes offers free retro-style bowling at its Brick Lane venue; afterwards, everyone goes to teen favourite Nando’s for peri-peri chicken and bottomless Coke refills.
“It was really good,” says Birch afterwards. “They were bonding that bit more. It felt like recognition for all the work they’ve been doing for a year and a half. Every Saturday they’ve been coming to the shop and serving the community. And they’re growing in themselves. A couple of them didn’t even have the confidence to talk with people this time last year.”
He texts me pictures of the teens beaming at dinner, plates overflowing with chips. “If they’re happy,” Marvin says, with characteristic self-effacement, “then I’m happy.”