Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa, our CEO, shares why as a charity we’re no longer talking about disadvantage and why you shouldn’t either.

In such a precarious time I believe it is particularly important to acknowledge one’s blessings. I have the privilege of leading a U.K wide social mobility charity that works with some of the most resilient, brave, and tenacious young people of their generation.

These young people have started life experiencing single or multiple social barriers and yet display a focused desire to achieve and experience better. For many of them they are pioneers in their families; first to attend university and/or first with aspirations to work in a particular industry.

For 18 years we have been supporting young people across the UK to become socially mobile and positively change their narratives. The legacy of such work not only impacts that particular young person on our programme but also their family and wider community.

The power of language

One thing in society that we are really good at is putting people in boxes and labelling them one dimensionally. It is considered efficient and convenient, however for us at Career Ready it is not appropriate. Doing so totally excludes the premise of context; how, why, and what are the reasons that a young person is eligible for free school meals or cannot afford a tablet or data plan to access online learning?

Language is a powerful tool that can impact different people in many ways, changing how we see ourselves and the world around us. At Career Ready we have begun a journey exploring the language we choose to use to describe our work and the young people we serve. We aim to no longer use language that describes young people from a deficit position, instead our aspiration is for our language to be ‘asset-based’, enriching and empowering.

Our journey

Previously, the word disadvantaged, without fail, would be present in every funding application and pitch presentation we created, as is the case for so many organisations in our sector. When I looked up the word in the dictionary the definition read: “a person in unfavourable circumstances, especially with regard to financial or social opportunities.”

This definition is a truth for many of the students we support, however it is not the only truth. So why have we decided to use that particular truth to describe the students? Why have we chosen to use circumstances that are totally out of their control to label them? Where is the power in describing what a person doesn’t have in comparison to what they do?

The mirror we have held up to ourselves has begun an intriguing journey for the charity. We know that technical skills are important in a young person’s career journey, however we also know self-esteem is critical. Displaying confidence can be a performance, but possessing sincere self- belief is a game changer.

Moving past disadvantage 

This is why we have taken the decision to no longer use terms such as ‘disadvantaged’ to describe our young people. This shift is not just about being positive, it is about ensuring young people feel they have agency and they experience a level of dignity when working with us. Our mission is to support students in unlocking their power and potential. Removing negative labels plays a big role in enabling us to achieve this.

A minority of the young people we work with are familiar with being perceived as excellent, talented, and belonging in the career paths that many of them end up in after completing one of our programmes. We want to make this experience the norm for the majority.

This cultural shift for the charity is a courageous one and it is not one we aspire to travel alone. We aim to share our philosophy with all of our stakeholders, whether that be a charity doing similar work, a grant provider, an employer partner, a volunteer or one of the 420 schools we work with across the UK.

2020 has been a year of extreme challenge and yet also one of transparency, it is time for us as charity, a sector and as a society to be brave. We know better and our ambition is to be better.