Karin Woodley has campaigned for racial equality all her life, and now she’s backing Building’s campaign for a fairer construction industry, too. The chief executive of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust explains why to Emily Wright.

Portrait by Dominik Gigler

The Stephen Lawrence Centre cuts an impressive shape, all patterned glass and dappled light, in the bleak backdrop of Deptford, south-east London. At first, you hardly notice the eight boarded-up window frames on the intricate facade. But those boards represent a story of “horror” for Karin Woodley, chief executive of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

In February, just one week after it officially opened, racist vandals caused more than £100,000 of damage to the building. “Quite simply, the feeling was horror,” says Woodley, “both for us and the community. The young people too – we had only just moved into our new building and we were just shocked.”

The windows of the £10m centre may still be boarded up – the trust is awaiting the report of a security consultant before undertaking any repairs – but Woodley’s work goes on. Indeed, if anything, the attack has reinforced the importance of the trust’s work. Named after the teenager murdered in a racist attack in 1993, the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust aims to promote diversity in architecture and construction – Lawrence himself had wanted to be an architect. “We have taken what Stephen wanted to achieve and are trying to offer it as a legacy to other young people,” Woodley says. “We are trying to create a pathway out of poverty and into urban design.”

Making sure the construction industry is one that young people can be proud to work in is part of that too, which is why Woodley is backing Rebuilding Trust, the campaign Building launched in response to the Office of Fair Trading’s inquiry into bid rigging. “We don’t want to inspire people and then introduce them to an industry that has been accused of corruption,“ she says. “We want to show them that they are going to be working in an honest, open environment. Interestingly a lot of the companies we work with – Balfour Beatty, Bovis Lend Lease, Willmott Dixon – have signed up to the campaign too, so I am pleased about that.”

Planting a seed

It is fair to say that Woodley isn’t your average chief executive. She has dreadlocks, pops out for cheeky fag breaks, and seems to find the fact she has a PA highly amusing, phoning through a tea order with a mock-severe tone.

“This is what I call doing a bit of CEO-ing,” she teases with a wink.

We don’t want to inspire people and then introduce them to an industry that has been accused of corruption

But once the office door closes, you’re quickly reminded that this is a serious businesswoman with a 30-year career in equality campaigning behind her. The trust, she explains, offers a number of bursaries to young people wanting to become architects – 50 over the past nine years and three full scholarships to the Architectural Association. Some of the students who were awarded these bursaries are now qualified architects. The trust has awarded seven more bursaries this year which will cover tuition fees, maintenance costs and field trips.

The next push is to inspire these potential architects, contractors, QSs and engineers when they are much younger, which is where the centre comes in. “The kids can come here and get a taste for the industry – it plants a seed. We’re raising awareness and answering questions about what a building is, how it is designed and built.”

The centre will be offering a full teaching programme by September and expects to cater for 200 students a week. The courses will be on anything related to architecture, as well as core curriculum subjects such as maths and science, in which pupils from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds have relatively poor GCSE success rates.

The centre aims to raise £1.5m a year itself and gets 40% of its funding from statutory agencies such as the London Development Agency and local councils, as well as industry donations from partners such as Balfour Beatty, Berkeley and Willmott Dixon. The trust works with these firms, and others, to develop employment assessment centres across the UK where young people will be able to work on practice projects.

It is clear that part of the reason that the trust is backing the Rebuilding Trust campaign is because Woodley holds the construction industry in such high esteem. “The industry is just full of great names. Mike Davies, Tony Pidgley … Jack Pringle – I love. And Will Alsop, bleeding heck, he is just a total star. And of course David Adjaye. He designed this building and I think it is such a great example of talent within UK architecture – he is fabulous.

“I just think the whole industry is a sexy one to be in – something we are obviously trying to convey to young people.

“Everyone who is part of this industry should be very proud.”