Lucy McDonnellHead of Editorial

Where could the ESU take you?

Monday 29 Oct 2018

From taking part in debating competitions to becoming an ESU Governor, alumnus Bilal Mahmood tells us how the ESU has affected his life

Now a senior legal counsel for China Construction Bank, English-Speaking Union alumnus Bilal Mahmood has taken part in numerous ESU debating programmes including the Schools’ Mace and trials for the World Schools Debating Championships. But his involvement hasn’t stopped there.

Since taking part in our programmes he has volunteered his time to mentor a new generation of participants, and was the youngest person to become an ESU governor in 2008. ‘Taking part in the trials for the World Schools Debating Championships – a chance to represent England at the largest global competition of its kind– introduced me to a new world,’ he says. ‘It was an opportunity to be part of a team and to travel the world, things I hadn’t dreamed of before.’

He went on to take part in several ESU debating tours, representing England in Japan and Mauritius. Both experiences opened up a wide network of new contacts and a rich diversity of voices. ‘Everyone had a different set of opinions,’ he says. ‘The good thing about debating is that you’re surrounded by people who disagree with you!’ It’s these experiences – the doors they open and the skill sets they teach – that Bilal believes everyone should have equal access to. ‘Debating isn’t just about how to speak in front of people, it’s about critical thinking and listening skills – the skills you need in order to be persuasive in any part of your life, whether in a boardroom, a classroom or just talking to people.’ For Bilal, such experiences enabled him to pursue his passions. ‘I knew I wanted to become a lawyer after I’d been involved in the ESU. Debating helped me to see what my natural talents are – I enjoy breaking down complex problems and explaining them to people, which is at the core of being a good solicitor,’ he says.

Having found his calling, he counts himself as one of the lucky ones and, aware that not all young people have the same opportunities, he decided to offer his support to the ESU. His offer coincided with the launch of the London Debate Challenge – a pioneering programme to help young people in disadvantaged areas of London reach their full potential. ‘It meant a lot to me because one of the boroughs it was being offered in was Waltham Forest and Newham – the borough where I grew up,’ he says. Bilal went on to mentor many young people, helping them to develop self-confidence and to value their own voices. ‘Of all the things I’ve done at the ESU, that’s been the most important, and the most rewarding,’ he says. ‘Debating is about empowerment: the idea that regardless of your background, your views are as important as the next person’s. Each of us needs to have the skills to speak out, and the confidence to fail.’ Bilal links this last point to social mobility. ‘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.’

For a full overview of the ESU's programmes and work click here.