When Mahmooda Qureshi was first contacted by HOPE not hate, she was already very active in her community, a mother and foster carer for children from challenging backgrounds.

In 2007, she received an award from the City Council for her community work within the Islamic Society of Britain.

Then two years ago, she decided to help HOPE not hate create a network between different communities and faith groups in the city, to help build resilience against the far right’s divisive rhetoric in Birmingham.

Here, she explains what her life is like as a HOPE not hate community organiser.  

Why did you start to work for HOPE not hate?

Birmingham is a very mixed city. In some areas, communities don’t mix at all and the concept of white flight does exist. Then, in certain pockets of the city, different groups are quite connected and there are some great events to build relationships.

I had heard a lot about HOPE not hate during my decade of work in the community and supported their efforts. When they came to Birmingham to organise an event, they asked for my help. Afterwards they asked me to join. I wasn’t looking for a job but I had a lot of connections, skills and a passion for community work, so I accepted.

Initially I struggled with doing the work and keeping up with the fostering. These were children from very challenging circumstances, with parents who couldn’t look after them.

I finally decided to give up the fostering, though, as I felt I could have a bigger impact through community organising. But my previous experience has proved invaluable, allowing me to understand and empathise with people coming from difficult backgrounds, to relate to the issues they are facing in their lives.

What is the work of a community organiser?

I do a lot of networking and partner up with many other organisations in Birmingham. For the Great Get Together, for example, we chose organisations that were relevant to what we were trying to achieve, including umbrella bodies, different faith groups, women's networks, and even a local radio station.

We have a core group of organisations that we work with closely and that we can rely on, because the work we’re doing is aligned in a common goal. There are some people I hardly see but feel I can approach and work with because we share a mindset. On the ground, we work very closely with Near Neighbours and KSIMC (Clifton Road Mosque), but I've a whole list of others who I can pick up the phone to at any time.

It’s not only about planning events but also about bringing people together. Sometimes communication is an issue between communities and organisations. So if the City Council is starting a project on refugees, I would link them up to people that are working on the same issue. The more people and support organisations have, the more effective they can be.

What does a day in your life look like?

I work from home so I get up, have breakfast and by 10 o'clock I usually have meetings. I try to get through all of them in the morning. Then I might carry on with some of the actions and campaigns I’m involved with, or I may have an event to go to and support. Where I feel I can contribute, I link people up or work with them. In the evening, I may have other meetings.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

One of the main challenges is reaching out to communities who do not want to integrate or come to our events. Sometimes I do feel like we're preaching to the choir and I have spoken to my team and we’re working with new solutions such as training our volunteers to do more effective door knocking and we are creating more nuanced leaflets. 

I’ve observed other organisations that are also looking to tackle this and going into communities to look at the problems that are preventing people from integrating, and it’s a lot of hard work but it's so worthwhile.

A specific challenge last year was the One Day Without Us event we organised last year in support of migrants. I wanted to work with different organisations, that could each bring a different strength to the project, but it was a lot of hard work. We brought together an eclectic group including the Ort Gallery, Right2Work, Migrant Voice, Time Together, ASIRT, the Polish Expats association and the Junk Food Project.

One difficulty with running that events was people not knowing who we were – some thought HOPE not hate only existed nationally and not at a local level in Birmingham. Another was that we didn’t have a strong network in place and I also learnt that some of the people I most wanted to get involved had issues with each other or with different organisations. so I had to navigate that pretty carefully!

How did things turn out?

It was amazing – people were so impressed. Things just came together and it was so great to see the number of people who came and the profound effect it had on them. Then again, I get these moments all the time, when I’ve organised an event and I can’t believe I’ve managed and it’s actually happening. When people come together to support each other, it really has an impact on the city. I've also been able to build on the relationships with those other organisations in my ongoing work.

The next year, people really wanted us to do the event again and it was not the same struggle at all, things were more organised and the venue was booked a month in advance instead of a week. I only did two days of work instead of the four weeks I had spent last time.

I think the networks we're building are making everything click. People are approaching me with projects they would like to get communities involved with. Sometimes it can be overwhelming but it’s very rewarding.

Is funding an issue in your work?

Well, because of government cuts, they are cutting down on the facilities the City Council has available for example. But it’s not the main challenge because most of the work we do can be done with very little money.

For example, we had a training last Saturday on Difficult Conversations – this helps activists have more productive conversations when challenging prejudice. We gave the training and one of the partners we work closely with offered a venue. We only spent £25 on the day for refreshments and the training support so it really doesn’t cost much.

How can people get involved?

We have regular volunteer meetings in Birmingham and elsewhere. They can email me at [email protected] and I’ll give them the details.

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HOPE not hate Charitable Trust is grateful for the support of Barrow Cadbury Trust, which funds the work of Mahmooda and one other organiser in the West Midlands