27 January 2020
What does it take to make it in modern Britain?
Ask a politician, and they’ll tell you it’s hard work. Ask a millionaire, and they’ll tell you it’s talent. Ask a CEO and they’ll tell you it’s dedication. But what if none of those things is enough?
Raised on benefits and having attended some of the lowest-performing schools in the country, barrister Hashi Mohamed knows something about social mobility. In People Like Us, he shares what he has learned: from the stark statistics that reveal the depth of the problem to the failures of imagination, education and confidence that compound it.
Read an interview with Hashi Mohamed at the Guardian
Listen to Hashi discussing social mobility with Grayson Perry and Theresa Lola on BBC Radio 4
Read an extract below
What Does it Sound Like? Language
Even the closest shall cause each other pain. For there is nothing closer than the tongue and the teeth, and yet one sometimes bites the other unintentionally. Somali word play
In the summer of 2002, when I was eighteen, I was homeless for a year. I had left school, and, since I was no longer in full-time education, I had become eligible to pay council tax: something we didn’t have a hope of affording. As a result, I ended up at Centrepoint in Soho, the hostel for young homeless people. At the time, the system was this: you had a bed for the first nine nights, but you had to use that time to secure your next hostel, which meant spending your early mornings ringing around anywhere that might have a spare bed, trying to persuade them that they should give it to you. Your next hostel would allow you to stay for two weeks, which you had to spend securing the next hostel, which would be for six months, and so on. The stakes were high: if you couldn’t secure somewhere, you’d be faced with the choice of a night on the streets, or returning to the situation that you’d left behind.
Maybe, to you, this doesn’t sound very difficult – it’s only making a few phone calls, after all. But it was immediately clear to me that many of the young people I shared Centrepoint with were struggling. Their stories varied – one person had been thrown out by a parent who believed they were possessed, another was escaping a violent home, someone else was fleeing a forced marriage – but the themes remained the same: poverty, violence, danger and trauma. Phoning the hostels meant finding the numbers, calling round, not being put off, telling a persuasive story about why it should be you who gets the bed, and insisting, calling back, arguing your corner, winning people round. Many of these young people lacked the confidence to make the calls in the first place, or to insist that they should be considered, or they couldn’t explain why they needed the bed in a way that made sense to the busy people on the other end of the phone. Despite the fact that they were so vulnerable, they weren’t getting anywhere.
So, once I had sorted out my own accommodation, I started calling on behalf of other people. I sat down with them, talked with them, worked out what to say about their particular situation, and then hit the phones. It gave me pride and purpose to help others like me. It was the first time I’d ever done something like this, but somehow, it worked: everyone got a bed. And I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of language, the often random advantages that dictate who gets listened to and who gets ignored – and the power of knowing how to use your voice effectively.