People Library

Better people, better world

“Sport is the most powerful communication device I think we have…”

The challenges we face are never easy in the moment, but hindsight gives us perspective on past adversity and offers us the opportunity to respond and grow. When we are faced with inequality we develop empathy and understanding for others facing similar situations. Our own past experiences can be used to help others.

For Tahir Akram, a Development Manager at Yorkshire Sport Foundation and Active Bradford, his experience of growing up in Bradford and spending nearly a decade in the North East has influenced his life and career. He’s on a journey to address inequalities in sport, society and more recently, on a global scale by leading a response to climate change.

“I love sport, I’ve loved it my entire life,” he says. “For me, football was always in a street on a bit of grass that had ‘no ball games or trespassing’ signs, with a few trees, that we used to dribble around. That was my Wembley.”

Tahir grew up in one of the most deprived areas of Bradford, which was predominantly Asian. He distinctly remembers his first experience outside the area he grew up in. “We took a risk when applying for my secondary school because it was outside of the catchment area.”

He continues “It was a completely different environment to my primary school. I tried to mingle and talk to people, but everyone had their own groups and clusters. It was about 98% white and my middle school was the other way, with about 2% white! That’s when you begin to notice the differences and you hear comments. It was twenty years ago, so you can imagine the kind of comments I received.”

He references sports as his saving grace. “It helped me massively. If I didn’t play football I’d have been very much alone at school and it would’ve been so tough. Playing football, the team camaraderie and spirit, allowed me to draw a group of friends around me, some of who are still friends now..”

“It was the first time I’d played in a kit and with the offside rule and a referee. I felt like I was playing in the Premier League.” As he grew up, Tahir continued to follow his passion for football, playing for Bradford Boys, and remembers a trip to Glasgow for one of his games. “It was good to get out of Bradford and to start to see the world beyond where I grew up.”

Being Asian and coming from an Islamic background didn’t make it easy for Tahir to focus on sports either, as his parents wanted him to get a respected, well-paid job “My Dad came to this country to create a better life for his family. So he’s first generation and was literally working 12 hour shifts, six days a week just to get enough money, probably living eight or nine in a house.”

Tahir continues, “It wasn’t because they didn’t want me to play football. They wanted me to have an easier life and understood that those careers pay more and also allow you to help more people. My Dad always used to say ‘play for fun, but don’t take it too seriously’.”

Alongside this, there were no Asian or Pakistani footballers on TV whilst Tahir was young. “Dad was always like, ‘well, you’re never going to make it. Do you see any Pakistani footballers?!’.”

Tahir says, “I understand the value of money, but I’m not driven by it. So long as I have enough money to live, I want to work for something that makes me happy.”  He chose to follow his passion and completed a degree in Sports Studies at Teesside University. His dissertation was written about racial inequalities. “I wrote about the lack of Asians within professional football, because I understood the barriers to get into sport.”

About leaving university he says, “I did Sports Studies because I loved sport, but I had no idea what job I’d get within sport or what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. After Uni I took the first job I could find, and worked for an insurance company and coached in my evenings.”

Getting a career in sport has proved difficult, even after studying, and has been a testimony to his resolve. “I had plenty of rejections trying to get into sport which really knocked my confidence at times and when you get rejected you feel awful and start doubting yourself.”

Talking about his reflections on this time in his life, Tahir says, “I’ve learned that it’s important to understand what you are good at and to not worry about the process so much. I’ve also got a much better grasp on what’s important in life now and that’s to do with the people around you, your family and your health. Ultimately that’s what matters.”

After several rejections, Tahir sought help to break into the industry. He was introduced to a professor, Dan Kilvington at Leeds University who’d done a lot of studies around Asians within football and held workshops for coaches giving them opportunities to work in sport.

At one of these workshops at Elland Road he met Steve Dorey who worked for West Riding County FA at the time. “I’d never even had an interview for a sports position, so I asked Steve, ‘How do I get a job in sport?’  Steve took time out of his day to chat. I told him I was sick of my work and wanted to work in sport. We had a really long chat, and he helped me with interview techniques and my application form. No one had ever given me support like that before.”

Not long after this support Tahir got a job working for Sheffield FA. “I remember getting the call to say I got the job, and thought to myself ‘I can make the two hour round trip’ so I typed up my resignation email and sent it. Although the vast majority of that role was admin, I was now working in football.”

“It’s important to get out of your comfort zone. The world is a big place and it doesn’t revolve around Bradford. You get a horrible feeling in your stomach when you’re out of your comfort zone, but it’s important because challenges are where you grow. It’s just like being in the right environment, having the right culture.”

For the past four years he’s worked for Yorkshire Sport Foundation (funded by Sport England) and now has the role of Development Manager within Active Bradford. “We’re trying to get people more physically active and to help those that are inactive to become more active. We’re developing a better vision for the district, and within my role I develop strategies and local policies.”

“My past experiences of being a minority in sport are still relevant today. I understand the challenges and barriers that prevent people getting involved.” Over the last twenty years in Bradford, Tahir has seen a change in accessibility and diversity within sports including disability access, sign language provision, young and old people involved.  He says, “It’s not just about ethnicity and race, it’s about girls getting an equal opportunity too, so seeing the increase in women’s football is brilliant. Sport is a lot more inclusive now.”.

However, he does still see gaps in the sector workforce. “It’s something I’ve been banging on about for a while,” and explains, ”at Yorkshire Sport, job applications used to require a degree in Sport, but those courses at University are predominantly white. We’ve now noticed an increasing number of people applying for jobs from different ethnicities. Now I want to work out how we get them into leadership positions too.”

Tahir also works as coach developer for the FA, delivering UEFA courses for grassroots coaches and understands the importance of representation, particularly in football.

Speaking of Bradford, he believes residents need to be more proud of the City “Bradford, it’s always shown in a negative light and I think that rubs off to the people that live here, but there’s so much good stuff going on in Bradford., We’ve got a world heritage site and sporting world champions like the cricketer Harry Brook.

I know that we have lots of challenges and lots of stuff that we need to work on, but I think we need to stick our chests out and be a bit prouder of what we do and what we’ve achieved.”

In recent years, Tahir’s passion to tackle inequalities has grown to include a global issue. “The biggest challenge we face as humanity at the moment is the Climate Emergency. Generally, the people who suffer the most are those with the biggest inequalities, people in third world countries. They are suffering more than anyone else because of the damage caused by first world countries.”

He continues, “It’s really given me a kick up the backside recently and I’d say having two young daughters and thinking about their future has a big part to play in it too. As you get older you start to think about the bigger picture. What’s it going to look like for my kids in the future?”

He’s now found himself combining these passions and has had the opportunity to lead within Yorkshire Sport on their response to climate change. “There were six of us to begin with. We called ourselves ‘Climate Crew’ and our main question we posed was ‘how are we going to influence more people to play their part?’”

It led to policies being drawn up, webinars on both local and national levels, and other big players in the sports scene seeking advice and best practice for their own organisations. “Nationally we now have sustainability leads, climate coalition groups, and Sport England getting it’.”

“We have an action plan at YSF and we release our annual report on Earth Day, we want to be held to account for what we do. We’ve had conversations with Sport England and Active Partnerships too. It’s the definition of influence and change, but there’s lots more we can do.”

He excitedly talks about the power and influence of sport. “Sport is the most powerful communication device I think we have. I mean, if you look back at history, sports stars always beat politicians.” He references Boris Johnson versus Marcus Rashford and the free school meals campaign victory during the pandemic.

“You don’t need to be an expert to see how influential sport is within people’s lives. If we can get people and organisations with a platform to kick up a fuss about climate change then we’ll see even greater change.”

One such organisation is the football club Forest Green. “They are completely eco-friendly. Everything they do is geared around the environment and it’s come down from their chairman. That’s an example of influential people in sport making a change. The more we push this kind of agenda, the more we’ll get change nationally.”

“I’ve loved sport my entire life but if we’re going to look at something that’s going to really impact the future, that’s what I’ve got a passion for. Ultimately, we need national change at Government and legislation level. I may not be able to make that change, but I can make a difference through my family and my work in the sports world.”

He continues, “I’m not an eco warrior by any stretch and I don’t want to shove a message down people’s throats,” but Tahir believes in the power of small changes, starting by becoming a better person himself. “I may not be a climate scientist, but I understand the basics and the need for simple things like recycling. If you just try to be a better person, and others also become better people, that will lead to a better world.”

Sometimes in life it’s hard to see the road ahead and find our place in the world. Tahir’s life is a shining example of someone who has followed their passion from childhood into adulthood and found both. He’s taken risks, sought opportunities to grow, and used his experience of inequality to fuel his dedication. He is a change maker for people at a local, national, and global level.

Story co-written by People Library Mentee Keyhan Modaressi and Storyteller/Mentor Tom Harmer