An interview with ESU debate Alumnus and governor, Bilal Mahmood
Tell us a bit about yourself
I've been a qualified solicitor for about 7 years now. I spent most of that time as Banking and Finance Lawyer at Allen & Overy LLP. I’m now Legal Counsel at China Construction Bank London Branch, one of China’s largest banks. I've also held many roles within the ESU; from working as one of the first London Debate Co-Ordinators, to a Governor for approximately six years. I'm also an alumnus of the British Debate Squads, Capitol Hill Programme and England World Schools' Judging Panel. I'm left handed and my favourite film is the Big Lebowski!
When did you first get involved with debating with the ESU and why?
Debating at school gave me confidence in my own voice. From debating, I learnt how to structure my critical thinking and advocacy. With those tools, I became confident when speaking with conviction and persuasive abilities to large audiences. At the time, I was from a working-class Asian family in East London and schools debating was still largely a 'middle-class sport'. Children from a similar background as me often felt out of place in environments where debating and the skills and opportunities it provided were commonplace. I was introduced to schools debating after I left my comprehensive school and attended a state selective school for my A levels. It was debating that made me feel comfortable in my own skin at school. In my opinion, it's that sense of empowerment that is debating's greatest asset. That empowerment, together with the skills debating gives are two powerful tools to help social mobility for young people in the UK. That's why I'm proud to have been involved in the London Debate Challenge and Debate Academy, because each year there will be young people on those programmes who will become more confident in themselves and start on a path of becoming a future leader in the wider community. I hope that those programmes, and ones like them, go from strength to strength at the ESU.
Debating in Britain has been criticised for its lack of diversity, do you think that is fair? What is being done to change that image?
There has been a massive improvement of the outreach and accessibility of debating. Within the last ten years, we've seen the greater integration between university and schools debating. Over time, this has meant that young people see debating from university students they admire and look up, rather than it just being about a school activity. As with most things, social media has meant that young debaters can build their own debating networks regardless of geography. This has meant debating has progressed into a community as opposed to just an intellectual sport that was dependant on your educational institution. There has also been a greater focus from more organisations bringing debate to a more diverse audience. So it's fair to say we are in a much better place than we were 15 years ago in terms of schools debating. This has fed into the University Debating circuit, with competition attendance being more diverse in terms of ethnic makeup and gender, and occurring across a wider array of universities from around the country.
Having said that, more and more studies show that young people have fewer opportunities than the generations before them. The Government's Social Mobility and Poverty Commission often highlights the growing gap of inequality in the UK. I genuinely see schools debating as a powerful tool in promoting social mobility. It gives young people a sense of empowerment and much-needed skills in critical thinking and structuring arguments. So while the reach of a debate is wider, more can always be done to ensure that the impact of debating is deeper for those who would benefit the most from it. I think this goes beyond race and gender but goes to a person's background which can include their geography, socio-economic background or faith.
You stood for election earlier this year in the Chingford & Woodford Green Constituency. What inspired you to do that?
Being selected in the constituency I was born in was a great honour. The most surreal moment of the campaign was knocking on the door of the flat where I grew up. Pitting my debating skills against Iain Duncan Smith was also appealing! But my biggest inspirations were my parents and my time at the ESU. My parents are two hard working people who came to Britain with very little. But they were very committed to making sure I became involved in the wider community and that I had more opportunities than they did. As I progressed through school and university, I saw a wide gap in opportunities for young people. Often people’s whole future could be determined simply by the area in which they lived or schools they went to. While working for the ESU on programmes such as the London Debate Challenge, I realised that so much more could be done to make sure all young people have more opportunities, and the confidence in themselves to make the most of them. I felt that the best way I could do that was to make the case for social mobility and improving opportunities on a national scale.
Will you continue to try and work in the political sphere?
Before being selected as a candidate, I was politically involved in my local Labour Party. I’m currently looking at new ways to help solve our local housing crisis and will be helping out with the London Mayoral campaign next year. Being ‘the candidate’ was merely one part of my wider commitment to politics in general.
You have worked with the ESU in different paid and volunteer roles since graduating from our programmes. Can you describe some of these roles and why you decided to stay involved with the ESU?
The three that spring to mind was as London Debate Coordinator, an alumnus of British Debate Squad and as a Governor. The greatest satisfaction I’ve ever had in my debating career is seeing students who are first introduced to debating find their confidence, flourish and enjoy their time on the London Debate Challenge. While we all can be thrilled from world-class debates of the highest technical calibre, seeing young people develop skills, begin to realise their own potential and enjoy themselves because you and your colleagues saw their potential and invested time in them is hugely rewarding. It’s fair to say it gives one a sense of duty to ensure more young people gain that opportunity, which is why I think so many people come back to the volunteer with the ESU.
Representing my country in the British Debate Squads to Japan (2005) and Mauritius (2007) gave me unparalleled opportunities to debate and coach all around the world, meet foreign dignitaries and build up a professional network that I still value to this day. It also fosters the relationships between ESU branches around the world, and the British Debate Programme is a great way to build those relationships from a young age. It’s that network and appreciation for the opportunities that the ESU provided for so many of us that gives us a sense of duty toward the ESU.
Serving with such esteemed colleagues as a Governor of the ESU was one of my career highlights. To be involved at the highest level of Governance at a time of great change was challenging. But at the heart of that period of governance was to move the ESU forward and become more relevant than ever before.
Have you taken part in one of our programmes? We want to hear your story! Email our Alumni Officer Alex Orpin for details.