Rob Deeks on the vital work of Aik Saath in replacing conflict with cohesion

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If there were ever an example of a negative correlation between arrogance and achievement, Rob Deeks would be it. At the helm of an organisation known as Aik Saath, he dedicates his time to the young people of Slough. Slough is a town in Berkshire that is often the butt of jokes, most of all by its own townspeople – a town that manages to simultaneously hold possession of the largest industrial estate in single ownership in Europe as well as a profile of being run-down and left behind. The shifts of the social tectonic plates of modern Britain are keenly felt there – outside of London the population is the most ethnically diverse in the country and the town was chosen by popular TV series The Office as the perfect backdrop to a vapid, mundane 21st century Britain dominated by a vapid, mundane service sector. It is certainly a hallmark case of one of the towns whose narratives would be a thick, functional thread in the tapestry of the nation as it is today.

Perhaps 18 years ago the town and surrounding areas were equally reflective of a phase, albeit a darker one, in the history of the country. Complex structuralist influences such as the disenfranchisement of young people, poverty and the heady mixture of groups of immigrants from parts of the Indian subcontinent that in and of themselves were undergoing religious conflict, had their effects on Slough at a time when Britain as whole was stepping out of ‘rivers of blood’, violent Teddy Boys and race riots and into a New Labour-led era where multiculturalism was taken to be a truism. In Slough in particular, gangs of young Hindu, Sikh and Muslim boys were engaged in riots in a style of one-upmanship that generated deep, long-lasting rancour between these communities. The situation escalated to the extent that the eyes of the international community bore down on the town, with international peacemaker Dr Dudley Weeks being brought in to examine the situation. His solution was to create a force for community cohesion led by the very young people who were at the heart of the riots. 18 years later, the resultant organisation, Aik Saath, is alive, thriving and the driver of community in Slough. The name, meaning ‘together as one’ in several South Asian languages, serves as a reminder of the inclusiveness that serves as the core ethos of Rob and his administrative team. The end of bitter intracommunity violence is largely down to Aik Saath and Rob, as well as the continuing campaigns against knife crime, offering young people a valuable alternative to place their time and resources into rather than being sucked into pressure from local gang culture and offering resources and support to young carers and vulnerable young people in the town. Rob is a prominent local figure in community events and has written for The Guardian and spoken in Parliament on issues such as the value of multiculturalism and what deprived urban areas need from central government to support their young people.

From watching him operate, it is easy to see that Rob is in the job that he loves. Yet he says that he wasn’t always like this: “primary motivation has always come from a desire to solve problems – that old cliché of making a difference. At school I considered myself something of a peacemaker but I was quite ‘lost’. I remember daydreaming one day in my sixth form common room and seeing a poster for the Peace Studies course at the University of Bradford. I hadn’t realised it was possible to make a career from resolving conflicts between people. I went into the course underachieving and if 18-year olds had school reports mine would have said ‘lacks focus’. But the course really inspired me and I graduated with the highest mark in my year group.” He speaks of how his coursemates sought the glittering lights of the international political arena whilst he returned to his summer job. It wasn’t until Aik Saath came along that he felt the same fervour that had driven him through his degree – “in many ways I feel like I’ve grown up doing the job I love,” he says having come to the organisation 15 years ago. Perhaps what is most reassuring is that Rob, responsible in so many ways for shaping the cohesion of a town with young people vulnerable to gang culture and a recent history of urban violence, does not pride himself on charging into situations and rectifying them – instead he uses wry humour to deflect situations that need deflecting and is eager to listen others’ views and have them listened to.

Speaking on this methodology, he says “I think we were probably the second organisation in the UK to combine conflict resolution with work on faith or identity.” Aik Saath pride themselves on fostering a sharing, collective identity amongst the young people of Slough, uniting them over and above the differences presented to them by race, religion and class, whereas Rob laments that “most groups concerned with mediation operate on models of Western self-interest.” Despite this warm glow of exclusiveness, I ask him what problems have arisen through Aik Saath and how much further we need to go to help other vulnerable people in Slough. He mentions of course the inherent problems in having a small administrative team, praising both the variety and the pressure the job brings. He maintains that “getting abused and assaulted are the hardest parts of the job” but promises as a caveat that “if you fail to remember that it’s not ‘all about you’ and that other factors are just as – if not more – likely to impact on how that young person interacts with you, then you won’t last long.” Of course, the problems Rob works to avoid are not always, or even a great majority of the time, unique to Slough. “Young people and older people are probably the two sections of our society paying the heaviest prices for austerity measures,” says Rob as talk turns to Aik Saath in a contextual sense – he argues that two of the biggest ways national government could help Aik Saath is by taking another look at mental health budgets, telling the story of one girl who “has been told she will probably have to wait twelve months to see someone about her problems with anxiety. That’s a long time to stay on your tip toes.” The other problem he cites is housing – “more and more of the young people accessing our services are going through homelessness,” he tells me. The highly-touted Crossrail project, connecting Slough to Tottenham Court Road in 25 minutes and supposedly creating much more access to employment across the South East, has invisible consequences in the form of housing prices blooming upwards in Slough, meaning that many families who can just about afford to live in the area are now priced out of the market with nowhere to go; often they “end up in emergency accommodation, a long long way from their support networks. Of course, the young people still need to go to school and often this can mean a terrible commute. They are then dealing with the exhaustion of travelling long distances to their school and the emotional exhaustion of their predicament. I have no idea why but Slough owns emergency accommodation in London boroughs and London boroughs have emergency accommodation in Slough – why they can’t swap their stock so families aren’t uprooted I don’t know.”

‘Getting abused and assaulted are the hardest parts of the job.’

Despite all of this, it is clear Rob thinks that Slough and its young people are heading in a positive direction. “When I first came to Slough,” he says “the riots that our organisation emanated from fed into a perception that Slough was a tinder box for community relations. I think Slough’s community relations have gone from strength to strength. We’ve held our breath when global terrorism, visits from the EDL and Brexit have endangered community relations but Slough has withstood these tests to its cohesion.” As for the continuing negative perceptions of the town, far from finding them off-putting, he finds them hilarious — “You are never far from a park in Slough. It has some of the best schools in the country. You can eat amazing food from around the world on a very low budget. Yes, Slough has its problems but I think they are often over-stated.” He also notes the paradox that “Slough can be maligned for being too boring or corporate, largely thanks to The Office, but also ridiculed for being poor or violent – those two identities don’t sit well together – and there can’t be too many places that suffer from the sneers of others for two such unrelated stereotypes.” In his line of work, baseless stereotypes are simply worked away through real experience, and not left to fester.

Looking at an even bigger picture than national policy towards young people, we turn to that word, now past its peak of contention and replaced by new fights — multiculturalism. Undeniably, the role of large minority communities and the impact they have on society cannot be ignored when looking at the issues of towns like Slough. Rob simply says “I am baffled when people say that multiculturalism has failed,” suggesting that rather than viewing the concept as policy to be pursued, it is simply the natural state of being for us in the 21st century – as the man himself puts it “the state is not well placed to smack the samoseh from our hands. Personally, I think we need to cherish our differences while we still have them – globalisation and convenience food will get to us all eventually.”

‘I am baffled when people say that multiculturalism has failed.’

It is difficult, several weeks into a term at a university whose method of teaching academic resilience is by the educational equivalent of volcanic pressure, to look back at your home town and the organisation that plays such a formative role for young people in it without both a deep nostalgia and an inaccurate view of its simplicity and functionality. In the case of Aik Saath, however, 40 miles away from Oxford there will always be a truly remarkable man and organisation that has transformed a town from a violent dead end of community relations to a thriving, striving community.

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