Elorm Haligah talks to The Gryphon about employment inequality, the importance of volunteering, and being president of Nottingham ACS!
When I manage to pin Elorm Haligah down for a chat, he is just about to begin chairing The Great Debate tour, which he now runs, and has previously been a speaker at. Now in its fifth year, and with 60 dates on its calendar, the 7 week event has been a great success, and is part of a plan to get students, particularly those from minority backgrounds, more into politics.
After studying Politics, he worked on policy issues for various political figures including David Lammy (a Tottenham Labour MP who is now planning to run for London Mayor), and Nottinghamshire’s first black female Mayor, Merlita Bryan. Elorm now heads up the Midlands branch of Elevation Networks, an employability charity. As well as helping young people to find work and internships using their partnerships with firms like Deloitte, Teach First and Escada, Elevation networks offers training and leadership development programmes. They also run a Visible Women campaign to get females into male dominated industries such as science, finance and engineering.
He imparts some wisdom for students looking to improve their job prospects. One thing he’s passionate about is voluntary work. This is not surprising as previously he oversaw the delivery and development of the National Citizen Service across Derby and Nottingham. Elorm says that it is a great way to get young people aged 16 – 17 thinking about ways to improve their communities, and to gain focus and enthusiasm. He says that the projects carried out vary hugely. “I’ve had some people that have renovated old people’s homes. We’ve had some people that have raised money for charity, we’ve had people running a publicity campaign to raise awareness about issues going on in their area. Its attitudes like that that can actually change society.” This links in with the government’s ‘big society’ vision, with which I have some issues.
However, he assures me the benefits are much greater, and this is evidenced through the change he sees in the people he works with. “I came across someone that was on our programme. He was a troublemaker. While he was on the programme, he matured. We all have talents, and we can use them negatively or positively. It was really good to see how he started to channel them and start pushing in a positive direction”.
“You’re not going to damage something that you value”.
So, are the government going to roll out this scheme nationwide? “Eventually, it is the government’s aim to make it compulsory”. Doesn’t the name of the programme and nature of what’s involved allude to negative connotations of punishment and community service? And, is it not just another excuse to engage in ‘responsibilisation’, taking away basic public services unless they are earned through ‘good behaviour’? Elorm’s answer is that the programme is almost a rite of passage, similar to ones seen in other countries which symbolise the beginning of maturity. “In the UK, we don’t have anything like that. Can you think of anything?” I mumble something about proms, (although unfortunately, I never had one). However, can social or cultural rituals of entering adulthood really be conflated with the government’s national service scheme? Elorm points out that it helps young people mature by allowing them to leave home for a couple of weeks, working on their independence.
He says that he understands the issues with it becoming compulsory, but says that it is a shame that “a lot of schools currently don’t recognise it as something that is really valuable.” Although many young people were forced to do it by their parents, by the end of it they felt it was the best thing they had ever done. He notes that the NCS scheme, and volunteering in general, promotes the valuing of your own community, which he feels was lacking during the London riots, for example. “You’re not going to damage something that you value”.
I go on to suggest that not valuing your community might stem from frustration and disengagement with politics, and feeling like your government don’t represent you. “This is a struggle that a lot of young black people have. I ask them; are you interested in politics? Straight away, no. Politics is like a swearword. But when you ask them…do you want a job? Do you care about the fact that your mum’s not well? Do you care about the rubbish on your street? They say yeah, of course. So I say this is all politics. But people don’t make the connection.”
Politics is like a swearword.
The Great Debate Tour, then, is a great platform for helping people to make that connection. It puts students “in the same room as decision makers”. How, though, does this event work towards changing the political environment these newly-inspired people will be entering? How does it get their views to the people who matter? “At a lot of panels, there are elected officials. Students can actually voice their opinions and concerns, and some of these MPs actually say, you know what, we need to take this into consideration”. This year, the tour culminates in a panel event in parliament, so it’s clear that this event allows students to take their views to people with influence. The Great Debate has further plans to launch a report this year, based on the views expressed. He seems keen to make the tour inspire action, as well as discussion.
Elorm also notes the importance of getting involved while at university. He was president of the African-Caribbean Society at Nottingham University, and had a great time doing it. It’s a great way to gain confidence and network, he says. After all, “your network is your net worth”. Often, I suggested, it can seem daunting to put yourself forward for being a society president, but Elorm recommends simply jumping in. “I was very active at university in terms of campaigns for the BME network in general, and involved in a lot of mentoring initiatives as well. This helped me to develop skills that enabled me to work with senior figures. They saw transferable skills and said, you know what, let’s take him on!”
The issue of graduate unemployment comes up, and we discuss, among other things, the fact that a 2012 study showed that UK BME graduates are 60% more likely to still be unemployed 6 months after graduating, and, on average, are required to send out twice as many applications as other candidates before securing a job. I suggest that these statistics make for a pretty bleak outlook. He nods and notes the fact that affirmative action for women and other minority groups is encouraged, but not compulsory. “Racism still exists” he states, sadly. He mentions a study done by the Runnymede Trust. “If you had a surname like mine, you were considerably more likely to be unemployed. They did a test and submitted applications which were completely the same, but with different names, and the [applicants] with the African or Asian surname weren’t invited to interviews.”
“Having said that, if you look at a lot of BME graduates, a lot of them have really good jobs coming out of university. But I think sometimes, especially coming from an African background, there’s a massive emphasis on academics. And that doesn’t always work. It’s really important to diversify your skillset. At the end of the day, an essay doesn’t determine your intelligence [and capability]. That is why volunteering is so important”. And it’s another way to avoid internships which you have to pay for, sometimes as much as £3000.
Finally, he extols the virtues of enterprise. “So many people could turn their passions into business. A lot of business is just a problem that’s been solved”. His final advice is to students is to take every opportunity, work hard, and don’t be afraid to get a job in an area which has nothing to do with your degree.
Before saying goodbye, I ask Elorm what Black history month meant to him, and for a moment he pauses. “I don’t actually see the difference black history month makes” he says, slowly. “A lot of the time, and this is a flaw in the education system, we associate black history with slavery. Black history month shouldn’t be the be all and end all of our education about these issues. There’s so much more. But at the same time, if we focus so much on the triumphs that our ancestors had, and the struggles they may have faced, we kind of forget what’s happening today. History does affect today, but we actually need to look at what is happening now as well and that’s what The Great Debate Tour is about.”
Naomi Anderson Whittaker
Photographs: Great Debate Tour.