After helping hungry children get free school meals in the pandemic, footballer Marcus Rashford became a hero.
The star, 23, has now written a how-to guide, You Are a Champion: How to Be the Best You Can Be, with Carl Anka, which is aimed at over 10s.
In our final exclusive extract, he reveals why he needed to speak up…
I am really proud of where I come from.
Wythenshawe doesn’t have the best reputation, but let me tell you right now, some of the best people I know come from Wythenshawe.
It might not be the wealthiest area, or be in the news too much, but there’s a LOT of talent in Wythenshawe. There are good artists, great street footballers and really caring teachers.
There are people living there who used to help me when I was a kid; people who are still there now, helping the next generation. And there are children all over Wythenshawe just like me, with big dreams and loads of potential, just looking for the right path to walk down.
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I learned so many things while growing up in Wythenshawe. You already know how I worked on my football skills there, but I also learned how to be street smart and the importance of keeping your head on a swivel (always looking around and taking in new information when you’re out and about).
Wythenshawe taught me why it’s important to be polite to everyone in the community – from the people who run the shops, to the teachers, to the bin men – everyone who contributes to the place you live.
Growing up in Wythenshawe, I learned to question why things were the way they were, and to ask if they could get better. It taught me that when someone says, ‘You can’t do that’, I could ask myself, ‘Why not?’
The support I had as a child helped me to realise that I could chase my dreams with my whole heart, and I want all of you to feel empowered in the same way that I did. You can achieve anything. I really mean that.
So when someone tells you you can’t do something ask yourself ‘why not?’ and go from there.
Even though I didn’t have much growing up, Wythenshawe gave me everything I needed to chase my dream of becoming a footballer, and then do even more things away from the game.
And it’s because I didn’t grow up with that much that I understood what it was like for children who might be going hungry. I knew what that felt like, and I hope my experiences were useful in getting their voices heard.
As I’ve got older and entered the world of football, I’ve had to deal with even more complex topics, including racist abuse and other forms of hatred and intolerance.
One thing I’m learning is that sometimes you will never quite know all the answers on a certain topic. I’m not going to pretend that racism doesn’t affect me, or that I have the perfect answer for stopping it.
I do know that, as a Black man, sometimes I will encounter things designed to try to break my spirit, things that try to make me feel as if I don’t belong because of the colour of my skin. That is wrong, and I will do whatever I can, for as long as I can, to stop it; not just for myself, but for other people like me too.
You might encounter complex challenges like this in your life and not be sure of what to do. If that happens, I think it can be helpful to break these challenges up into smaller pieces and try to learn about them as you go.
I started reading a lot more books that were about these harder topics so that I could learn and understand how they affected me and others. From that, I discovered some steps I could take to help and how to try to make sure the next generation don’t have it as hard. Gradually I got more confident talking about these issues, and then I began to try to make changes.
There are always going to be people out there who will try to stop you using your voice. They might think that your opinion doesn’t count because of your age, the colour of your skin, where you come from or how much money you have.
But, I’ve never quite understood why someone would want to dismiss people based on how they look, or where they come from. I think it’s important to be respectful when you encounter people different from you, and I always try to be someone who listens, learns and asks questions.
Using your voice and standing up for what you believe in is important, but so is being respectful. The way I see it, I have two ears and one mouth, so I should always try to listen more than I talk. Humility is a trait that I get from my mum, and I know that if I went around talking about things I didn’t know about, or taking credit for other people’s hard work, it wouldn’t be right. Once you start to hear other voices, you start realising that everybody’s the same. We all need to eat food, we all need to drink water and we all need to find a way to get along.
Change can be a gradual process and you’ll often need help to get things done. But don’t worry, if you work hard for something, and you work with the right people, then the change will come. The food poverty campaign I am part of has been one of those situations. When we first started on this journey, lots of people were confused about why we were trying to help children who qualified for school meal vouchers over the summer holidays.
But, I used to be one of those children. The breakfast club I attended and the meals I got given at school were really important to how I grew up, because they helped give my life an extra bit of structure – I knew that no matter what else was going on there was somewhere I could eat, be a kid and hang out with my mates. So when the pandemic hit and the country first went into lockdown, I realised there were loads of children who might have to go without a meal during their day.
I knew it was important that those children who usually went to breakfast clubs and youth groups still had some structure and knew that they would get at least one meal a day, no matter what.
When I first started using my voice to help these children, there were people who said I should ‘stick to football’, and others who said that we wouldn’t be able to help any children at all. But again I asked, ‘Why not?’ Why wouldn’t you see all those people who needed help and then try to do something? What has being a footballer got to do with trying to help people?
I’ll admit there were times when I was worried about how things would develop – when you’re trying to make a big change in the world around you, you hope that you are doing the right thing and that other people care about it as much as you do.
And while there have been some setbacks along the way, and we are still nowhere near finished, what was important for me is that the people who needed help started getting the help they needed.
I didn’t really think that far ahead when I started using my voice – the plan at first was to help children over the school holidays, but when I found there were other places and communities like Wythenshawe, which had children who were growing up with little, I wanted to do more than just cover the holidays.
Together, thanks to the hard work of a lot of people, we can hopefully help those in need for much, much longer.
My mum taught me that when you believe in what you are doing, you don’t need to get too bothered by what other people are saying about you. For me, the reward of helping just one family would always outweigh any risk of being criticised.
Right now there are people campaigning against food poverty in a way I couldn’t even imagine when we started. I wanted to use my voice for something I believed in, and amazingly that helped other people speak up for what they believed in too.
Now, when we take a step back and see all the incredible things that have happened, it takes my breath away.
After we started the campaign I even had a call from a young boy called Ben who’s set up a full marathon to raise money for charity! He was only ten years old, but he was already using his voice to help people.
That sort of thing really excites me. It shows that we live in a world where people see a problem and think ‘I want to help’ rather than walk on by. That’s how we make changes in the world.