Birmingham: a better city and a stronger economy

The first of four excerpts from the forthcoming ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’: on the move to white-collar jobs.

Jon Bloomfield
8 January 2018


Wikimedia UK AGM 2016 at Impact Hub Birmingham, July 2016. Wikicommons/ Jwslubbock. Some rights reserved.In the forthcoming book, ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’, crowdfunded by Unbound, Jon Bloomfield has interviewed fifty migrants to Birmingham from all walks of life: a mix of first and second generation; men and women; from Ireland to India, Pakistan to Poland, the Caribbean to Somalia who talk frankly and with humour about their experiences both at work and in society more generally. In this first of four extracts, from the chapter on Migrants social mobility: the move to white-collar jobs, he delves into a small social enterprise company and the creation of the inter-cultural Impact Hub.

Zubeda works in the burgeoning social enterprise sector. Her dad came with her grandfather from Gujarat in the early 1960s to work in the textile mills. There was a call out from the British government for the work that white British people did not want to do. He was fourteen at the time. Her dad married at a young age and then her mum came. They moved around in the North of England and then settled in Bolton.

Zubeda was born in 1975, one of seven children and grew up in an Indian area, a mix of Hindus and Muslims with just three or four white kids in the primary school. Her secondary school was more mixed and she encountered a huge amount of racism there but she did her GCSEs, A levels and then went to Manchester University for her degree followed by a masters in Middle Eastern studies. Of the seven children, five went to university. She had to go to Manchester because she wasn’t allowed to stay away from home. Her parents were quite explicit on this. Fortunately, her older sister had gone before her.

“Education had two advantages. It was the one way we could keep our parents happy and not get married. The Islamic texts say that the prophet encourages education and this was the one way to convince our parents to allow us to go to university.”

Then she came to Birmingham. She worked for the City Council in a number of different jobs on urban policy, in the Equalities Division, then was seconded to the West Midlands Police to help with the recruitment of community mentors where she created a regional mentoring programme. In 2013, she set up Connect Justice, a limited company and independent social enterprise designed to build trust between the police and ethnic minority communities. Zubeda emphasises that they are not a charity beholden to others, but rather an independent enterprise not reliant on grants.

Over their first four years they have got the organisation off the ground with a voice and a presence in the extremism/radicalisation arena where they undertake a lot of their activity. She feels they have bridged the gap between minority communities and state agencies as they are not funded through the Home Office.

To show their independence they list all their funders on the web-site. They are transparent. When they hold events with the Police, they stress that Connect Justice is not an agency of the government. They reach into parts others do not. When they ran an EU project, they had access to far right extremists as well as former Muslim extremists, as they did when they had a crowd funder and raised £8,500 to produce a video to hear the stories of former extremists. That gives them a distinct niche in their field. They are now looking to deliver on-line training for schools and others to work on radicalisation issues in ways that avoid the stigmatising impact of the government’s Prevent programme. They work across a range of equality issues. One of Connect Justice’s most recent pieces of work, A Tale of Three Cities addresses the responsiveness of major public institutions in three major cities – Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester – to the challenges of gender, race and disability. The findings make for uncomfortable reading, for while significant progress has been made on the gender agenda, progress on race and disability remains slow. As Zubeda says:

“There are big institutions in the city where diversity is not reflected in their organisations. Some of this is shocking.”

Yet she retains her optimism. Zubeda’s organisation is based on justice and civil rights, not on ethnicity. Her co-director is a white convert to Islam; her third director is a hard-core secularist. They want to avoid the divisiveness that treats minorities as homogenous blocs and pits one community against another. She believes there has been too much focus on ethnicity, giving money to people because of who they are rather than what they do or the issues they are tackling.

Connect Justice explicitly allies itself to the wider Birmingham community, which is why they are based at the Impact Hub social enterprise centre.

Birmingham’s Impact Hub


Wikicommons/ Jwslubbock. Some rights reserved.The Hub is one example of where the ‘diversity advantage’ is favouring the city. As Aliyah, one of the support staff of Irish/Barbadian descent says,

“This is definitely an inter-cultural space. All people come here. It is shared innovating space for the social good with a common ethos.”

The Hub hosts micro-businesses and social enterprises and is growing fast with members from all backgrounds drawn from Birmingham and surrounding areas. It is the brainchild of Immy, a young, second generation Indian Sikh woman, born and bred in Birmingham, whose first main job was with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London.

“London was the place to make it but I then found it was not the place that I thought it was going to be, so I came back to Birmingham and worked at Bromford Housing Association. I used it to find out about the realities of life in the city and then left it all to start my own entrepreneurial journey with the Impact Hub.”

Immy is short and slim, wears a head-scarf and is full of energy. She was doing TEDX and she met people who told her to use the TEDX group to build something new.

“I had never been pulled towards enterprise before but fell into it, running my own business.  After the second TEDX I wrote a blog on the spirit and values of TEDX and what if we ran this every day, drawing on the civic strengths and talent of the city. We used a range of platforms, social media and events to develop the Hub momentum.  In December 2014 we launched a crowd funding initiative and had an amazing campaign linked to building a better city. In thirty days we raised £65,000. And then the Barrow Cadbury foundation agreed to match us with £50,000. We fitted out the building by going out to the community and drawing on their support.”

This is a reflection of wider trends emerging across Europe. In the Netherlands there is a growing emergence of such initiatives which illustrate the potential of civic crowd funding not just as a fund-raising mechanism but also as a powerful tool to promote actions at the grass roots. [1]

The Hub has three main sources of income: membership; events where it hires out the rooms to organisations for meetings; and running its own programmes. For the first year, income was just over £200,000 and it was able to pay basic salaries to staff. The Hub has now got 160 members. Its focus stretches beyond social enterprises. As Immy explains it,

“We want to build a better city and a stronger economy and need to have all sorts at the table including big corporates, individual free-lancers, local institutions as well as social enterprises and the Big Lottery. We have companies like Grant Thornton who want to use this space. We see the Hub as a place to talk to a cross–section of organisations so that they can contribute to building a vibrant economy. That is why the Chamber of Commerce has a membership here too; they don’t need the space.”

The Hub is based in the redbrick, renovated factory of a Victorian Birmingham manufacturer of marine instruments and is located close to the city centre in the old industrial quarter of Digbeth.  This is the emerging creative nerve centre of the city. The Hub is just one of a string of venues that have taken root here over the last two decades including Maverick a burgeoning TV and media production company; Fazeley Studios with its 45 neatly designed offices aimed at creative and digital companies; and the Custard Factory – the former premises of Alfred Bird’s custard powder plant, now housing scores of micro-businesses and small NGOs. All these are clustered in Digbeth.

The Hub is the conscious adaptation of an old industrial building to the needs of the new economy using European Structural Funds to promote social innovation and bring life to a dying quarter of the city. The onward march of automation poses a threat to a whole range of existing industrial and technical jobs. That’s why the renovation of places like this and the creation of new businesses and employment in growth sectors of the economy is crucial to the city’s future.

With its strip lighting, high work benches, plywood tables and open plan workspace this is innovation easy style. Zubeda works here as does Sam and his health project team. He and others are grouped around the computer and worksheet discussing new projects. The white-board is littered with post-it notes. The extendable plug points drop from the ceiling so that the teams can connect to the ubiquitous portable computers that cover the tables. Relaxed, easy-going, youthful and inter-cultural: this is cosmopolitan hybridity, the open city at work and at ease with itself. It’s Birmingham’s answer to Shoreditch. The task is to replicate it across the city.

[1] See Aster van Tilburg. Civic Crowdfunding is not about money. Pp53-57 in a set of essays, Making Cities. Visions for an Urban Future.

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