Hamara’s third annual Community Awards celebrated community activists around the city. In the first of a series of profiles on the winners, Jeremy Morton talked to Shakeel Mir about his award for Service To The Community.
I met up with Shakeel Mir at Leeds Prison where he works as Diversity Manager, but he explained that his work in the community goes back to the late 1970s.
Meeting Shakeel and talking about his career made me think how far this country has come in the last thirty years. He started raising concerns about racism in the 1980s. At this time the police routinely targeted young black and Asian men. This was when the Metropolitan Police nearly got away with not investigating the murder of Stephen Lawrence because he was black and therefore somehow to blame.
After the riots of 1981 the Police came to community and asked to talk. Shakeel was one of those who stepped forward to represent his community. He was already running youth clubs in his spare time and had the confidence of young asian men in Harehills and Chapeltown. It was a frustrating process because the Police, as an organisation, weren’t yet ready to change their ways. But Shakeel persisted with a senior officer who wanted things to be different. Together they set up a Scrutiny Panel to jointly review cases of racial harassment.
Slowly they built up community confidence and changed Police procedures. For instance, the few victims of racist incidents that did report them to the Police heard nothing whilst the investigations were going on. Shakeel saw at the Scrutiny Panel that the Police were working on these cases and suggested they contact the victim on a regular basis to let them know what actions they were taking and what progress they were making. It seems very simple in hindsight, but no one had thought of it.
In fact it was so ground-breaking that the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry picked up on it and included it in the report’s recommendations.
Through the 1980s and 1990s Shakeel continued to organise youth clubs whilst running the family business. He also found time to help found the South Leeds Elderly and Community Group – the forerunner of Hamara; and set up a mentoring programme for Year 10 & 11 pupils in Leeds schools.
There were still many problems with racial incidents. For example, someone might be targeted in their home in which case they would need to report the incident separately to the police and their landlord. Shakeel helped Leeds co-ordinate the different agencies in a project that would become Leeds Racial Harassment Project that Shakeel would eventually lead for five years. The project runs reporting centres, provides training and run an 0800 phone line that operates across West Yorkshire. [check]
More civil unrest gave the authorities a prompt to take action and after the Bradford, Oldham and Burnley disturbances of 2001, Shakeel was seconded to the Home Office’s Community Cohesion Unit.
When he was appointed to his current role of Diversity Manager at Leeds Prison in 2003, Shakeel brought his experience and toolkit of solutions with him. Prisons had a very bad reputation and the Head of the Prison Service had recently admitted that the service was “institutionally racist”.
Institutional Racism is a term that is widely misunderstood. It means that as an organisation, the things the institution does have a racist impact, that people of different ethnicity get a different service. It does not mean that all the staff are racist. Shakeel soon realised that most of the staff at Leeds Prison were not racist, but that “the few idiots” who were racist were not challenged.
He made it his mission to make sure that the 700 members of staff understood what racist language meant and why it wasn’t acceptable – rather than just banning words without explaining why. He fostered a culture where staff could ask about what was and wasn’t racist. He also brought in the Scrutiny Panel to look at racist incidents. These panels include prisoners, outside agencies and a senior Prison Manager.
Prisons are required to undertake regular surveys to measure the quality of prison life. Leeds had always found that black and ethnic minority prisoners felt they got a worse deal. The figures have now changed and although prisoners may still feel aggrieved at some of their treatment, there is no difference between white and other prisoners.
Shakeel quoted a prisoner he had spoken to recently who said “I’ve never been treated like this before, it’s made me think.”
Once you start changing attitudes like this you can start to think about rehabilitation. That can have a massive impact on our communities. Prisoners have families and eventually they come out and return to the community. The more positive the prison experience, the less pressure on the family and the community. So we can all benefit from this important work.
Asked about the Hamara Award, Shakeel said he felt very honoured, but he was also shocked and felt a bit guilty.
“I looked around the room and saw all these people who do such good work in their communities and thought – why me?”.
Having heard his story I think we can say he is a worthy winner.