What would you expect from an ordinary Civic and Democracy Leadership Programme? Talks, one after another, struggling to consume any information bar the occupation of the speaker; making brief pleasantries with the few people either side of your comfort zone; never leaving the same non-air conditioned room; facilitators introducing the odd exercise to ensure participants aren’t always asleep. Get that out of your head now! Faiths Forum for London and Haider Alkhateeb (the leader facilitator) organised a week filled with constant inspiration, motivation and most importantly, honesty. 

Do you remember your first day at school, university or work? – not knowing anyone. Nightmares of everyone hating you for no apparent reason. The first day of the programme began with basic ice breakers – games of rock, paper, scissors, catching a ball and saying your name, presentations about our deepest anxieties and future aspirations and…. Just like that everyone’s irrational fears of social isolation vanished. Some participants were still undergraduates, some postgraduates, others were already experiencing the life of work in the Civil Service, Salvation Army or in general administration, yet everyone treated each other as equals – all friendly like-minded individuals with a common goal, to become the future leaders of tomorrow.

The day continued with the group analysing the admirable qualities of household names that went on to become great leaders. Qualities such as transparency, attitude and determination were mentioned. However, in an unexpected twist, the afternoon session required us to ask ourselves whether we exhibited these qualities. Split between three sections: skill, attitude and knowledge, the group focused on attitude as the key component in explaining the success of every individual. Now asked if we possessed the necessary attitude to succeed, the room drifted into a wave of self-reflection. The realization that you are the only one holding yourself back passed through the room. How do I better myself? Do I live in my comfort zone? Is life really maximised living in the comfort zone? The questions were difficult, but the answers were easy. Could I do more? YES. 

During the second day, we were treated to a range of talks from both Labour and Conservative Councilors. Starting the day at the Labour Party Headquarters enabled the group to gather a feel of the professionalism necessary to pursue a career in British politics. Once we encountered the first presenter, Councilor Alison Moore, we were encouraged to contemplate whether we were involved in our own local community or even if we knew who our local Councilors were. It’s safe to say the room went quiet.

The second speaker, as if their talks were coordinated, began her presentation by handing us the applications to become a Councilor or MP. Whilst talking us through the process a feeling of optimism circled around the room. Could I do this? Could I become an elected official? Filled with a sense of duty towards our local community, the group retreated back to SOAS to contemplate the morning’s revelations. The afternoon session consisted of a talk from an ex-conservative Councilor, Hashim Bhatti. However, rather than speaking at us, Hashim gave the group an exercise requiring us to analyse a case study involving the tough decisions that Councilors are forced to make every day. Should you focus on what is good for the country or what is beneficial for your constituents? Seemingly impossible situations were assessed.

Suddenly the feeling of optimism we were experiencing previously vanished. On reflection, the day’s findings taught us that becoming a Councilor or at least getting involved in your local community isn’t as hard as you might think. However, being a Councilor isn’t an easy job. Yet, referring back to our findings on the first day of the programme, easy isn’t always good. Comfort Zones aren’t always good. Being a Councilor is a test. It’s a step in the danger zone. It’s a challenge. But that’s what life is about… Overcoming challenges. We finished the day getting split up into groups as we were told that we would have the week to create our own social action projects.

Following a brief discussion, the three groups began preparing a short presentation explaining what and why we choose to focus on our specific area of interest. The campaigns focused on initiatives to tackle food waste, knife crime, and loneliness. 

The group convened in SOAS on Wednesday morning as the sun rose over London, beckoning in yet another warm day in the capital. Up until now, the course had mainly laid focus on the role of elected officials within the political sphere, however this morning would mark a shift in focus towards understanding officials ‘behind the scenes’ in the civil service. Through listening to three different civil servants working in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we gained a greater appreciation of the differences in the day-to-day activities of different officials, from private secretaries to senior civil servants.

However, perhaps more importantly, we were also made aware of the importance the civil service plays in democratic systems in terms of providing evidence, advice and support to elected ministers. Many of the questions directed towards the civil servants focused on the importance, challenges and constraints of political neutrality within the civil service, causing us to contemplate the importance of our personal current political freedoms.  

With these debates fresh in our mind, we returned our focus towards elected politicians, and made a quick journey across London to Westminster to visit Portcullis House. Several us became rather excitable in the art of ‘MP spotting’ after catching a quick glimpse of Sir Vince Cable alongside his recent Liberal Democrat recruit, Chuka Umunna. Besides enjoying the political buzz of Westminster, our main purpose for visiting Parliament was to meet Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi MP for Slough. As well as becoming the first ever turbaned MP to sit in any European parliament and being able to speak 8 languages, Tan impressed us all with his endless motivation and enthusiastic attitude towards life and politics. Therefore, as well as leaving Parliament with a greater understanding of parliamentary procedure and party politics, we had come to realise that our attitudes and values would be our most important attributes if we are to become successful leaders in the future. 

Of course, all potential leaders must appreciate how to argue – it’s the bread-and-butter of democratic systems. 

On Thursday, this ever-enlightening programme took us to the London Assembly to observe members scrutinising the OPDC on their management of the proposed West London regeneration project around the new HS2 station. Besides an interesting protest during the questions which brought a temporary halt to the proceedings, the questioning of the OPDC appeared to be a great exemplar of how to scrutinise organisations as well as respond ‘politically’ to difficult questions.

After lunch, Dr. Onkar Sohata AM took some time out of his busy schedule to shed some light on the importance of devolution for London, his role of as a health spokesperson for issues surrounding health and scrutinising organisations on behalf of London’s Mayor and bringing forward motions on behalf of his constituents. Yet another inspiring discussion allowed us to realise the importance of our personal attitudes in order to enhance our future career prospects. 

The afternoon continued on the theme of the growing importance of ‘middle government’, as Faiths Forum’s Mustafa Field OBE came along to discuss the increasing shift towards more local forms of governance and ‘localism’ in the Western world. He challenged us to re-assess our perceptions of the supremacy of governance at the scale of the nation-state, and understand the increasing importance of ‘global cities’ in an increasingly globalising world. This has been shown in the increasingly important role which Sadiq Khan is playing on the world stage, and many see this arguable shift from states to cities as requiring a re-evaluation and re-empowerment of local governance. 

Despite a growing sadness in the realisation that this great programme was coming to its end, Friday was as jam-packed as ever with speakers, conversation and activities. Warwick Hawkins kicked off our day by informing us all about the challenges and pitfalls of funding applications and subsequent interviews. Given Warwick’s former experience in the civil service, we also had the chance to ‘pitch our campaign ideas to ministers’ allowing us to appreciate how exactly charities and organisations can work alongside governmental departments.

Although our week so far had focused on potential careers within government and charity organisations, the course shifted direction once again to prompt us to consider a career in the media. Senior Producer of ITV News, Roohi Hasan, treated us to an awe-inspiring and inspirational speech, explaining how her varied career has allowed her to challenge public perceptions by providing a positive voice within the mainstream media. However, her most important advice was most definitely that of being dogmatically persistent in gaining work-experience in your field of interest. If there isn’t a placement – make a nuisance of yourself, show some enthusiasm and chase your own work-experience!

Our amazing programme came to an end with each respective group presenting their own proposed campaigns to the rest of the group, so each of us could scrutinise each other’s campaign proposals. Our proposals covered prescient topics including food waste, loneliness and knife crime. Our campaigns had been carefully crafted throughout the week as we gained knowledge, harboured our skills and arguably developed more positive and enthusiastic mindsets and attitudes. If all of us participants are to take only one lesson from this course, it is that a positive attitude is key if we are to become the successful leaders of tomorrow which many of us aspire to be. It is only with a positive attitude and hard-work ethic that we can start to improve our skills and gain a greater understanding of this vibrant, challenging, diverse and exciting world in which we live.

As much as the speakers have made this week such a fulfilling and enlightening week, it’s only fair to acknowledge the importance we all played in enriching each of our own experiences. In bringing together such a diverse group of genuinely enthused and humble young people, our political, philosophical and faith-based conversations with one another proved to be a rich educational source which ensured this course was such a fulfilling experience for us all.  

Written by Jeevun Rohilla