Finding my voice – A reflection on GEM.

A blog by Zainib Akhtar

Earlier this year, I started my journey on the GEM training programme. The GEM Programme offers a wide range of intensive learning experiences in the housing sector. It offers opportunities for those already working in the sector to develop their talents and career prospects as well as offering a graduate route. The main reasons for joining GEM was to help me learn more about the social housing sector and to improve my confidence.

As someone who is from the BAME community, I never wanted to draw attention to myself. My philosophy was to keep my head down and work as hard as I can. I always wanted to be someone who would work behind the scenes and to go unnoticed.

But I was lucky enough to join ARK three years ago, and my hard work didn’t go unnoticed. ARK believed in me and saw that I had more to give to the sector. They wanted to support me in unlocking my full potential, thus began my GEM journey.

The GEM programme has not only grown my knowledge and skills as a housing professional but also helped me personally.

One of the highlights from the GEM programme was the HEAT Challenge – a team problem solving and creative thinking activity. As someone who wanted to push myself and step out of my comfort zone, I decided to take part. I have to admit I was a little hesitant as to whether I wanted to do this because at the time I was fasting for Ramadan, I had the GEM assignment and my office workload; I thought adding this to the plate would be too much to handle. But at the same time, I knew this was a learning opportunity I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. To my surprise, the ideas our team presented for the challenge were welcomed by the judges and we are hoping to bring those ideas to life!

If there is one thing that I have learnt from this experience it is to never shy away from taking up an opportunity, and even if that opportunity doesn’t get you your desired goal, you will have something to take from that experience. I once read: “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?” This quote always resonates with me. The only thing stopping me from achieving what I wanted was my own fears. Through this year within ARK and at GEM, I learnt that it is okay to sometimes get things wrong, and when they do, rather than panicking, we need to understand what we have learned from these experiences and how would we do things differently. We often learn more from our failures than our successes, and that’s why it’s so important to work in an organisation where you’re given the opportunity to grow and for this, I will be always grateful to ARK.

Midway through the programme was where I started to see a change, I was becoming more aware of what made me anxious (presentations was one of them), what fears were holding me back and I looked at how to overcome these. 

The topic that impacted me the most was the Equality & Diversity session. Being different can sometimes come with having to deal with other people’s preconceptions and judgement. Our minds like to keep things simple to understand certain concepts, and to make sense we create boxes/labels. So, when the mind is confronted with something different it doesn’t know how to respond. This is where people who are different find themselves having to justify and explain certain things. As someone who is from the BAME community, I too in the past had to explain and justify myself even when I didn’t need to. These experiences made me want to always be that ‘invisible person’. I used to be afraid to speak, share opinions or ideas as I was too scared to be judged, too afraid to be laughed at, too afraid to be different and stand out.

My experiences within ARK and at GEM, have allowed me the space to be able to express myself, and believe that what makes me different is what makes me unique. My ideas and opinions are welcomed and add value to ARK and that is my strength.

I admire people who have the confidence to share their experiences. Though it makes me a little nervous, I share my story today for any other Zainib out there who needs the courage to push forward, take on new opportunities, break the barriers and allow themselves to be different so that they can reach their full potential.

Finally, I want to thank everyone on the GEM team, the entire cohort who have been so kind, supportive and amazing to work with and everyone at ARK who have helped me in my journey, including the directors (especially Chris), the staff, and the associates.