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In conversation with our new chair, Dr Omar Khan

Omar landscape
Omar landscape

Dr Omar Khan joined us as chair in April 2023, taking on the reigns from former chair Jeff Hayes. Omar has a long background in social justice, including as director of race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust. He’s currently director of the Centre for Transforming Access & Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO). Here Omar speaks to us about what drew him to the role, London’s biggest challenges and his background in racial justice.

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and what attracted you to our work?

I used to work at the Runnymede Trust, a race equality charity, and I’m now at TASO, a similarly focused organisation, looking at evidence around inequalities. We try to create change by highlighting the evidence on inequality and what can be done to address the issues. That’s a key driver for me - I did a doctorate so I can make better use of evidence, but ultimately we need to deploy that evidence to address poverty and inequality.

It’s those shared values, and the commitment to tackling poverty in London, that attracted me to the role of chair. I first moved to London 26 years ago and I've been familiar with the work of Trust for London for most of that time. I like the team's approach to tackling poverty – making sure that those most affected are involved in the projects and that we’re learning from their experience, but also that we’re making sure what we’re doing is effective.

I do think it’s really important to be driven by values, including a commitment to tackling poverty, but a commitment to values isn’t enough. We need to make sure that what we’re doing is having the intended impact. One example is the Living Wage Campaign, which we know has had a huge effect on people’s lives.

What are your goals as chair?

With the pandemic and then cost of living crisis, issues that are long standing and persistent like poverty and inequality have worsened. It’s not a new goal, but I think that goal of addressing poverty has become even more urgent. Although we’re a relatively large funder for London, the scale of the problem is much bigger than the resources we’ve got. So we need other citizens, individuals and institutions to work with us.

I’m impressed by the commitment and expertise of both the Trust for London staff and the existing board. I’m looking forward to working with the team on developing our new strategy and then delivering on it from next year. I’m also excited to get involved with work already underway for us to become a more relational funder. That means understanding our power and reflecting on how we enable others.

You’ve been on both sides of grant-making - as a grantee at Runnymede, and now with us as a funder. What insight into that power balance has this given you?

It does make me aware that however carefully and openly we say that we’re a relational funder and that we want to share power, being on this side of the fence and holding the purse strings gives you power. The organisations we fund are aware of that, and it informs the relationship.

I also understand how challenging it is to run organisations with small budgets that don’t have large resourcing for things like evaluation. So making sure that we are proportionate and that we understand not just the lived experiences of the individuals we want to support, but also the organisational limitations of what are often very stretched charities applying. At the same time, I also know that we’re willing to back challenging and even unpopular causes, and open to taking risks in supporting diverse charities across the capital.

What do you think London’s biggest challenges are at the moment, and where are the opportunities?

London is a big global city and, like a lot of global cities, we think of shiny buildings in the City and in Westminster. But this is a very limited view. Millions of people are struggling, and millions were struggling even before the cost-of-living crisis and pandemic. This was already a challenge and the current economic and social context has made it worse.

There’s also a challenge in terms of framing, with London too often contrasted with or even opposed to the rest of the UK. I find that framing really counterproductive in terms of designing policy solutions to tackling poverty, wherever it exists. It also breaks down solidarity. It’s a divisive frame that misses out on all of the ways we’re connected, and the ways challenges are shared by people on low incomes in London and up and down the country.

But there’s strength and opportunity in London’s diversity. It creates opportunities to break down boundaries between people. I think division and lack of connection is one of the reasons why in the UK, and internationally, we don’t have better policies to tackle poverty. There’s a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding and a lack of seeing the other person’s experience as connected to yours. But there are more opportunities for connection in London than other places, because our diversity often - though not always – allows us to connect with and understand the perspective of people different from ourselves.

Racial justice has been a big focus of your work, and is a real priority for us at the moment. What are your reflections on the current climate and challenges?

Over two decades we’ve seen the salience of racial justice rise and fall in the UK. The murder of George Floyd has clearly raised the issue in the UK and internationally, as the murder of Stephen Lawrence did in the 90s. Right now, people seem to be more aware of the reality of the experience of racism, although it’s unfortunate that it took the murder of someone in America to make that better understood.

But we can’t ignore the racism and inequalities that still exist in Britain today. Such as recently shown in the Casey review into the Metropolitan police or in longstanding evidence of discrimination in the labour market.

Although there’s increasing awareness and support for racial justice, there are challenges in terms of pushback. There’s an association with ‘the culture wars’, and that’s unhelpful for looking at the way racism harms people living their daily lives.

I think there’s a job in civil society to challenge racism from the bottom up, because clearly it’s that challenge from the bottom up that has put racial justice on the agenda.

Have recent developments around perceptions of racism changed how you think about approaching work on this?

If I was to be self-critical it would be that when I worked in racial justice, for nearly two decades, our approach was in trying to convince people using reasonable argument, statistics and evidence. But arguably that bottom-up pressure we’ve seen in the last few years has done more to raise focus on this issue than all the reports we wrote. It’s an important reflection on the way social change happens.

Yes, you need policy ideas. Yes, you need evidence. But if the decision makers aren’t listening to that evidence – as they weren’t before and during the Windrush scandal – then you need to build that pressure from the bottom up. That’s how change on racial justice has always happened, not just in the US but in the UK too. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Bristol bus boycott, which was led by Black Caribbean people who refused to ride buses due to the Bristol bus company operating a ‘colour bar’ for Black drivers.

That boycott succeeded in overturning the bus company’s colour bar in 1963 and was soon followed by the first 1965 Race Relations Act. Movement building and civil society action that started with buses in Bristol ended up outlawing racial discrimination for the first time in British history. Ultimately, the boycott was joined not just by many Black people in the city, but also Asian and white people. That’s the kind of solidarity we need to tackle racial injustice, and also to address poverty and inequality generally.