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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Williams

The Lions Share - Jasmin Choudhury

Passionate about improving the lives of single parents, young people and their families, Jasmin has dedicated her life's work to the most vulnerable people in society, enabling their best support, both at home and in education- so that they can succeed, whatever their circumstances. After many years as a Leader in the education sector, working in some of the most challenging and deprived schools in the UK, Jasmin is now a consultant and Non-Executive Director advising on various Public Sector Panels and Charity Boards.

How has being diverse shaped your leadership style?

I'm usually a very calm, measured and considered person or so I've been told. The one red rag for me is when anybody breaches my equality rule. When people aren't being given a fair chance to achieve or there is inequality within a system that prevents someone from succeeding and is not dealt with appropriately or when someone is treated unfairly. I will fight tooth and nail to ensure that this is eradicated.

For me, whoever you are and whatever position you are in, I see it as my purpose to make sure that you are treated equally and are given an equal opportunity to succeed at all costs. This runs through everything I do as a person and as a professional. As a teacher and a leader and now somebody who has many different hats, I have to ensure that every person I meet is treated in an equal way and the impacts of my actions radiate equally to those I don't encounter daily. My diversity has given me this strength.

You see, I'm a mixed bag. Very Western, very Eastern, Asian, British, Female, a struggling Muslim, Bengali, Sylheti, single parent, first-generation immigrant, educator, Londoner...I could be classified under a whole host of titles. The list is endless.

Growing up, our home was always lively! It was full of friends and family who needed support and we had a diverse mix of people of different races and cultures as well as backgrounds coming and going. Diversity was an important part of the Choudhury fabric.

I remember when I was at primary school every year there would be an annual Easter hat parade. My poor Mum had a heightened sense of agitation whenever that came round. She was young and inexperienced but hugely intelligent, eloquent and articulate in her own language and eager to learn, despite having limited English. In those days, there was no internet, parent workshops or inclusive leaders to tell you about things like Easter if you didn't know. Parents like my mum had to learn the hard way.

No one explained to me or my mum what Easter was or the necessity of an Easter hat. I used to look incredulously and wistfully every year at fellow pupils who had different hats made with eggs and birds' nests and fancy craft materials.

One year, I hadn't made the hat and the teacher had a go at me and called my family lazy. Yes, it would be unheard of now. I was so upset and I went home and lashed out at my mum. The teacher, despite making me feel rubbish, did, however, give me new materials to take home to make a new hat (probably her saving grace). When I told her, my mum was so upset that my sisters and I were unhappy. She felt she had failed. That evening, she stayed up all night, despite the fact that she was exhausted from looking after 5 children, to make hats with flowers for us to take to school.

So we didn't win, but I didn't care! All I knew was that I didn't stick out and I was included. More importantly, it made me realise how much my mum loved me and in years to come as an educator myself, I kept thinking how wrong the teacher was and made sure none of my students ever went through a situation like that.

When I was a teenager, I sometimes had a real identity crisis. From my own experiences, I realised how bias and stereotypes can affect people's view of me. I am aware of how being "othered" affected me and as a result. I know how important it is to ensure people being treated equally, without any preconceived ideas or stereotypes, is central to my output.

When I see things like the gender pay gap or someone being discriminated because of their race, age or sexual orientation, I know this can be eliminated if every individual sincerely and passionately fights against it. My diversity has shaped me and given me the empathy needed to work hard to promote equality and inclusion wherever I am for everyone- be it at work or at home or in other contexts.

What's the most valuable lesson you've learnt from failure?

Nobody enjoys failing - tell me who does? I certainly don't. From each failure, I have learnt that sometimes you have to lose in order to win. Failure comes in all shapes and sizes and in many contexts, both personal and professional.

It is a cliche that you learn from your failures and the sad thing is, many leaders do not talk about their failures and the impact it has on their lives, personally and professionally. Failure can be debilitating and make you want to crawl under the duvet and not want to face the world. However, after the initial doom and gloom, a positive narcissism can kick in that allows you to look at the benefits of failure and loss.

This is my most valuable lesson, being able to tell myself it'll be ok and always finding the lesson to be learnt. Shortcomings or failures may be regarded as "sour grapes" but these are actually your "survival grapes". They help kick start the healing process and enable you to dig deep, lick your wounds, and think, much as it hurts, "Okay, so I lost. It wasn't meant to be. Next time, I am going to find ways to be better or even find an alternative for me."

What I have learnt in my life, is that with every failure, there will always be some learning or even a momentary awareness that will help us evolve as better humans! That is if only we allow ourselves to be reflective and self-aware. The most important thing is to have ownership of the process - for your sake. Once the dust has settled, you do look back at your failures and realise, you were a phoenix all along - just a better version, as a result of your losses.

What's something about you that surprises people?

The one thing that takes people by surprise a lot of the time is that I have a sense of humour. In fact, laughter and the love of it is an integral part of my life. Especially, the deep bellied, hearty kind!

Since 2006, I have worn the hijab. It really is interesting to see people's reactions, particularly in the current climate. Pre 2006, I looked like a Westerner which did not indicate the deep-rooted Eastern heritage I have, and now I look like an Easterner, which similarly does not portray my very strong Western heritage.

There are three different reactions I get - or at least that is what I perceive - when I meet people for the first time. One is a look of genuine curiosity and interest. The second is a glazed look in the eyes and sheer panic as to what to say to me and the third are those people who just "see me" ...Jasmin Choudhury.

I have learnt that the people who are willing to look beneath the surface, in this case the hijab, are the ones I have the deepest connections with -as they see me for who I am.

Sometimes people's reactions - often fuelled by bias and stereotypes or just a lack of experience - does make me weary and my heart sinks when I see their faces. However, I have learnt not to give up. For that would be too easy and I have instead developed quiet confidence that challenges people to think differently about who I am.

Being subversive and building bridges is far better at the end of the day. People's perceptions can be changed if you reach out and role model who you are, in an open, caring, integrity-led authentic and compassionate manner.

What's the one the thing you'll never compromise on?

Values, values and values! I will never compromise on my values as they make me who I am. Maintaining my "Itty Ditties" e.g. integrity, humility, reliability, authenticity, pursuing equality and diversity are part of my very being. Exercising your values and balancing them, especially when you are in a position of leadership, power and wealth is like practising a muscle. Holding on to your values isn't easy especially if you have to make difficult choices.

While I came from a wealthy family, I was always taught that I was privileged and to act with integrity, compassion and humility. My father, an immigrant, who became a highly successful entrepreneur, never forgot how hard his and my mother's life used to be and the importance of an honest day's work and, most of all, the need to give back to others. It was imperative that we used the wealth we had to offer help to anyone regardless of their background.

We were brought up to share our "rizq", the Arabic word for wealth. It doesn't just mean sharing of money, it also means the sharing of wealth such as knowledge, privilege, opportunity, well-being, food and shelter and much more. He would say, "Treat every person you meet well and give them their value before the sweat has dried on their skin." It is something, I am always mindful of when dealing with people.

Furthermore, it was instilled in me to make decisions that would always benefit others and not just myself. There is a Bengali proverb that my parents taught us that resonates deeply within me and I think of it to guide me whenever I have a difficult choice to make or face challenges.

"For any good or bad action, the eyes may not show it, the mouth may not say it, but the heart will sing it and say it. So ensure your actions are good and righteous, so the heart sings the most positive of songs, forevermore!"

Working in special measures or schools in concern or with difficult people or circumstances, you are challenged to think deeper and harder about who you are and what your values are. They are integral to your journey as a leader. At the end of the day, acting with values such as integrity, whether people like it or not, allows you to be a better human and, most of all, allows you to sleep better at night.

What made you dare to be different?

Different - I always knew I was different. As humans, we actually don't want to be different and prefer to be the same. It is an easier option. However, our journeys give us a rich tapestry of life experiences and thus our wisdom grows and we learn to accept our differences and learn to dare to be different. Acknowledging our differences and using them to empower change is the first step to making a better world. As an immigrant's daughter, I knew I was different and tried hard to develop and balance all my multiple identities. These identities and my experiences have shaped me and I have used them to empathise with others.

Even on my first day at school in Reception, I knew I was different. Being part of a handful of Asians in a predominantly White school, I remember being called a "P***" on my first day and told that people like me smelled of curry.

Puzzled, I told the boy who called me this new unheard name, that my name was "Jasmin". He repeatedly name-called me, despite being warned by the teacher. It was my first experience of racism and even as a 4-year-old, I felt sad. I knew it was not a good experience. I was called such names because I was different.

Several decades later, I experienced prejudice again as an adult, but this time, found ways to deal with it my way. As a senior leader wearing the hijab, it could pose barriers. I was lucky to have supportive colleagues and bosses. Sometimes though, a few parents and carers found it difficult. Initially, when dealing with me, they would mutter racist and prejudicial comments under their breath or wipe their hands on their coats after I shook them. While it made me sad and hesitant, I knew getting angry wasn't the way forward. It would have been predictable to go and share it with my bosses who would rightly be furious and take action.

My job was to serve their children and the educator in me pushed me to reach out. I never gave up and through gritted teeth, instead worked hard to be a role model and find solutions and most importantly, give the children the quality first care and education they deserved, while holding them strongly to account if they made inappropriate comments. Did I have a bruised ego? - Of course, I did, but I was playing the long game!

Over time, the long game won and soon the very parents and carers who were resistant to me, became some of my staunchest supporters. They even made sure that they bought me hijabs for Christmas instead of the proverbial bath salts or box of chocolates and reminded me to look after myself and not to work too hard when I fasted during the month of Ramadan.

Everyone is different. Everyone wants to be accepted and celebrated for their differences. It is when you dare to be different and use it to challenge the status quo for the better, that it can make a real difference.

Reaching out, making connections and building relationships has always had a more positive and long-lasting outcome for me than getting angry and fighting to be heard; even when I felt it was all I had left in me. I am not saying that my way is the right way, neither is it the wrong way. It is my way and how I dare to be different.

Besides, one of my most challenging parents admitted he was wrong to be racist and prejudiced and gave me a compliment that I treasure even today. He said, "You know what Ms. Choudhury? You're the f****** best person I have ever met." Yup, it is riddled with swear words but sincere. After all, the best and sweetest victory often comes after a long, hard and arduous fight! Don't you think?

You can connect with or follow Jasmin on her LinkedIn page here.


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