At just 23 years old, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has changed the lives of millions of hungry children in the United Kingdom, giving a voice to a nation in need and inspiring a new era of philanthropy—but far from taking any personal credit for his modern-day heroism, the resolutely grounded star of British football attributes his life-saving activism to the neighbors, community workers and his mum who offered him “a beacon of hope” as a child.
The sporting prodigy, who has raised £20m in financial aid and supplies for food distribution charity FareShare, dedicates his 9.1 million-strong social platform to youth initiatives that help children living in poverty, which he experienced while growing up in Wythenshawe, south Manchester. “For years, my nights were scattered with tears, anxiety and fear. My mum—scared, facing a day of uncertainty about where she was going to get food from to feed me and my family,” he tells Vogue. “No child should have to be sat in a classroom worried about how they are going to eat that weekend.”
When food was scarce, neighbors and youth centers stepped in, offering meals, kindness, and stability to local families, something that the activist vowed never to forget. “Every single person in that community contributed to my success and I knew one day I would be offered the opportunity to repay them. I would be doing them an injustice if I didn’t use the platform I have to talk to challenges and adversities.”
Today, with the announcement of a game-changing partnership with Burberry, Rashford’s UK youth work is set to go global. London Youth, which supports a network of more than 600 community organizations in the capital; Wide Rainbow, a New York-based non-profit that provides access to arts education across the US; and the International Youth Foundation, which enables young entrepreneurs and community leaders, particularly in Asia, to close nutrition gaps and unlock access to livelihoods, are all set to receive life-changing funding.
In Rashford’s hometown, the Norbrook Youth Club and Woodhouse Park Lifestyle Centre, which were fundamental to the footballer’s upbringing, will also gain significant financial support. “These organizations are at the heart of so many young people’s lives and we believe, especially now, it is so important to help them empower the emerging change-makers of tomorrow and continue their efforts to sustain and protect the vulnerable while working towards a better future,” Pam Batty, Burberry’s vice president of corporate responsibility, explains.
When it comes to charitable commitments, Burberry means business. Earlier this year, the fashion house launched the international Covid-19 Community Fund (a Burberry Foundation project) to support those most impacted by the crisis, funding food banks and vaccine research alongside pivoting its Castleford factory in Yorkshire, UK, to manufacture PPE. Not only are these measures a fit for Rashford’s “actions speak louder than words” activism, but they also honor Thomas Burberry’s own influential philanthropy during the first world war and the Great Depression.
“It’s rare that I partner with brands as it concerns me that investing time into commercial projects will only take away from the little time I have for community work […] Burberry has embarked on this journey with me to influence real positive change within the communities and offer the stability that is so vital to children’s development,” the footballer tells Vogue.
“You should never be ashamed to ask for help. Take pride in knowing that your struggle will play the biggest role in your purpose. Never drop your head in shame,” he writes in a moving letter to his 10-year-old self, published on November 2. “Please, never go to bed feeling like you don’t have a role to play in this life because, believe me when I tell you, the possibilities are endless.”
We spoke to Marcus Rashford in the days before the announcement to find out why now is the time to step up and ask what Vogue readers across the world can do to help.
What has been your first-hand experience of the economic and social impact of COVID-19 on the lives of young people?
Oof, where do I start? 4.2 million children in the UK were living in poverty ahead of the pandemic. People on the ground have been shouting from the rooftops about this for decades but until now, we haven’t been listening. People, like my mum, who worked three jobs to provide for her family, yet it still wasn’t enough. For years, my nights were scattered with tears, anxiety and fear. My mum—scared, facing a day of uncertainty about where she was going to get food from to feed me and my family.
Over the past few months, 900,000 new children have applied for free school meals as a result of unemployment, reduced hours, illness, and personal loss. I have spent a lot of time with them over the past eight months to better understand their struggles. For a lot of these children, their parents will have worked their entire lives and this is the first time they will have lent on the government for help. The prospect of not being able to provide for your child is mortifying. I often saw the fear in my mum’s eyes, and she was trying her very best to beat a system that felt like it was set up to fail her. Children can develop anxiety from as early as seven years old—they can clearly read the environment they find themselves in. You end up seeing children trying to grow up too quickly. My goal is to see that children remain children for as long as possible, not carrying the weight of financial struggles. No child should have to be sat in a classroom worried about how they are going to eat that weekend.
Can you talk us through the organizations that will benefit from your partnership with Burberry?
Two of the organizations, Norbrook Youth Club and Woodhouse Park Lifestyle Centre, were actually my childhood youth centers [where I would go] every other evening. Youth centers and youth charities up and down the country have been financially hit because of the effects of the pandemic, and closing them down is like closing the heart of the community. The centers offer a level of stability and consistency that is unmatched in underprivileged communities, so Burberry and I wanted to make sure they were championed and offered every resource needed to carry on the great work they do for children all over the world, not just in the UK.
How did those youth centers change your life and the lives of those around you for the better?
I grew up in Wythenshawe [south Manchester], which at the time wasn’t the safest place to be, yet it was a beacon of hope for so many. We were always taught to keep our heads down and keep quiet, yet at the same time, we would openly walk into neighbors’ homes to check if there was anything to eat, without judgement or question. The youth center offered stability for us. It was where we felt most free. Knowing we were in a safe space that taught us about respect and discipline—but more than anything, it was a guaranteed meal that day. I recently wrote on my social media that the youth centre was where friendships were made, where lessons were learned and where food was served. That pretty much sums it up. Growing up, it was an integral part of our lives.
What would your life as a young adult have looked like without this kind of community support?
The community was everything. When we had very little, we all had each other, looking out for us and making sure we had the best chances in life. Without my community, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. Their sacrifices and kindness towards myself and my family is the only reason I pull on the England national team shirt today. Whenever mum couldn’t get me to training, a member of the community would be there. If my mum couldn’t put food on the table, the door to the neighbors’ was always open. They taught me about compassion and taught me not to judge by what I saw. I am a product of my community.
Why was Burberry the right partner for these life-changing global youth initiatives?
I believe anything or anyone can be a force for good if the intent is there. It is rare that I partner with brands as it concerns me that investing time into commercial projects will only take away from the little time I have for community work. I am a professional footballer, after all. That being said, what I am doing with Burberry is different from anything I’ve been offered before. They have embarked on this journey with me to influence real positive change within the communities and offer the stability that is so vital to children’s development. In this case, actions have spoken much louder than words.
Burberry is a brand that was born in the north of England. Growing up, it was a brand I never thought attainable—in fact, I was just happy to have a pair of trainers on my feet that didn’t have holes in them or the soles falling off. Today, with this announcement, Burberry will be viewed by communities like mine to be a saving grace, as a brand that cares about the community and those lesser off than others. It will be a brand that people will aspire to be part of, and that communities will never forget. I’m just really proud to be on this journey with the biggest British luxury fashion brand in the game making such positive change.
Why is it important for you to give back to today’s youth?
I wouldn’t say give back, I would probably say offer a voice because, for many, my voice is the only way they will be heard. Throughout my childhood, my community offered me a helping hand to become the player you see today—I never forgot that. The same way [British] children will not forget the kind gestures from local businesses [that provided free lunches] this past week. Every single person in that community contributed to my success and I knew one day I would be offered the opportunity to repay them. I would be doing them an injustice if I didn’t use the platform I have to talk to challenges and adversities.
Your charity initiatives are a powerful force for good amid the enormous setbacks of 2020. Can you share any of the responses you’ve had from people whose lives have been changed by your work?
As I mentioned, I spent a lot of time with families on and off over the past eight months. Because of our collective effort, 1.3 million children across the UK had access to vital food sources over the summer school closures. I’ve had a few mums, who I saw at their lowest, call me and say they have managed to pick up a few hours cleaning or in the school kitchens—you would think they had won the lottery but to them, for the independence that offers them, they have. The thing that really puts a smile on my face is seeing the letters and notes from children talking about wanting to help [young people] who have less than them. Those letters are what makes all the difference, as our future is in the hands of children who are understanding that kindness and compassion really are the strongest traits you can own.
How do you stay grounded and avoid getting wrapped up in the hype of football to stay focused on the things that are truly important to you?
My two best friends to this day were my neighbors. My allies at breakfast club and my allies at the youth centre. It’s never been just me, it’s us. We. My success has never been just mine, but ours. My family, my friends, my community. My past is what grounds me. Remembering what it felt like to be hungry and struggle, and all of those who helped me along the way.
Do you see a new generation of football stars emerging who are challenging the stereotypes often presented in the media?
You could have thousands of athletes doing incredible things to better society all around the world, but it will only take one minor incident for the stereotype to reappear. It’s a learned response. It’s a stereotype that has been floating around for generations so, of course, it’s difficult to challenge that. I’ve always said that the work I’m doing now will only really be felt by the next generation. It’s my goal to positively influence that generation to lead with compassion and empathy rather than judgement. If you can nurture that at an early age, the world will be a much better place.
How do you feel the pandemic has changed people’s perspectives on making a positive contribution to the lives of others? Is the culture of philanthropy itself changing?
We are in a different stage of society where people have more influential platforms to share concerns or discuss conversations that have been previously hidden. There are many people who have great intentions to make a change but don’t necessarily know how. I have never had all the answers, nor have I claimed to, but my social media offers me the opportunity to engage with people on the ground in those environments to better understand what they are going through to inform my next steps. There have been many negatives this year, but seeing people step up to the plate and support the most vulnerable has been unbelievable to see and one of my life’s highlights.
What’s your message to Vogue readers on the importance of being community-minded and using their voice?
I would tell you that regardless of how small you think your voice is, it contributes to the bigger message. Even when you have little, just a kind word can be enough. I would ask that together we challenge stereotypes and acknowledge that, for many, it is difficult to climb out of a cycle of hardship, no matter how hard they try. If you don’t have the education or the understanding, that’s no fault of your own, but I would encourage you to spend time with people most affected by hardship and better understand their story. Every story is different, and we should never paint individuals with the same brush. When we have nothing else, compassion and empathy can make the biggest difference in people’s lives.