To celebrate this year's Black History Month, Jaskirat Mann, Senior Key Worker for our Building Futures programme, describes her story and her work at Adviza as a member of an ethnic community.

AdvizaI don’t feel we should need to set aside a particular time to raise awareness of the experiences of black and ethnic minority communities. But Black History Month is important for me nonetheless, because it’s a time to reflect on my family’s experience as ethnic minorities when they came to the UK, and a reminder that Adviza is here to help those who face similar challenges.

Coming to England

I was born in Hertfordshire, a third-generation Sikh from the Punjabi community. My mum, one of seven siblings, came to the UK in 1976 and was followed by my grandad. Neither spoke English and were entering a land whose culture, food, music, sounds and smells were alien.

There was little stability in the Punjab and they came to the UK looking for employment. My mum found work and worked tirelessly to bring her family over to the country for opportunities. It was hard living with eight people in a terraced house in the late 1970s, sharing a bedroom with her siblings, one bedroom sleeping six people. My grandad found life in the United Kingdom hard to adjust to so at twenty years of age my mum was single-handedly looking after the family and working.

Life was tough. My grandad, conspicuously ethnic, faced abuse from right-wing factions including some local Teddy Boys, a prolific subculture at the time.

My father joined our family in the UK and married my mother here, and I was born in 1981. Conditions didn’t change much for a while; my parents were living in the same cramped home with a new-born baby, and the years that followed saw them move between council houses in Letchworth Garden City and Scunthorpe. We eventually bought our own property, and while the younger generations have spread across the country, many of the early settlers in our family still live close by, reflecting the importance of community to Sikhs.

Recognising my difference

I recall being five and, living in predominantly-white Letchworth, being unaware of the colour of my skin. The first time any notion of my “difference” occurred to me was two years later, in a Humanities lesson at school when we were shown pictures of Mary McLeod Bethune alongside her quote, “Believe in yourself, learn, and never stop wanting to build a better world”.

It was clear from the context of the lesson that this quote was aimed at people like me. However, I was unsure what ‘people like me’ were. Seven years old, I put my hand up and asked my white, middle-class teacher why. Why did I need to believe in myself and want to never stop learning any more than anybody else did? Her discomfort created a disquiet in me. I started to feel different, to suspect that what applied to everyone else did not apply to me. Back at home that night I asked my mum the same question. I got the strong impression that I should not step outside the strictures of my Punjabi community.

My dad, though, was keen for me to accept no limits and believed education was the key to escaping them. My parents’ conflicting viewpoints created some tension and I recognised that I was hungry to explore ideas of race and identity for myself. I had a lot of questions and started visiting the local library where I read more about Bethune, who was many things including a US educator, philanthropist, civil rights activist and stateswoman.

Learning: the key to opportunity

As a poor black child in Sumter County, Mary McLeod Bethune accompanied her mother as she made deliveries. One such visit led to a pivotal encounter when, at a nursery, she picked up a book, only to have it snatched from her by a white child who assumed she could not read. She realised the only difference between her and white children was their ability to read and write. This inspired her to learn. I was inspired in turn by Bethune’s story and knew I could never be mediocre or accept limits placed on me. If It meant I had to work harder, so be it. I would grab any opportunity that came my way.

Still today, ethnic communities can be excluded from opportunities for many reasons. The poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou inspired a passion in me for not taking things lying down, to challenge social injustice, be a voice to others and help people to be all that they can be.

Finding my calling at Adviza

Throughout my education and early career I searched for a vocation where I can make a difference by helping people like me to find better opportunities to progress in life. My search was a bit aimless for a while, and it was only when I studied a degree in Criminal Justice that I began to recognise that there were organisations out there with a mission to have a positive impact on people’s chances in life, including those from ethnic minorities.

When I joined Adviza in 2014 I felt like I’d found an organisation whose ethos and principles matched my outlook and my identity as a member of an ethnic community. Here I could be both a Punjabi Sikh and a driven career woman, and at the same time help to reach out to communities, giving advice about careers and education. It’s important and rewarding work.

Reaching young people

Some of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had at Adviza have come from working with young offenders. We get to help young people to change the course of their lives, and there have been many occasions when, in the line of work, I’ve recalled those inspiring words from Mary McLeod Bethune.

Aside from being a great and useful service for schools, Careers Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) can also be the engine that helps young people to channel their energy productively. I have no doubt that for some, our Careers IAG service acts as a preventative against a life of crime; we get to drill down into barriers and preconceptions and change young people’s ideas about themselves and their own chances in life. Sometimes it just requires an empathetic ear.

Building Futures

I started working with adults when I joined Adviza’s outstanding Building Futures project in March 2021 as its Senior Keyworker. I had little project experience and wasn’t sure whether I could coach, mediate and help to inspire adults. But whether you’re twelve, forty or sixty, people who face barriers in their education and careers can all be helped, and what we do starts with motivating and building confidence in people. Whatever your background and whatever barriers you face, our work removes those barriers to progression.

In our Positive Steps programme, One Step Ahead project and Employment FM project, the aim is to facilitate wellness and wellbeing for participants in addition to providing employability support and a step onto a career ladder. These projects create a safe environment and a wraparound service that is the first step to a better life for individuals.

Many of these individuals have social anxiety; many face language barriers or are socially excluded due to their ethnicity. Our job begins with making them feel safe and heard. Time and time again I’ve seen Building Futures help participants find work, conduct job searches and assist participants to have conversations with employers they wouldn’t have dreamed of having a few months before.

Full circle

Every project, programme and service Adviza delivers is about individual stories. Some of the people we support are like my mother or my grandparents, who could have thrived more easily with Adviza’s help, had the charity existed at the time!

Now I have my own team of key workers in Building Futures at Adviza, and we talk about Black History Month. We talk about how important it is that we work hard to reach ethnic communities because there are many excluded individuals within them whom we can bring closer to the employment market. We need to better understand people who aren’t like us. We can’t make assumptions about them. We need to question everything, and I’m grateful to my inquisitive seven-year-old self who wouldn’t take no for an answer, for introducing me to that mindset.

I now serve as an Adviza staff trustee and want to help to ensure we reach even more ethnic minority communities in the future. A diverse workforce will certainly help us to do that, as will our new commitment on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion to be “Shining a light …Keeping it lit”.

Perhaps you can join us.

 

Read the other blogs in this series:

What Black History Month means to me: Linda Gilleard 
What Black History Month means to me: Monique Smith