Mike Sani x Kings Place

Flying The Nest  

Mike’s journey begins on a South-East London council estate. He speaks fondly of his first friends, who were also residents of his estate. A mixture of common interests and common surroundings brought together a group that Mike would identify himself with for the next few years. “I don’t know if we would have been labelled as the stereotypical hoodrats but we did like to enjoy ourselves.” I relate to Mike’s early experience – me and the friends I grew up with weren’t necessarily trouble but due to the stigma of the older residents at the time we were described as such. Mike describes himself as the “brains of the operation”. We share a laugh, filled with all the nostalgia in the world, over some of the moments him and his friends shared. However, consistent with how Mike spoke of his desire from early on to explore other opportunities. Opportunities that weren’t readily available in the area he was raised in. “Growing up where I grew up was cool but there was very little to do outside of that.”

The crossroads of adolescence is difficult for one to navigate alone. Mike was the first out of his group to fly the coop but isn’t something that he contributes wholly to himself. “I managed to go to Southampton University, but that was largely because I had a good careers advisor”. University is always an experience unique to the individual. A time of personal development, intellectual curiosity and widening cultural awareness. For Mike, his time at university greatly shifted his paradigm of thinking. He described it as the first time in which he came to ‘appreciate real difference.’“I increased my capacity to enjoy new things and in the process met a lot of people who had travelled across the world. That inspired me.” He speaks of his fondness for travelling and his admiration for people who set on such adventures. He recalls a moment, a few years back when his parents told him that when he was young he had always expressed his dream to go travelling. A dream that he would eventually fulfil.

The favourable economic climate at the time of Mike’s graduation allowed him to be fortunate enough to walk into a job. He took up a role as a Forex and Money Markets clerk for Bank of America. While he remains grateful for the job, Mike grew uninspired and describes the atmosphere of “living for the weekend”. He soon began to wonder if there was a world of work where I would be excited on a Sunday evening. After a year and a half in the role, Mike’s seniors were suggesting there was a large possibility of promotion. Even with the potential increase in salary and responsibility, at just 22 years old, Mike decided to pursue his passion for travelling and quit. “I thought to myself if I’m ever going to go travelling, the time was now.”

From the 22nd February 2006 to 22nd February 2007, Mike set on the journey of a lifetime. Travelling across the world with, largely, strangers. His first two months saw him roaming across India – a country which he says taught him some of his most profound lessons. “It [India] made me realise what we value in the West does not amount to happiness.” A lesson similar to one I learnt, during my time in Nairobi. His trip continued with Mike visiting North America, South East Asia and Latin America. As Mike reminiscences on his travels I could tell that through his ventures, Mike learned the principles that would be foundational for his venture into social entrepreneurship. “While travelling, I was reminded of the importance of being a nice human being and just connecting with people. It also taught me the art of listening and enjoying other people’s company.”

Travelling clearly provided much perspective and vision to Mike but also opened him up to his next career path. “A guy I met in Rio inspired me to go into teaching. He spoke with so much passion and I was sold by the fact you could have a great influence in people’s lives.” There are moments in our lives that with hindsight we recognise as having a profound effect on our lives but in the moment can seem so normal. We speak of the importance of these moments as Mike likes to call these ‘dots’. An amazing observation of life made by Steve Jobs at his Stanford Commencement speech: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”  It was the time speaking with the guy in Rio De Janeiro that proved to be one of the dots that has made him the social entrepreneur he is today.

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School Days

On return to the UK from travelling, Mike was offered a job as a teaching assistant at a Peckham pupil referral unit, a job that would clearly in hindsight be the first dot in his journey of social entrepreneurship. We discuss the dynamics of such a role, trying to understand the socio-economic circumstances of the children, the issues they may have faced both in and outside the  home and how that often culminated in their indifference towards education. “I was dodging staplers and fire extinguishers! These kids were good kids at their core but the institutions had failed them. You can’t continually label people without that label rubbing off on impressionable young people.”

While speaking on Mike’s experience in the South London pupil referral unit I take a brief trip down memory lane and think of all the teachers that left, in some shape or form, an impact on me. My Science teacher in Year 10 that taught me the importance of discipline and hard work. My English teacher in Year 11 that taught me the importance of challenging the status quo and to embark on a lifelong voyage of self-discovery. School was more than a place where we came to learn the answers for an exam, it was supposed to help shape our world views; take our adolescence and help mould us into well-informed and productive contributors to society. Mike understood this and would regularly engage with the students he came across in this manner. “We would speak about aspirations and what we want in and from our lives.” One of his last memories of his time at the PRU was one that helped to remind him of the potential of every student, despite the vast differences in socio-economic circumstances; no matter whether they were in a pupil referral unit in Peckham or a public school in Harrow.

Mike’s next gig was at a school in Dartford (at the time called Wilmington Academy) working as a business teacher – with a boss 34 years older than him it was an interesting dynamic. A sort of Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones – Will Smith partnership. His boss was from industry and was a strong proponent for real-world teaching. While the school was going through a difficult time the business department churned out brilliant results. The school was put under special measures; but the business department continued to do well. Out of all the departments across the school, the business school had the lowest truancy rate and came out on top across all departments.

Mike had been at the school for three and a half years, navigating the education system as a teacher and preparing his students not only for exams but a life that would require them to be productive members of society before the idea for Bite the Ballot was born. “I remember I was 27 at the time and it was three weeks before the election. My boss asked me if I was going to vote. I remember telling him that politics doesn’t affect me and that I don’t vote.” “Politics determines everything. How did you get here today? You drove – politics determines when the roads are fixed and the prices of petrol. Do you buy food from the supermarket? Politics determines how that food is labelled so you know what’s in it and the VAT that goes on it. You download music? Politics determines how much you can. Politics determines everything.” While speaking it’s clear to see that the revelation he was given had developed a sense of frustration. “I had worked at two educational establishments prior to that and as I went through education, no one thought to mention to me the magnitude of actively participating in the political process.” As we discuss it’s clear to see where a lot of Mike’s frustration at the time came from. There’s a clear lack of opportunity and access into the political process for some of the most disadvantaged children in the UK. A process that determined so much of their life prospects. “When you look at the students that did vote, there’s a clear disparity – they come from a certain background and hold a certain level of cultural capital which allows them to effectively navigate through various political processes.”

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Bite The Ballot

It was with this frustration and desire to educate student’s politically that a lunchtime club called Bite The Ballot was birthed. Mike was keen on ensuring the young people within in his domain knew that the issues they cared about and politics had a strong link. In a time where citizenship was only worth half a GCSE it was clear that there was a lack of will from the senior management and they didn’t seem to understand the vision of the lunchtime club – “sometimes you need people to not see the vision to cement that your vision is special and unique to you.” It’s the confidence in a vision that spurs you to make some of the most important decisions in your life. Whether to relocate to another country for a job opportunity. Whether he/she is indeed your life partner. Whether to leave your secure job to focus entirely on your newly created lunchtime club. When faced with the final question Mike decided to quit his job and put everything into Bite The Ballot; much to the discontent of his family. “Most of my family and friends thought I was insane!”

6 years on and Bite the Ballot has soared to amazing heights; from a lunchtime club in a secondary school to the premier youth democracy organisation in the UK. With its mission remaining the same as it was during those lunchtime sessions: to empower young people to evolve UK democracy. There are certain moments when it all comes together; when the hustle you’ve been on for years becomes validated in forms you never would of have imagined. This was what exactly happened to Mike when the leader of the free world, President Obama, personally gave a shout out to Mike for his work. “Right there and then everything I had been through – the dark nights, failed relationships, became worth it. Social entrepreneurship can be a lonely world but to have that validation has certainly been a defining moment in my career.”

Earlier in 2016, Bite The Ballot partnered with the anti-hate organisation Hope Not Hate for their #TurnUp campaign, aiming to inspire 500,000 young people to register to vote and participate in the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016. By the end of the registration period more than 1.1 million young people registered to vote during the week-long #TurnUp campaign. As a result of the shout-out from President Obama, doors were opened, and not just any door but – 10 Downing Street. The then-Prime Minister David Cameron backed Bite The Ballot in the lead up to the referendum registration deadline to encourage young people to register to vote. The campaign was able to effectively use social media and key partnerships that had a large following of young people including apps such as Tinder, Uber and Deliveroo.

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What would you say to the young people who feel disenfranchised from the current political system?

Mike: It’s a case of demand and then supply. The government saves £13 billion pounds a year when student tuition fees got tripled. Similarly, if pensioners were means-tested for for winter fuel allowance and travel the government would save £12.5 billion pounds a year. 96% of pensioners are registered to vote and 76% of them vote. On the other hand, only 54% of students are registered and 46% of them actually vote. So when it comes to saving money; what option do you think the government will opt for?

The system isn’t setup to be fair; evidently there isn’t a level playing ground. From 11, with preparation for certain exams enabling you to go on to certain schools. Students are already being put in a pipeline that will eventually spit them out into their various class stratifications – with very little chance of social mobility. We discuss the current political atmosphere and the opportunities for young people to take part. “There is a difference between citizens and consumers. I think identifying the difference is key. Whether you are on the inside or outside £900 billion is still being carved up every year.” Since the genesis of social media, while the playing field has yet to become even, it is definitely going through a levelling process. The impact of digital democracy is certainly admirable as it is helping to break down the environment of the political class in Westminster.

As a student of politics and avid follower of Bite The Ballot’s work, this conversation with Mike is really hitting home for me. The work of Bite The Ballot is amazing and the opportunities to participate in the political process during this period seem endless. However, there is still a part of me that is watching politics across the world unfold feeling slightly uneasy at some of the scenes that I imagined would have been more welcome on the scripts of House of Cards. It’s difficult looking at the news and the international state of our political affairs and finding hope.  Sharing my concerns with Mike he lets me know: “the only armour against fear and division is political education and good informed people who believe and have the resources to inspire change.”

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Moving Forward Together

The best type of politics is always future-focused; a politics which aims to build a better tomorrow with the resources of today. Mike has certainly grasped that and Bite The Ballot is continuously seeking to develop and hone a generation of political citizens who will engage productively and effectively with the political process. “Conversation and communication are key” and in order to help facilitate this dialogue Bite The Ballot has the goal of hosting events that bring together young people and decision-makers. “The aim is to remove the taboo and normalise politics.” His ideal aim is to have a political landscape which means that Bite The Ballot doesn’t need to exist because politics has been normalised for everyone. “Until we reach that point we will continue to try and work in collaboration and apply pressure to institutions and decision-makers.”

This interview has certainly been fascinating. It’s very rare that I can be taken from a distant village in Vietnam to a hostel in Rio de Janeiro; and with the next moment watch a chair fling across the classroom in a Peckham Pupil Referral Unit. Mike’s story has certainly resonated with me; as he took me on his journey it wasn’t just the descriptions of the landscapes in India, Brazil or the US. Sure, they sounded amazing and I’m sure the very sight of them would take my breath away. However, it was the examples of his bravery, courage and belief that will remain with me. His bravery to leave a stable job and pursue his dream of travelling the world. His courage to follow a vision which he saw was necessary to the development of the next generation of leaders. His belief that politics can become more inclusive all help culminate in a social entrepreneur who is certainly working his patch of society, in the hope to create a better world. “Fighting for change that you may not live to see, but your children will live to see.”

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@VictorPAzubuike

#kingsplace

Photo Credits:

Ernest Simons

Rama Knight

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