Then One Day: United by One Voice

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In this episode, we hear from an organisation that is changing the aspirations and mental health of their local young people...One Voice at a time. One Voice Blackburn was set up in 2011 by a group of locals who wanted to inspire their young people to believe in themselves and value their local community through activities, events, support and charitable campaigns.

Read the transcript

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

When I came here, obviously having the language barrier was a huge setback. I was like, “Am I going to fit in? Are they going to understand me? Are they going to accept me?”; that type of thing. So, let’s just say I was quite timid, shy, not wanting to like associate myself with anyone. I was kind of like the quiet one.

 

Veronica Gordon

You’re listening to “Then One Day”. I’m Veronica Gordon. This is a series all about giving the mic to people in businesses who are making a change in their local community. And today’s story is about a business that supports our mission of championing local voices. We’re heading to Blackburn to learn how an organisation is changing the aspirations and mental health of their local young people – one voice at a time.

Ayah, who you just heard, first came to One Voice Blackburn when she was just 11. Like so many other members, Ayah joined because she wanted to find a sense of community to help her settle into her new hometown.

 

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

So, I came to Blackburn, I think in September 2014, I think. I used to live in UAE, which is United Arab Emirates. So, I had left and came to Blackburn as an asylum seeker, going through the whole asylum-seeking process. So, I started year 7 here, and I’m now in year 13. And I’m now a refugee as well. So yeah, it’s been quite a long journey.

 

Veronica Gordon

Although the organisation is called One Voice, there are actually many, many voices that contribute to everything they do. From the 4,000 members they interact with each year to the 100-strong volunteer force, here’s a few from their promotional videos.

 

Guest 1, One Voice Blackburn 

I came in the UK with my family, my father. We came from East Africa, Uganda. We were the refugees of 1972 when we were kicked out of Uganda. We came here to the RF Greenham Common camp. From there we moved to Guilford, Bolton, and settled in Blackburn.

 

Guest 2, One Voice Blackburn 

I was nine years old when we first launched. I’m a beneficiary of One Voice. I’m a cricket coach, I am part of the West End girls. I take part in leadership projects, and I mentor young people. I am One Voice; we are One Voice; join us. One Voice Blackburn.

 

Guest 3, One Voice Blackburn 

We’re getting something for what we’re doing. So like we’re giving but then we’re getting back as well. It’s really interactive, you know. We don’t have teachers telling us what to do all the time. It’s really fun, really engaging. You make loads of new friends. And the main thing is we have a really good time.

 

Veronica Gordon

I wanted to meet the people behind One Voice personally, because I do a lot of voluntary work which is dedicated to uplifting marginalised communities in my hometown. And I would love to get some tips on how I can do that even better. So, I arranged to have a chat with One Voice’s CEO, Zaffer Khan.

I’ve never been to Blackburn before, and I know very little about it. What is it like growing up in Blackburn?

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

Blackburn is very aspirational at this moment in time. The two best state schools in the country are in Blackburn. So, it’s very different to when I was growing up as somebody from the South Asian heritage community, who a lot of people didn’t really have a huge amount of expectations in our community. That’s actually changed now. There is quite a lot of aspiration. Having said that, within those communities, there’s still a huge amount of poverty. There are things like overcrowding in houses. The health inequalities are stark for the South Asian heritage community, which has been demonstrated by COVID. There’s still quite a lot of unemployment within elements of that community. But still with the young people, there remains that aspirational element. And that’s what we do as an organisation is take those young people and older people out of their surroundings and into the mainstream, but also try to match those aspirations to something more tangible.

 

Veronica Gordon

While Zaffer was a local, he’d actually managed to forge a career outside of Blackburn, starting out as a journalist, and eventually moving into a high-flying role in advertising. He was doing well, but something was missing.

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

When you hit a target in advertising, you’ve got another target to hit the week after or the month after or the year after, so you’re almost setting yourself these individual goals. When you work with a young person or somebody from a female background in our community and they’re develop into something that they’re really pleased about, you’ve got that success story for the rest of your life potentially because that individual will remember you. People often say, “Oh, my teacher changed my life” and all those sorts of things. And you know, I’m sure you and I will have teachers that probably did change our lives. But you just think that it’s really corny and cliched. You know, that doesn’t really happen in the real world. It’s all about how much money you make and what car you drive, what house you have, and how many holidays you go to. Clearly, as you get a bit older, you realise that those are actually not that important. But if you develop a child, or help a child or young person, or somebody from a deprived background or a socially isolated background, you turn their story around. I cannot describe that feeling to you because you’re changing not only one person’s life, you’re changing their family, their future families. You as an organisation have been the pivot to do that. So, when you make money, yes, you can hit a target. It’s great for the organisation; it’s great for you personally. But what have you actually done? You know, don’t get me wrong, we’ve probably created some great advertising campaigns. But we’ve probably not helped individuals really achieve their goals. So, I think it’s incomparable; absolutely incomparable.

 

Veronica Gordon

Determined to work with his community and ready to make a real difference, Zaffer joined a team of locals who were launching a brand new community initiative.

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

So, One Voice Blackburn was launched in 2011. And a number of my friends, my associates, informed me that they wanted to launch an aspirational organisation to support people from specifically the South Asian heritage and the Arab communities in our local town. At the time, I couldn’t really join them because I had a bit of a health issue. But I kept in touch with the main protagonists in terms of when the organisation was launched, and about a year and a half later, I was approached by the then chair, to help out in the organisation; and I wanted to help out. And that’s how we really started. Late 2012, early 2013 is when I got actively involved in One Voice, initially doing the marketing and the PR side of things, and then moving onto various different roles.

 

Veronica Gordon

And so, with One Voice working predominantly with the South Asian and Arab communities, the original founders…is that their ethnicities or did they openly choose and say this is the group we want to work with?

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

One Voice is effectively open for all, but by the nature of the areas that we work in, it is going to be South Asian heritage initially. So, the South Asian heritage population in the last census was about 27%. In some of the areas that we work in, it’s about 95%. What we realised in the last 10 years is that the Arab asylum-seeking communities have settled in our town, and they too see the need of our service. But if we got lots of white working-class communities joining us as members, we would then serve them as well. So, we’re inclusive to all. There’s a lot of work that we do on things like social integration and cohesion, which supports that. But we are effectively from those communities that we serve. And it’s our people that we serve, our members, who pretty much shape the offer that we give. So, that may change again in the next four or five years.

 

Veronica Gordon

Ayah is one of the people who came to One Voice from the asylum-seeking community that Zaffer mentions. When she first arrived, it was a total culture shock for her.

 

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

Oh, the biggest difference was culture and language. So, like culture, obviously back home, most of the people speak Arabic. I used to speak Arabic very well; my English was kind of limited. It was only limited to just like my education, like maybe grammar, comprehension, that type of thing. You know, I had a lot of Arab friends. And I was just surrounded around our people most of the time because UAE is mainly Arab dominant. So, when I came here, it was quite a shock. I met a lot of Asian people. That was quite a surprise. Obviously, I met a lot of British people. I met even some Chinese people. And it was quite a shock because a lot of them spoke English. Obviously, some speak Urdu, Punjabi. And I was like, does anyone here speak Arabic? And they’re like, “No, we don’t speak Arabic”. So, I kind of like was like, “Ok. Now I need to learn the language”. Because my English was very limited when I came, but then obviously, throughout the years, I’ve kind of expanded my vocabulary in a sense. And yeah, I kind of learned to get used to the culture. So maybe like, what is the UK’s favourite TV show to watch? Because it’s very different from where we live, any type of traditions. So, like back home, you know how there’s Christmas and Easter holidays and half terms and mid-terms, we didn’t have that. We had like a one-day holiday type of thing. I was just a bit like, oh, like what do I do. But then I kind of, you know, accumulated to the conditions.

 

Veronica Gordon

Joining One Voice wasn’t just about finding friends and filling her spare time; it was the place where she was able to make roots and adapt to a new set of values. And that value sharing is a key component for Zaffer.

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

We’ve had various strategies. We have our values, which are warm, passionate, engaging, inclusive, and we expect all of our people involved with us to have at least some of those characteristics, because that’s our values. But we’ve changed. So, our mission statement now has changed slightly. So, it’s now “One Voice seeks to improve the social economic wellbeing of some of the most deprived BAME communities in Blackburn and Darwen” through programmes aimed at improving the physical and mental health of residents of the borough, alongside a strong programme of activities which instill leadership skills and abilities amongst both young people and women, especially giving them the opportunity to thrive and flourish.

 

Veronica Gordon

So, what types of activities do you do at One Voice?

 

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

Yeah, so there are events; we do litter picking; we help out others; we raise awareness on quite a lot of things. Two of the ones that I can remember are mental health and dementia. We hold summer clubs as well. I actually led some myself; I’ve led a few events myself. We even do careers fairs. So, like there’s a lot of things that they do. They do netball; they do hockey. So yeah, it’s a very versatile organisation. It’s not like it meets one person’s needs; it meets quite a lot of people’s needs, if that makes sense.

 

Veronica Gordon

One Voice manages to pull off all these incredible things, with the help of 14 staff members and up to 100 volunteers.

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

When we first started as an organisation, we had a bit of a motto. It was, you know, either give us your money or give us your time. And quite often giving money is the easy bit. Giving time is a lot tougher. So, where our advantage comes is we’ve got a number of individuals who are part of our organisation – some paid, some not – was the intelligence that they give us. Whether it’s intelligence from an accounts point of view, from a governance point of view, from a youth work point of view. What they give to the organisation quite often money can’t buy. You know, we were in that sort of a unique position that people understand what we do and want to give up their time to develop that. And that’s one of the reasons why a few years ago, we won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, for the level of volunteering we have as an organisation and the sort of things that we do as an organisation. And we’re very fortunate with the people that we have. We also then have individuals who have benefited, so young people who’ve worked with us, benefited, and then come back to us and say, is there anything I can do to support the organisation that did so much for me?

 

Veronica Gordon

That’s really nice. And that’s kind of a testament of an organisation when young people who it served, give their time and serve the organisation as well. So that sounds…that’s really good that you capture them in that way. So, you’re all about creating opportunities for people; how do you balance charging for your services with making One Voice accessible to the communities you work with?

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

So that element is something that we work on almost on a monthly basis to ensure where possible we have…and that’s one of the reasons why we want to change to a charity, so we get more scope for grant funding, which we will then subsidise that cost. We also have a feeling as well that we should always have some level of charge for our services because we get greater value for it. I think if something’s given out free, you don’t value it. The key thing is making sure that the prices we charge are clearly affordable to our members. We are absolutely inclusive, so our charges reflect what people can afford. But what I mean by pay for our services. Frankly, if we are running a netball club, which we do, our charges are way lower than any other netball club regionally and it has to be.

 

Veronica Gordon 

That really struck a chord with me. For my own social enterprise, I provide some services to my beneficiaries for free, because I want them to have it and I kind of don’t feel right charging them for it. However, I agree with Zaffer’s point that while you need to make it affordable, it’s also important to maintain a sense of value on what you’re offering. Because what they’re doing is valuable. You only have to talk to someone like Ayah to realise that. So, what are your hopes for the future now?

 

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

So, I’m in year 13. So, it’s usually the year where people apply for universities or apprenticeships. I’ve applied to universities. I’ve gotten a few rejections; I’ve gotten a few responses. I’m just waiting now for a few months until I receive an offer hopefully. And if I get an offer, I will hopefully get into university; or if not, I might take a gap year.

 

Veronica Gordon 

And what do you want to study?

 

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

Hopefully something in the medical field. But if not, just something scientific – so like, maybe bio med or radiology maybe.

 

Veronica Gordon   

So, if there was another young person like you, you before One Voice, what message would you give to that young person?

 

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

Oh, the first thing that I’d tell them is listen, when you come in, you’re going to come out being a whole different person. And you know, I’m going to tell them that you’re going to expect to meet a lot of new people. If it’s someone who’s shy maybe, like that barrier has to be broken. And I’d just tell them that, you know, experiences like joining One Voice will really help you in the real world. It certainly did with mine. When I got my part-time job, that was after I’d gone into One Voice. And learning the skills from One Voice had already helped me in kind of improving myself as a person. In my part-time job, I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve already done this before. This is like second nature to me now.”

 

Veronica Gordon    

So, give me a few examples of success stories with some of the people you’ve been working with.

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

So, one of the young people that we worked with from the age of 13/14 came from one of the poorest wards in Blackburn, one of the poorest wards in the whole country. Last year, he completed his degree at the London School of Economics and landed a job with JP Morgan. He was due to go to New York to do his training, but he couldn’t because of COVID. I mean, that’s great even in itself. But what he’s now done is developed a strategy, called the senate programme, to help other young people from the age of 11 to succeed in life. And what I mean by succeed in life, it’s not about passing exams, but it’s a programme of almost 10 years to get them where they need to be at 21. So, he’s developed a programme that he’s now delivering digitally to parents and young people, despite the fact that he’s just landed a job at JP Morgan. So that’s one of our big success stories because he started with us. He’s worked with us. He’s achieved what he needs to achieve. But now he’s giving something back, which is so good. So. he’s done it; there’s potential that he can create in the 10/20/30 other young people similar to himself, which is phenomenal.

 

Veronica Gordon    

It is so exciting to hear about the opportunities that are ahead of these young people. But while it’s incredible that individuals are succeeding, this is really a story about the cyclical nature of community support. One Voice was set up by locals who wanted to give back. So, I asked Zaffer what kind of legacy he’s hoping to leave behind.

 

Zaffer Khan, One Voice Blackburn 

I think the legacy for us is that we shouldn’t be doing this in five or 10 years. I’m in my late 40s. I’d love to do this for the rest of my life, but we want to leave it to the next generation to carry it forward. So, you know, this isn’t about empire building for us. This is about making sure that we’ve got those plans in place, the succession plans in place, for other people to take this and make it better and improve the organisation.

 

Veronica Gordon 

So, I spoke to Zaffer earlier and he talks about One Voice. He would like, say, the next generation to take over One Voice. So, is that something you’d be interested in, remaining part of One Voice as you get older?

 

Ayah, One Voice Blackburn 

Oh, 100%. They’ve provided so much to me. I am so thankful for them. Without them, I don’t even think that I’d be the type of person that I am today. I’d still be the type of person that would be shy and just, you know, not initiate a conversation maybe. They helped me develop a lot. So, a few years down the line, I’d 100% come back and serve back to my community in a sense. It’s like, “Oh, this is what you gave me 10 years ago. Here’s me giving it back to you.”

 

Veronica Gordon   

One Voice seems to do so many different things that it’s hard to pin down exactly what their business offer is. And that’s significant, because in ordinary business terms, one of the first things people say is that you need to be really clear about what you’re selling. But for this business, it’s all about fulfilling as many of their members needs as possible. And that results in a very diverse business model.

There’s something powerful in how they’re not taking a one size fits all approach. Instead, they review their mission and services constantly, to make sure they’re always achieving their goal of creating one cohesive community through empowering each and every member individually.

I came to this story as someone who is invested in a very similar mission, and I’m left feeling invigorated. Talking to Ayah makes me optimistic about our future leaders. And with organisations like One Voice nurturing our young people into community conscious adults, I know our country will be in safe hands.

Thanks to Power to Change who brought you this podcast and to Pixiu for producing. I would love to hear what you think about the stories we featured on Then One Day, so please leave us a rating and review. We’ll be back in two weeks’ time when we’ll be joined again by Hannah Sloggett from Nudge Community Builders for a special bonus episode, where she’ll be giving us her top tips on how to buy community assets. But until then, from me, Veronica Gordon, thank you for listening.