OPENING UP OPPORTUNITIES TO ALL
Now a senior legal consultant for China Construction Bank, Bilal Mahmood first started debating at the age of 16 and has taken part in numerous English Speaking Union debating programmes including the Schools’ Mace, debate tours in Mauritius and Japan, and trials for the World Schools Debating Championships. But his involvement doesn’t stop there. Since taking part in our programmes, he has volunteered his time to mentor a new generation of participants, and is now, for the second time in his life, on the charity’s board of governors.
‘The idea of debating was alien to me at first, but I was reasonably mouthy and so when one of my teachers said I should try it I did, and I thought it was pretty fun,’ he says. Before long he was up on his feet and taking part in competitions. ‘I’d never really meet a Tory before I started debating,’ he says. ‘I grew up in Walthamstow, East London, and was at a state comprehensive school, so for me it was strange to find young people who believed in the Conservative government! But that gave me the chance to discuss and debate ideas with them, and to think about my own values and opinions.’
Taking part in the trials for the World Schools Debating Championships – a chance to represent England at the largest global competition of its kind – was another introduction to a new world. ‘The opportunity to be part of a team and to travel the world, these were things I’d never dreamed of,’ he says.
Aware that not all young people had the same chances, Bilal decided to offer his support to the English-Speaking Union. His offer coincided with the launch of the London Debate Challenge – a pioneering programme to empower and mentor young people in disadvantaged areas of London. ‘It meant a lot to me because one of the boroughs it was being offered to was Waltham Forest and Newham – the borough where I grew up,’ he says. ‘I think of all the things I’ve done at the ESU that’s been the most important to me’.
Bilal’s abiding belief in the importance of equal opportunities then saw him turn his attention towards his local community – running as a political candidate for the Labour party. ‘My debating skills were pretty fundamental to my entire campaign,’ he says. ‘The thing that you learn as a debater is not about how to sound eloquent or be more like Churchill, it’s about finding your own voice.’ I ran in Chingford and Waltham Green because it’s where I was born and raised. I wanted to help my local area to develop a strong voice – which they now have.’
‘Teaching young people debating skills is about empowerment. It’s about being able to walk into any room and speak with a sense of confidence and ownership over what you’re saying. It’s incredibly important for every person to have the skills to speak out, and to also have the confidence to fail. Many young people the ESU works with have never had the confidence to do something where they might fail, because economically, they can’t afford to. We should be focusing on narrowing this inequality gap.’
BECOME A VOLUNTEER
Thanks to people like Bilal, the ESU is able to reach more schools and more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. If you would like to volunteer your time, please get in touch to find out how you can help.