It’s been a year since…

So I left working at the university almost a year ago and started the consultancy work within a month of leaving. It doesn’t feel like a whole year but a lot has changed so i’m taking a moment to look back and look forward.

I’ve learned more about myself than I could have imagined in the last year, good and bad. It’s important to check in with yourself and so today I gave myself time to pause and reflect on some of the things I have learned.

[1] My faith is everything. Without truly understanding and believing in Tawakkal (trusting in God’s plan), and without an awareness of what it means to have peace, I don’t think I would have had the courage to make the move. As a person of faith I believe in discernment and it’s hard to explain but in the last few months at the university, I had a constant feeling of uneasiness. I saw bullying and management deliberately turning a blind eye, I saw blatant dismissal of student’s experience of racism and Islamophobia, I saw colleague after colleague go off on long-term sick. I would come home with a heavy heart and find myself at work tearful. I lost my appetite and had digestive problems, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t focus during my prayers. I felt guilty standing before Allah every time I prayed because I knew it was my choice to stay there, and that I would be judged for the harm I was putting my body through. As Muslims we believe that our bodies are an Amaanah (something that is entrusted to us) that must be honoured, and I knew that I could not truly say I was a person of faith whilst CHOOSING to stay in an environment that was unjust to me and those around me, an environment that was physically taking a toll on my body. Once I acknowledge this, the decision to leave was made.

[2] I AM a scholar. I was working in an institution where I felt my knowledge was treated as only lived experience. Where people who did not even know of my work would call on me for ‘expertise’ in race issues. The ‘Dr’, the ‘PhD’ title were regularly highlighted by colleagues but superficially (counting the number of ‘PhD’ holders or identifying people that could be ‘REFable’). Over time I found myself devaluing the weight of the work I had done to achieve my doctorate and all the work I continued to do since. It was more than imposter syndrome, I couldn’t see where my scholarship ‘fit’ in the academic space, or if what I had been working on could even be considered scholarship. Being actively blocked from writing made it even harder and towards the end I gave up fighting for opportunities to do research; resigning myself to the fact that all that was required of me was to talk about racism and I would be fine. When I left the academy and had to stand alone, I had to define my work. I had to be clear about what I could offer and what I could contribute. I reconnected with my scholarship, refined my specialism and carved a space for myself. My lived experience would always form part of my scholarship, but I finally was able to see it as an added strength. I found my voice.

[3] There is strength in community. One of my biggest concerns about setting up a consultancy was working on my own. I have always created with communities, worked in teams and collaborated so the thought of having to start something from scratch on my own was terrifying. I’m grateful that for the first couple of months my clients were colleagues/organisations I had worked with before but even then, stepping in with just me was strange. I knew that for the time being the training and development work would need to be just me in order to establish the company identity, but I was also acutely aware of how limited my knowledge of business and consultancy was. Without the networks of support I had around me during the first 6 months in particular, I would have really struggled to get the business off the ground. I had to pay this support forward and so created networks of consultants (new and established) to provide ongoing peer support, and created a talent pool of PoC experts in web design, marketing, finance, and consumer psychology to call upon for work and to signpost to others. I continue to create communities. I found strength in my ability to bring people together. I have been raised to know that ‘it takes a village’ and so I give thanks to my nomadic Somali roots for ingraining this wisdom in me.

[4] Money Matters. I had an awful relationship with money and can probably write a whole other post about this. As a child of refugee parents my relationship with money underpinned all my worries about security and responsibility. I have never been afraid of poverty, i’ve experienced it and have the resilience to know I can survive. My worry was not about survival. I grew up having two financial goals (1) to never be dependent on state support (benefits) if have the ability to work and (2) to give my parents and family a better life. When I got the university job I had the money to be self-sufficient, and to support my family here and back home, and this security was one of the reasons I couldn’t leave without being prepared. And so as I made plans to leave the academy, my thoughts focussed on earning enough to continue the things I had a responsibility to do. My inexperience in business showed most explicitly in my poor financial judgement. I continued to do a lot of things for free in the first month because it was for social justice and when I did charge it was for a small sum. I was grateful that work was immediately coming in and by the end of the month I would have enough to cover costs with a small amount left to keep the business afloat, nothing to pay myself a salary and so I would go into my savings. A friend who is an accountant and financial advisor sat with me on the third month and dedicated 4 days to talk me through all the financial mistakes I was making. I will forever be grateful to her for this. I was honest about my worries that a focus on money would distract me from the ethics of why I do the work, and she helped me to understand that (1) what you charge is a reflection of the knowledge and expertise you bring to a space (2) money doesn’t drive your ethics it supports it. This is still a work in progress but in taking the time to develop an understanding of business, I am learning more about the limited beliefs I need to work through.

[5] From exhaustion to invigoration. Maybe it’s the creative in me but I find it hard to just do one task at a time. I focus more when I have a number of things to do and have to be specific with my time. This is probably why doing only the PhD thesis was hard and I would do a lot of things alongside it like teaching, setting up networks and organising/attending conferences. I needed to have multiple tasks to feel focussed and avoid procrastination. I was extremely busy/overworked when I was at the university, like all my colleagues were but still tried to diversify my work by getting involved in institutional level change because I needed diversity of takes to focus. But rather than this create focus, I felt frustrated and conflicted. I was banging my head against a brick wall trying to influence anything at a departmental or institutional level, but I wasn’t given any leadership responsibilities in my day jobs and knew I would be bored if all I did was teaching and admin and more admin. This frustration would deplete my energy and I would end the week exhausted. When I started the business I wanted to work less, so that work wouldn’t take up as much energy as it did before. I found myself working just as much but noticed that it felt different. I was doing a range of things, ever aspect gave me sense of fulfilment. Even with the additional advocacy and community activism work, I wasn’t tired but invigorated. I had the freedom to create spaces, to influence change and make meaningful impact. Yes there are still times when I am tired and I haven’t quite got the balance right between work and rest, but i’ve realised that there is a difference between work that keeps us busy and work that keeps us alive.

I started this post by acknowledging my faith and i’ll close it with the same focus. All praise and thanks is to Allah alone, for protecting me from harm, for giving me the means and the opportunity to make a change, for clearing my path and holding me steady, for bringing good people into my life, for guiding me through it.

Alhamdililah Alaa Kulli Haal

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