Scholar Spotlight: Nizam Uddin

Nizam Uddin
January 17, 2020

The following interview is part of a series of the European Studies Council’s Spotlight of Scholars in European, Russian or Eurasian Studies.

Nizam Uddin is Senior Head of Mosaic and Community Integration at The Prince’s Trust, where he leads the organization’s social integration and cohesion activities and heads up Mosaic, an initiative founded independently by HRH The Prince of Wales to help young people from disadvantaged Muslim communities and since other isolated communities connect to relatable role models to help improve their chances of fulfilling their potential. Nizam has a strong interest in social mobility for young people and addressing the challenges and obstacles that prevent minority communities from having an equal stake in society and the economy. He has worked for the University of London and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education; was previously the elected President of the University of London Students’ Union; and helped found The Patchwork Foundation. Nizam is currently a Trustee at SOAS University of London, a member of the Mayor of London’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Advisory Group and a School Governor of Mulberry Academy Shoreditch.

Could you tell me a little about what your current work involves?

In the UK, I work for an organization called the Prince’s Trust, which is the UK’s leading youth charity. We help young people live, learn, and earn—that’s our tagline, which basically means we help them into education, employment, and training. We help young people aged 11 to 30 with a suite of programs designed to help them boost their confidence, increase their employability, and essentially help them self-realize and self-actualize.

Within the organization, I am the National Head of Community Integration and Mosaic. I’ll start with the latter. Mosaic was founded 13 years go by Prince Charles with a particular focus on helping young people from very deprived areas, who happen to be in highly concentrated Muslim areas, fulfill their potential through mentoring and the power of relatable role models. Soon after, Mosaic became so much more than helping just one community. The first questions are how do you make sure young people, growing up in areas very similar to New Haven, are connected to people who are relatable to them? How do you help them improve themselves and realize that they can do so much better? Our research showed that there was a massive gap between people’s aspirations and their attainment. How do you close that gap? How do you ensure somebody attains as much as they aspire?

Our theory of change is very much doing that early on. Our programs are primarily in primary and secondary schools, age 16 and below. We connect students to powerful role models who would volunteer their time to go and inspire them over a very structured course of mentoring.

Mosaic was taken over by the Prince’s trust about three years ago. Now my wider job is to ensure that, as a large organization, we are helping every young person and every isolated community that we possibly can. So if there are communities of young people in the country who might need our help, but currently don’t have sight of us, how do we ensure that we can work with them?

In terms of community integration, we are an international organization, but my focus is primarily on the United Kingdom. We work in six parts of the UK: Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and within England we have North, Central, and South. Each region is very autonomous. Our rule is we live above the shop: we have centers across the country and we generally will work above our centers where young people can come and have a safe place where they can do all the things I mentioned earlier. In the regions, we have Heads of Community Engagement who try and build strong links with communities so that we have a softer way of understanding the needs of local communities.

Another thing that I often work on internally is managing a large network of relationships where we maximize the diversity of people volunteering with our organization. We want to make sure we are accessing the right pools of volunteers so that we can maximize relatability. I would also work on issues of policy with the government. For example, we have an integration strategy in the country that focuses on bringing people together.

For example, in Leeds (a Northern town of the UK) you have two sets of communities that we know are quite segregated. You might have the Asian community living in one area and another community of white English young people leading quite separate lives. Now, as an organization, we work across the city. So if we have a program that is about entrepreneurship, then we try to make sure we’re curating our spaces so that it maximizes chances of both communities working with each other, but under the primary objective of entrepreneurship. What we are not is an integration charity. Our primary objective is not to bring people together; it is to help young people live, learn, and earn. And in the process of doing that, if we can maximize the chances of them meeting other communities, that can build stronger and more resilient communities.

Often the people leading initiatives such as the Prince’s Trust don’t necessarily come from disadvantaged backgrounds. How should such initiatives communicate effectively with the people being helped, and ensure that the initiatives are indeed addressing the most pressing needs?

Personally, I’m a minority and I happen to come from the same background of the young people that we are trying to work with. For me, I know how important it is to try and make sure that these journeys are reflected. Without a shadow of a doubt, we have an issue across the higher levels of the charity sector in the UK, in America, and across the world where you don’t have the same levels of diversity reflected in our leadership. And the way you address this issue is through culture. You do these pieces of work and maximize the chances of communities self-actualizing, getting to higher stages of life, prospering, and taking these jobs in the future. I’m confident that’s happening.

In the context of the work that we do, we have the lived experience of communities represented through our regional leadership groups comprised of senior members of the community in question. For example, in Birmingham, we will have a lawyer who happens to be of South Asian descent. We will have a financier who happens to be of a particular community. We maximize the chances of including those perspectives by structurally including those groups in our governance structures. You have to do multiple things at the same time. You have to make sure your culture within the organization is inclusive and your hiring practices are right. When you are putting job advertisements out, you work extra hard to recruit people from other backgrounds, making sure they see the advertisement in the first place. You make sure you are celebrating different cultures and diversity within your workplace. These are all things that my role has broadly enabled me to facilitate within my organization. In terms of programmatic work, you have to work super hard on this. It’s not easy: you’re asking people to give up their time. You have to make sure you’re authentic and that you deliver what you say you’re going to deliver.

All across the country, we have leadership groups emerging from community groups, and we make sure that their voices are at the heart of who we work with, how we do our program design, how we do our community engagement, how we do our delivery, so on and so forth. That broadly enables us to have voices represented that otherwise might not exist in the organization, whilst trying to make sure the organization is getting to a place where it has the voices represented. You’re trying to do both at the same time.

You mentioned that Mosaic helps young people from disadvantaged Muslim communities. In what ways are the obstacles that Muslim young people face different from those of other minority communities?

Prince Charles, in 2007, wanted to understand why this particular group was not fulfilling its potential. Sadly, it was the worst performing faith group in the country by virtue of statistics of school attainment, job prospects, discrimination in the workplace, etc. There was strong statistical grounding for wanting to understand why we want to work with this group. Within four years of developing this organization, it became very clear that when you talk about relatable role models, about people not having the cultural, social capital to navigate life and structures, and about not having the networks, actually, when you take the word “Muslim” or “ethnicity” out, it’s the same issue for White working class communities, for young, Afro-Caribbean communities, for Roman traveler communities.

Actually, Mosaic’s strength is that it was founded to focus on a community. That focus enabled it to build interventions which were designed with a community in mind and to have a better understanding of those challenges and obstacles. That deep understanding is now deployed for lots of other communities.

In life, when you try and address a problem like ethnic minority, you can’t box everyone together. Everyone’s different, right? It’s a true mosaic. If you try and address issues of ethnic minority as a box, you’re going to fail, because what you’re doing is homogenizing a very heterogeneous group. It doesn’t work. I would argue that the power of the founding of Mosaic is that it was founded to focus on a community. Having done that, it suddenly became clear that the programs created were very powerful and useful for lots of other similar communities. So in response to your question, the challenges [faced by the Muslim community and other minorities] are exactly the same. Broadly speaking, I think the challenges include isolation, the perception of isolation, disadvantage, and lack of networks. All of those things combined have the same outcome.

And when you design program interventions to fix those issues, what you have to do is package it then have some context. Not every minority is the same. But structurally, different minorities have very similar problems, and that’s why the Prince’s Trust has been so powerful. It has enabled us to try and understand other communities through that lens. The organization is for every community now, but what we try and do is not homogenize an entire group called minorities.

So now if you take the same program and you put it into a context, it works really well. The key thing I would take from that isn’t the word “Muslim,” it’s a community-focused intervention. The intervention could be for any community, but the design process focused on one community initially, and then it became very apparent that lots of other communities needed the same help.

This is hard work that requires a lot of constant reevaluation. When we talk about reaching as many people as we can in any issue, you’re talking about scale. When you try and scale something by nature it becomes impersonal. And so when you then try and reach lots of other communities, you have to stop making every community into one community. When we say you’re the Head of Community Engagement, you have to appreciate the nuances of lots of communities in your local patch. Community engagement in Norridge will look very different to that in Westminster, even though they’re in the same part of the country.

I know you mentioned many challenges and many different things you need to juggle at the same time. Throughout your work at the Prince’s Trust and Mosaic, have you had moments of doubt, and if so, how did you deal with them?

Let’s start with the positive. The single best thing about my job is that I get to work with young people. I’ll give you an example. This young man called Omar Popal took part in a program called the Enterprise Challenge, which is a schools-based enterprise program. He is from a family of Afghan refugees and grew up in a highly-deprived area of London. We were told by our colleagues on the ground and the teaching staff that he had really benefited from the program. So when we organized an event at his school with the Mayor of London, we chose Omar to interview the Mayor of London. Seeing him on stage, with confidence, interviewing the Mayor of London was incredible.

Then in July this year, we had the honor of selecting the young person who would flip the coin toss for the Wimbledon men’s final. Omar was who we put forward. He went to do the coin toss between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. You see him on television, his family with him. And you see the power. That isn’t going to be every young person, for sure. But the point here is the impact that you see on one young person and on his community: his family, his fellow students… All of whom were empowered, because we’ve shown them that this friend of yours, this student just like you, can do all of this. He has the same background and the same context as you do, and he’s managed to do all of this. That’s the art of the possible. This is your role model. Part of the culture we’re trying to create is look what’s possible. Look what we can create with each other. Omar has done that for his communities. Now they know what’s possible and they’re all super excited. The work we do is constantly inspired by watching our young people prosper, when we make change and when we’re able to shift people’s thinking. It’s the fuel [to keep us going]. It’s so great.

The challenges are constant, working in a country where we’ve had difficult policies around resources for our young people in the country. We have an issue where there’s youth violence and knife crime on the rise. At the heart of what we’re trying to do is trying to get to a place where we invest the right amount of resources to help those young people fulfill their potential. But the entire ecosystem that we work in, sometimes it doesn’t work in our favor and we can’t control it.

So the biggest challenge is when you can’t control something that you know is impacting your work. I can’t control how much money is being put into our schools and how many youth centers exist in the country. When you’re often working in a context where you will have to respond to these bigger changes, you have to decide how you respond and react.

And then the daily challenges. In the context of my work, when you work on social integration, you are working to get people to understand minority voices that by default are not the majority. We need to articulate why minority voices are so important. That can be a challenge, especially when you work in the context of Brexit and EU referendum. You have a situation now where sadly, we have allowed a culture of intolerance to be promoted by some political actors. That doesn’t help because then you have to contest what is the right thing to do, and you’re competing with people who are allowing, frankly, the wrong narratives to be pushed forward to the front. When you work in this highly political and toxic environment, how do you navigate a space where you thought you’re just doing the right thing? Suddenly you have to justify it.

I feel like with charities, people often read about statistics, the end results, but don’t appreciate the individual stories enough. Just hearing about such a personal story like that of Omar makes it really powerful.

Yes, I have countless stories. I’m so lucky that I go up and down the country to work with our young people. There are so many stories that we bring to the fore. There’s a guy called Hezron Brown, and he is incredible: he has just won the Pride of Britain award. He used to be in a gang. For the six to nine months before I came to Yale to take up the fellowship, I was leading on my organization’s work to combat knife crime and youth violence. Hezron was an incredible ambassador for us as somebody who was involved heavily in a gang in a localized area. He was doing all the things that you frankly shouldn’t be doing: he had cuts to his hands; he talked about how he was nearly kidnapped and all kinds of horrific things that were just very normal for him.

He took part in a program to get into acting and then ended up becoming an actor in the Birmingham Rep, a local theater. And that helped him articulate his voice. He understood the power of what he was doing. Now, not only is he completely out of that game, he’s running his own organization, doing inspirational talks, and convincing others not to do the same thing. And that’s what we do: just something as simple as giving him an opportunity to pursue a very simple thing like acting. We use lots of different mediums for people to realize what they can be good at and what is possible for them to do. Now Hezron is flying: he has met the Prince multiple times; he’s having a very good time and you should see his smiles on Instagram. People like Hezron are just so powerful. There are countless stories of people that I know we have been able to help. All we’ve simply done is giving them the opportunity.

The last challenge I want to talk about is when you have to work with colleagues who don’t know what they don’t know. In the context of diversity and inclusion, people generally say things like “that’s a great thing, we should do it,” but then don’t know how to operationalize that. The reason why you can’t operationalize it is that it requires: 1) people who’ve had the lived experience and 2) a genuine commitment to do something about it. That’s always a challenge in any setting, whether it’s the military, telecommunications or social media, or a third sector organization like mine. You will come up against problems where you have well-intentioned colleagues who don’t know what they don’t know. Then the question is how do you want to respond? Either you can be upset and say you should know better and let them do it, or you can say, “I’m going to try and help expose you to a different way of thinking. Did you consider this? Did you consider that?” And that’s taxing. It takes time. So when you work in the space of advancing minority rights or social integration like I do, this is a very regular conversation and you can get quite tired.

You work both in social integration and in higher education. Those seem like very different roles—you’re helping people who lack higher education as well as those who have access. How do those two roles relate to each other for you?

For me, they connect seamlessly. I’m a massive advocate of opportunity. I have a background in quality assurance, which is how you ensure accreditation of the university system sector. I sit on the board of SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), part of the  University of London. And I do this for a very intentional reason. SOAS is a gateway to the world. It’s also a brilliant university that promotes and advocates access to higher education for people from nontraditional backgrounds. My role within higher education is one of an enabling one. I really fundamentally believe that higher education should be for everybody. Not everyone has to do it, but everyone should have the chance to do it.

So the thing that goes through all of my work, whether it’s social integration, work with the Prince’s Trust, or higher education, is the opportunity for people to access [higher education]. I think fundamentally, if you are able to gain from the exposure to these spaces, you’re going to benefit. What I don’t like and what I want to fight every single day is when we put challenges and obstacles in front of people to benefit from them. And so that’s what I do. I dismantle those barriers. Working within these institutions, it’s all the same goal and part of the same journey. The higher education work is an extension of my work with the youth.

There’s a piece here that hasn’t been mentioned: I was part of a team that founded the Patchwork Foundation in the UK. It is a leading organization in the country that helps underrepresented voices get into British democracy and into the political process. I don’t care what viewpoints they have, whether they’re conservative or liberal or whatever. I would love for diversity of thought in every place that we have, and I think that would make for a better society. This at the heart of my personal mission. It allows me to do that through my job, through my positions in higher education, and my positions in other boards I sit on.

Coming back to your fellowship at Yale, what led you to apply to the World Fellows program and what has your experience been like?

The World Fellows Program is really fascinating. It’s a program that is designed as a leadership program, so you’re actually able to leave your organization at home. You don’t apply because it’s the Prince’s Trust; you’re applying as Nizam. As someone who comes from a nontraditional background, I have worked very hard, probably for too long. And I had come to a crossroads where I was doing these amazing things and I loved doing them, but I wanted to take a moment to reflect, to take stock of where I was, to appreciate what I have achieved.

There’s a saying: if you want to get something done, you give it to a busy person. That’s something that often happens. I’m given a lot of things to do because I’m just busy doing them. So you churn them out super quickly and you sometimes stop appreciating why you might be doing something. You do it because you know you can.

The fellowship was an opportunity for me to appreciate what I had achieved, connect to some incredible human beings from around the world, learn from them, impart any wisdom I may have accumulated over my time, and feel refreshed. I could have a reset button in terms of where else I can now make a bigger impact in the world. As you can see from the events I’ve organized at Yale, I’m really interested in what the world in the UK looks like post Brexit. I feel like Brexit has divided the country in a truly terrible way, and I would love to try and explore some solutions to fix that, which is at the heart of what I stand for in terms of harmony and social integration.

Then on a really personal piece, I’ve just really enjoyed being in one place. I think my work and the various commitments I have force me to be in multiple places at the same time on a very regular basis. Pausing that for five months, being in one small place like New Haven, where you can walk everywhere within 30 minutes, has been very restorative.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some incredible students, staff, faculty, and World Fellows. I’ll keep those conversations forever and take them with me. And I have a new tribe of changemakers with whom I know I can make the world a better place.

What are your plans after leaving Yale and what are your visions for the Prince’s Trust?

I think we are a unique organization that has a unique opportunity to do amazing work with young people. We have global ambitions. Step one is to be the best we can be in the UK. We still have a way to go. We have commitments to reach a million young people in 10 years. And when you grow big, you want to make sure the quality doesn’t ever diminish. If we can get that model right, which we’ve done so far, if we have a really strong commitment to quality of intervention per young person and then take that across the world, that would be incredible.

Mosaic’s role within that is crucial. We’re moving into a world where we are challenged around the globalization agenda and identity. We’re seeing a rise of nationalism and liberal democracies being challenged. The role of Mosaic within an organization like the Prince’s Trust becomes crucial because what we try and do is ensure the smaller voices are at the heart of a large organization. Practically speaking, we have the ability to engage those communities in a meaningful and authentic way. I think being meaningful and authentic is very important here. You don’t want to do a tick box exercise of “oh yeah, we worked with that community.” In that sense, the two [Mosaic and the Prince’s Trust] go hand in hand, and I think we’ll have a bigger role to play.

If we can do it perfectly in the UK, we then take that abroad and we do that across our sister organizations in Australia, Canada, and internationally across Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. We have a good global presence. I think the impact of our organization is huge.

Personally, I have three rules in life: 1) I like to develop and grow on a personal level; 2) I want to make sure that the privileges and opportunities I’ve been given enable me to make a big impact locally and globally. I don’t want to waste my time and my resources I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to; and 3) have fun. As long as those three things are being covered, I don’t mind where I go or where I am. For now, I’m very happy working with the Prince’s Trust. We’ll see what happens next. As long as I keep those three things moving along, I’ll be a very happy bunny.

Interviewed by Yilin Chen, Timothy Dwight College, Class of 2023.