An interview with Raheed Salam, Founder/Director Youth Network

I sat down with Raheed to have an open discussion about Youth Network. Raheed is the founder of Youth Network, a youth-centred organisation operating in Luton. Raheed spoke about what drives him in leading Youth Network. It can be quite overwhelming to think about societal issues right now, especially when COVID-19 is still looming over us. It sometimes seems like we don’t have much control over our lives, and the work of Youth Network has never been more crucial, especially to young people.

Can you introduce yourself?

So my name’s Raheed Salam. I’m 49 years old. I’m a guy. I’m a dad. I’m an ex-scientist. I’ve got a scientific background and a business background but for the past 10 or so years I’ve been in the youth and community sector. I like to call myself a youth enabler. I run Youth Network, a youth centered youth organisation based in Luton, helping young people be secure in themselves and seeing how far they can go.

Why choose Youth Work?

Well, I have had this passion that young people in particular should not be shortchanged. I think there are so many obstacles and barriers for young people in their lives and I just don’t think it’s fair. I also think that young people often don’t know that life is unfair until it’s too late. There’s not enough enabling for positive change and success and happiness and that’s because we live in an unequal world, a cruel world.

Is this something that has driven you for quite a while? Is it something that you channel even at work?

I think it’s something I channeled through my own life. As a young person, being the youngest of seven children, I had a really loving and warm upbringing, except that it was really poor. I didn’t have stuff. I really didn’t have stuff at all. And I was expected to do so much. But how can you ever achieve something if you don’t have mentors, if you don’t have access to money or you don’t have access to resources? We didn’t have access to youth clubs or societies. So there was this thing that you’re supposed to achieve a lot and you’re supposed to be a lot and you’re supposed to work really hard. But quite frankly, you don’t have the resources to do it. So whilst it was a very nurturing and loving upbringing, it wasn’t nurturing and loving in terms of provision for the actual functional bits to get on in life.  When I see young people today, they’ve got really complicated and complex lives and they don’t have the internal tools, the familial tools, the systemic tools or the resources to get to where they want to be. I think the pressures are so vast that young people themselves become stuck even in their minds as well as their physical lives. I think it’s really, really hard. I think it’s really unfair. And it leads to destruction and unhappiness. 

Considering Youth Network has been built in Luton, how has the location influenced your work?

Luton is economically deprived. Luton is really diverse, and when you have diverse places in the U.K and they are economically deprived, the political and power structures do not lend themselves to supporting people of diversity, young people, people who don’t have the systemic and structural support networks, and so it’s a vicious cycle.

The odds are 100 percent stacked up against me. And that’s why we’ve got a 20 year strategy. As a youth organisation we’ll hold people’s hands, we’ll be honest with them. They will have peer to peer mentoring support.”

And those people who are least likely to get on are people that look like the 70 percent of BME people under the age of 21. And also people who are from a Muslim background or from an Eastern European background or people who are working class. The system doesn’t work for them.  So there’s a vicious cycle of deprivation. So how do you get out of that? Young Lutonians are disadvantaged by their very being and they don’t know it. And by the time they realise the problem that they’re in, it’s often too late for them to get out of it and it’s a self perpetuating cycle. It’s really sad because people don’t have children to give them a horrible life. 

Have you ever felt like the odds were stacked up against you and how do you navigate that?

Oh, yeah. The odds are 100 percent stacked up against me. And that’s why we’ve got a 20 year strategy. As a youth organisation we’ll hold people’s hands, we’ll be honest with them. They will have peer to peer mentoring support. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s one person or five people or 10 people or 100 people, although I want it to be the whole town. We’re going to go and we’re going to go together. We’re going to build these collaborative, mutually beneficial partnerships so that we can move forward.

How do you visualise Youth Network in the future?

So at the moment it’s a youth centered organisation. Within the next five years, it will be a youth led organisation. There will be young leaders, actually, who understand my ethos and who will learn.  We’ll build mutually beneficial partnerships with the different sectors, you know, the youth and community sector, the education sector, health, business, local authority, etc. So what we are trying to do is we’re trying to be leaders, evidence based leaders, youth workers, informal educators, mentors and supporters and we will go together with young people. And we’ll do it with professionalism, excellence, creativity, having fun.

What do you think really puts Youth Network out there?

Our youth focused young leaders. Our potential is that we set no limits to our potential. So we just keep going. We just set ourselves a target and see whether we can reach it, but it doesn’t matter whether we reach it or not. The point is, is that we learn as we do it. We’re not not afraid to fail or to fall before we get up. We keep going. Our potential isn’t about being the richest or being the cleverest, we just be. We are. We exist and therefore we are.

Last question, let’s say you gave some wisdom to the young people out there. What would that look like?

Dare to dream and make plan A your main plan in life. Don’t have a plan in life and then get told that Plan A isn’t good enough. Don’t ever let Plan B become your plan A. Have courage in your convictions. Do what you’re supposed to do. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to ask. Fall, get up, try again, fall, get up, try again. Ask somebody for help. Don’t worry about asking them for help. That’s a good thing.


Khadijah Hasan is a graduate from King’s University in London.