A few months ago I started a series of instagram posts about my experience of returning to the world of work having taken a number of years off to bring up my two children. I spoke and wrote about some of the challenges I faced and how I worked through them. I have written and deleted many blog posts about my journey, because in all honesty the route I chose has been a complex one, and to find the words to describe my self-paved ‘return to work’ path has not been easy.
During this time a friend got in touch and told me about a programme called Common Purpose Pakistani Diaspora Leaders, a development course that aims to inspire and equip emerging leaders to work together across boundaries. The aim of the programme is to enable participants to solve complex problems in organisations and society. As someone who has been involved in public policy since I graduated I felt that it might be something useful for me, but I was at a bit hesitant to apply given my recent lack of connection with Pakistan. I also wondered how someone who’d worked specifically in central and local government might be able to contribute on a level that affects both the diaspora in the UK, Pakistan, and beyond. I thought about whether doing a development course within a particular ethnic niche might limit my own potential and ability to network with a wide range of stakeholders. But the lack of other leadership courses on offer for someone with my background (and dare I say it, ethnicity and gender) made me wonder whether I should apply for this course. I decided to speak to the organiser and we talked about the aim of the programme as well as my skills set and how these might benefit the group. It wasn’t until we started talking that I realised that I might have quite a lot to contribute using the knowledge I had around strategy development, policy implementation, and funding, all of which were transferable skills. I applied and got through, attending the course this week.
Over the next four days I was immersed into a unique and unconventional environment with thirty-nine other people, from all walks of life at the Aga Khan University. Course participants ranged from entrepreneurs, to bankers, academics to clinicians, to name a just a few; emerging leaders brought together to answer one challenge:
“How can diaspora leaders use their skills, talents and networks to benefit Pakistan and the diaspora community?”
Before starting the course we were asked to conduct a series of interviews from a range of people to get a sense of what the challenge meant to them. I interviewed three people; someone working for a number of decades on a grassroots level in the British Muslim community, a former alumni from the Common Purpose programme, and a professional person working and living in Pakistan. For some, it was about taking specific skill sets in the UK back to Pakistan and helping to make a difference at a local level, being an international change-maker. For others it was about strengthening the role of British Pakistanis in the UK, and ensuring they are able to access a wide range of networks in order to help inspire and influence the diaspora in this country. Another thought was around thinking about the coherence between materialism and spiritualism within Pakistan itself before making change. For me, it was a little bit of all these approaches. I was keen to understand this challenge from the perspective of my counterparts, but I also wanted to know how I could personally contribute to it at a practical level.
Over a period of four days we thought, spoke, engaged, challenged, helped, and stretched one another in a way that I can safely say I haven’t done since leaving university. We were asked to create a physical prototype to address the challenge that would be presented to a panel of judges on the final day. I would leave the course every day buzzing with ideas, brain overloading with thoughts. My children and husband said they felt they hadn’t seen me. My evenings were a bit of a blur, and my routine was simply – dinner, pray, and bed. It was both fascinating and exhausting.
What struck me most over the last few days was how differently we all worked, based on the industries we came from. As someone who has been a Civil Servant for most of my life my approach to work is very much process driven, and even the most radical programmes I’ve worked on have been within the boundaries of a specific policy framework. This has been helpful to an extent, as I am able to express myself with a certain degree of logic (I hope!) But as with all processes, it also has it’s limitations. When I moved into local government a couple of years ago I came at a time of austerity, a time of central government funding cuts, restrictions on grants, and now with the most recent, the potential end to European Social Funding. I have entered at a time where local government has had to think creatively about funding sources, and where finances have been reduced to the bare minimum. It has been challenging, but it is also an experience that has opened the door to innovation.
The last four days has helped to give me the space to stop and think. I think we are all guilty of losing sight of our skills and competencies at some point or another, and interestingly, the programme helped me to recognise my own strengths. One in particular has been around helping people to think about how to access funding. From the small sample of people I met through Common Purpose I realised that many people are actually looking for support in this area, and not having the skill to even articulate a clear story for their project can often hinder people from getting their ideas off the ground.
On the final day we presented our ideas to the group and judges, and received some excellent feedback, something we would probably not have been able to get in the ‘real world’ without losing money or our mind! It was a constructive environment, which helped us challenge our beliefs, perceptions, and more specifically, our proposals.
All in all, this week taught me that I have quite possibly, until now, underestimated my own skill set. The course helped me stretch my creative thinking skills, and it also shone the light on a network of incredible individuals who are working hard to make change, and helped me see where I fit in. The key now will be to see how far this momentum goes.