Yorkshire’s Ali Continues Fight Against Social Injustice

Dr Mohammed Ali OBE delivering a speech.

 A Yorkshire charity campaigner has vowed to carry on the fight against poverty and inequality following the death of his namesake, Muhammad Ali.

‘He was not just a legendary boxer and one of the most famous sportsmen of all time,’ says QED Foundation chief executive Dr Mohammed Ali OBE. ‘He is also regarded as the greatest because he was a good human being and an excellent role model. I hope that he inspires young people to follow in his footsteps and do more work to advance social justice – the core work of our charity.’

After retiring from the ring, the global icon devoted his energy to humanitarian causes including poverty relief, education and race relations – all themes that have been taken up by QED Foundation.

‘For almost half a century there has not been a month when people have not commented on my name,’ says Dr Ali. ‘This even occurs in European countries where people do not speak English. When I attended school in Bradford in the early seventies, my white friends called me Case after Cassius Clay – Muhammad Ali’s name before he converted to Islam. He has proved an inspiration to me and I hope that he continues to set an example for generations to come.’

In 2013 QED Foundation hosted a retrospective exhibition of artwork charting 70 years of the boxer’s life at Bradford’s Midland Hotel.

The charity delivers education, training, employment and health services to deprived communities, with an emphasis on promoting the economic and social position of disadvantaged ethnic minority groups. It was set up in 1990 to campaign and work with the private, public and voluntary sectors to build a more peaceful and harmonious society, based on equality for all.

Last week Dr Ali called on the European Economic and Social Committee to tackle radicalisation and extremism by helping ethnic minority communities to break out of poverty and raising young people’s aspiration.

He said:

 “What is poverty? That may seem a strange question to ask – surely a poor person is one who hasn’t enough money to pay for food, shelter, clothing and all the everyday comforts that everyone else takes for granted.

But at QED Foundation we have always known that poverty is much more than not being able to pay the bills or put food on the table. It means having no hope, no future, no aspirations. It’s about being stranded on the margins of society, feeling isolated and excluded or unable to contribute to or benefit from public life. And it creates division. Where inequalities persist, we are all poorer as a result.

I set up QED Foundation to help to create a more harmonious and prosperous society, one where opportunities are available to everyone, regardless of his or her ethnic background – but I knew that it would be a tall order. In the UK you don’t just receive a cultural inheritance from your parents – all too often your race or your religion determine your future success too. For example, in Britain 60% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are classed as poor compared to 20% for the general population. Men and women from these backgrounds are more likely to be out of work or earn below the minimum wage and their families suffer the highest levels of child poverty.

We know that education is the key to breaking this vicious circle and that means that any successful approach must focus on the very young. In many British Pakistani and Bangladeshi households English is rarely spoken in the home, resulting in low levels of literacy that put children at a disadvantage throughout their school careers.

QED Foundation was one of the first organisations to highlight the important role that madrassahs or Muslim supplementary schools can play in improving the wider academic performance of their pupils. We have worked with them to extend the range of subjects taught, help children to develop their reading and writing skills and build bridges with mainstream educational establishments.

But as trusted places of learning, madrassahs are also well placed to help young people and their families with choosing career paths. We have also pioneered the provision of individual advice and guidance for disaffected 12- to 16-year-olds who were at risk of not fulfilling their potential and dropping out of further education, employment or training after leaving school. This raised the young people’s aspirations and enabled their families to offer knowledgeable support.

English language training has also been central to our work with new arrivals to the UK. Many of the programmes offered by mainstream providers are too advanced and do not address all the other barriers that prevent immigrants from settling in to their new homes and finding work. We have been funded by the EU to run courses for women that also include support with confidence building, communication skills, personal finance, accessing health, housing and education services, and visits to employers to see the world of work at first hand.

We have also trained English language teachers in Pakistan and run programmes to prepare third country nationals before leaving to join their husbands in the UK. This approach has since been adopted elsewhere in the EU.

QED Foundation has also developed initiatives to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to broaden their horizons instead of following family members into low-paid, dead-end jobs.

Many British ethnic minority communities have traditionally followed a narrow range of career options. Sometimes gifted youngsters are steered towards favoured professions such as medicine or law but in less well-off families there is a tendency for people to drift into low-status sectors of the economy with few opportunities for advancement. For example, only one in 100 people in the UK are employed by taxi firms but that figure rises to one in eight among Pakistani communities while more than 50% of Bangladeshi men work in restaurants.

We tackled this by pioneering community job ‘melas’ or fairs, where people can meet a wide range of employers face-to-face and we have brought together businesses with students from inner-city schools. We also made a series of television programmes promoting non-traditional careers, which were distributed to civil society organisations.

But raising young people’s aspirations is an uphill task when they feel that the opportunities available to them are limited by their ethnic backgrounds. It’s not all bad news – 43% of British Indians work in the highest skilled professions. But while some ethnic minority groups such as the Chinese and east African Asians have raced ahead, others have fared less well.

In the UK more than one in three Bangladeshis and Black Caribbeans work in the lowest skilled jobs. Together with Pakistanis they are also less likely to progress to senior positions at work. And even when ethnic minorities do break in to the professions, they can go only so far. Nearly one in ten civil service staff are not white but at senior levels this falls to one in twenty.

QED Foundation has tackled this by training 800 directors and senior managers from the private, public and third sectors to draw up action plans to recruit, retain and reward ethnic minority staff. We have also helped 350 small and medium-sized companies from across England and Wales to find ways of increasing the diversity of their workforces.

We ran a campaign that resulted in a greater number of south Asians securing senior Civil Service  jobs and we have tapped in to the entrepreneurialism of many ethnic minority communities by offering business development support.

For 25 years education, training and employment have been at the core of QED’s work – but that doesn’t mean that we’re unaware of wider social problems. We also take this approach because we know that bringing people together in the workplace is the best way of helping different communities to get to know and understand each other and to build a peaceful and tolerant society.

Eight million UK citizens come from an ethnic minority background – but they are far from evenly dispersed. In some parts of England and Wales the population is 99% White British. There are many well-off rural areas not far from my home where less than five per cent of people are from an ethnic minority background. In the part of the city of Bradford where I live that rises to 70%. And at the centre – in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country – it is as high as 10%.

There is relatively little we can do about this sort of spatial segregation. To a certain extent, it is down to historical migration patterns. For example, many of the first Pakistani settlers in the UK came to work in the textile mills of northern England, only to be left high and dry when the industry collapsed. Nor can we stop people from settling in areas where they feel comfortable. It’s true that the For Sale boards often seem to start appearing when the proportion of ethnic minority families moving into an area seems to take the original residents out of their comfort zone – but they could be leaving to be near their relatives, to improve their children’s education or countless other reasons.

But even if people don’t mix across cultural divides when they’re at home, they do when they’re at work. That’s one reason why it’s so important that we make sure that everyone has the skills and confidence to make the most of his or her talents – whether that means taking the first steps towards finding a job, developing the courage to defy society’s expectations or believing that an ethnic minority background does not go hand in hand with lack of success.

And tackling poverty by helping people into work is also one of the best weapons we have in the fight against extremism. While we don’t have any evidence that this is caused by migration, we do know that poor prospects, disaffection and radicalisation are inextricably linked.

Over the years QED Foundation has raised and invested £15m in deprived communities, but one organisation can do only so much. We knew from the start that if we were to make a real difference, we had to concentrate on encouraging government and the private, public and civil society sectors to work together to tackle inequality. Over the years we have created more than 100 such partnerships and we are also raising awareness of the needs of the UK’s most disadvantaged groups. For example, we recently set up a forum that enables refugees to discuss the support they need with accessing education, training, employment, housing, healthcare and social care with service providers including councils, schools, colleges and universities.

And what of the future? While the difference in employment rates between the white majority and minority communities in the UK has fallen in recent decades, we have seen that some ethnic groups have been more successful than others. Going forward, QED Foundation will be concentrating its efforts on supporting those communities that have fared less well.

We will also be working to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in senior decision-making roles in the private and public sectors. There has been some progress: London recently became the first European city to elect a Muslim mayor and the UK Parliament is more racially diverse than ever before. But it is clearly still difficult to progress in many walks of life. Look at the UK’s police forces and it seems that the most useful qualification for becoming a senior officer is having white parents.

QED Foundation has now helped more than 30,000 people from ethnic minority backgrounds through education and training – but direct support can go only so far. If we are to make poverty a thing of the past, opportunities have to be open to all. And when people really believe that success does not depend on race or religion, the battle will truly have been won.

Helping people to share in a nation’s prosperity will never come cheap – but it is money well spent. It makes the most of skills and talents that would otherwise be wasted, increases the working population and income tax revenue, reduces benefits payments and helps to create a more cohesive, peaceful society. When we invest in helping individuals to break out of the poverty trap, society becomes richer as a result.”


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