By Jonathan Freeman
LONDON: The last decade has seen growing concern around the issues facing young Muslims living in lower socio-economic areas of Britain, exacerbated by the tensions arising from the 7/7 London bombings and continuing terrorist threats. However, research shows that young people, including Muslims and others from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, can rise above such hardships, harness the power of positive thinking, raise their aspirations and achieve their dreams.
A growing body of evidence shows that aspirations are crucial for young people’s future success. For example, a well-known 31-years-long study, conducted by the National Child Development Study and concluded in 1989, found a positive correlation between the aspirations of children at the age of 11 years and what they ended up doing late in life: approximately 50 percent of children in the study with professional aspirations ended up in professional careers more than 30 years later, compared to 29 percent of adults who had low aspirations as children.
Low aspirations lead to poor academic attainment and professional achievement, regardless of social or ethnic group. They can also feed into a general sense of isolation and exclusion from mainstream society.
Interestingly, minority ethnic groups in the UK do not have lower aspirations than other groups. In fact, the reverse is true. But it is turning their high aspirations into reality where minority ethnic groups struggle.
This is the “aspirations-attainment gap”. This gap is caused by a lack of information about how to realize ambitions, with too few role models and, importantly, the lack of contacts — or ”social capital” — to bridge into other professions.
It was to bridge the aspirations-attainment gap that Mosaic was founded. Launched in November 2007, Mosaic — which offers mentoring programs in primary schools, secondary schools and prisons — has two simple but profound objectives: to increase educational opportunities for those who do not have them, and to increase opportunities for understanding between people of different backgrounds.
Mosaic counts as its supporters some of the most successful individuals from British Muslim communities. All of our programs are based on the simple proposition that young people will succeed if they are supported by those who are already successful. We therefore provide programs based on a foundation of mentoring support. For primary school-age students, mentoring support is focused around a 10-week program, which inspires and enthuses primary school-aged girls and their mothers to pursue an education and consider at an early stage the long-term careers opportunities available to them.
We provide secondary school students who grow up in lower socio-economic communities with access to workplaces they would not otherwise consider open to them, and we connect them to networks and opportunities too often closed to them.
Powerful evidence shows that so-called ”soft-skills” — personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness and an optimistic outlook — are increasingly important for success at school and in the job market. Mastering such soft skills can counter other socio-economic disadvantages. Supporting such skills development can be a key tool for enabling youth to break out of the cycle of deprivation and discrimination.
This is why, beyond the standard mentoring programs, we provide a youth leadership program for those young people we work with who desire for more opportunities and training to nurture their talent.
In the past three years, we have learned very quickly that it is not enough for our volunteer mentors just to raise the aspirations of youth; they also needed skills and opportunities to realize these ambitions, to flourish and to make the most of their talents — whatever their personal circumstances.
The thousands of youth that we have worked with are a testament that our approach works. One teenage mentee from London said, “I believe in myself, and I have become more confident in finding my career. This was because my mentor was so inspiring.” And a secondary school teacher commented: “I have never before seen our students so captivated…. Quite simply, it is the best mentoring program we have ever been involved in.”
Factors such as social class, ethnicity, geography and faith shape each one of us — but they do not bind us. We firmly believe that by harnessing the power of positive thinking, every young person — regardless of their background — can rise above their hardships and achieve personal and professional fulfilment.
Jonathan Freeman is the National Director for Mosaic UK (www.mosaicnetwork.co.uk). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.