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Regional Director Al Naseem Speaks About His Journey

Category: Independent Office for Police Conduct, Equal opportunities, Anti-racism, Race Equality and Inclusion, Regional Director, BAME into Leadership


What’s your first childhood memory?

First day of school...First birthday...First trip to the seaside... ?


Being racially abused by 4 skinheads.

I was 6 years old, me and my 2 wee brothers were walking back home with mum. It was a really sunny day- which in Scotland was pretty memorable by itself. I remember turning around as a car was driving really fast down the road and I could hear people making noises. The car got close to us and slowed down a bit, their windows were down. I could see 4 skinheads laughing and making monkey noises and saying words which I didn’t really understand then. I could tell from my mum’s reaction she was scared. 

They then drove off.

Although it happened quite quickly, the memory all seems to be in slow motion. I don’t remember everything they said but it was the first time I remember hearing the P word. I remember looking around that day as a wee boy and there was no one else around that looked like us.

Nearly 40 years later, I still remember how that made me feel.

Alone and scared.

If I had the chance to speak to you in person today, I’d be asking for a show of hands of how many of you have every felt alone and isolated because you’re the only person of colour in the room/the team/your department ? Although sadly I can’t see you, I’m going to take a punt that I would be seeing some hands.

So, being the only one in the room.

This has been a constant thread in my life and career. And it’s something I wanted to talk about today in 4 areas:

1 - Being the first.

2 - Climbing the greasy ladder

3 - Arriving at the top table

4 - Trying to make a difference

1 - Being the first

As you can tell from the accent, although sadly it’s a bit softer these days I grew up In Scotland. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s it wasn’t the most diverse place. 

We moved a few times when I was young, and I know being the first Asian family posed real challenges. I remember one evening our living room window being pelted by rocks and being broken by the local kids, my Dad’s shop having racist graffiti daubed on it, or reporting crime to the police and it not being treated seriously.

So, it’s fair to say that being the first Asian family in the town we grew up in had its challenges.

Then being the first brown face at school, in that environment and at that time…well it’s fair to say it was formative. Racism and then later on violence were out in the open, and part of the drumbeat of my entire time at both primary and secondary school. Mum and Dad did what they could, but when I got to secondary school, I stopped telling them.

At secondary, the racist abuse and violence got worse. Sometimes you’d fight back, sometimes you’d run and if they pulled a knife out …you’d always run.

Its only after becoming a father and now living in a really diverse part of England that I’ve really thought about my childhood …and realised….that wasn’t normal.

But…I don’t want anyone to think that I’m complaining - because honestly, I’m not.

Actually, I’m grateful.

I’m grateful because little did I realise back then that all of those experiences would have provided me with three core foundations:

  • A really high level of resilience
  • The ability to thrive despite being the only brown face in the room; and
  • Invaluable lived experience of discrimination

Its these foundations that I’ve built on as I’ve progressed in my career.

2 - Climbing the greasy ladder

I was reflecting on this and here had to mention the influence of my dad.

He came to the UK from Pakistan in the early 70’s with £30 in his pocket and an unwavering desire to provide a better life for his future family. My Dad worked exceptionally hard to get his two degrees and qualify as an electrical engineer, but he then got frustrated at getting constantly passed over for promotion, so he decided to do something about. He took a massive risk and became self-employed and like many south Asians at that time opened a convenience store.

Well why is this relevant?

The things that I learned from my Dad were the ability to work harder than anyone else and never to settle. These are 2 skills which I’ve really needed in my career.

Since getting my law degree over 20 years ago, I’d like to say it’s been a carefully orchestrated career plan executed with ruthless precision and strategic timing.

But, I’d be lying.

Wherever I’ve worked, being the only brown face in the room has been a constant. In my more junior roles there was a bit more company but as I’ve been fortunate enough to progress that company has got scarcer and scarcer.

The truth of it has been that, as a person of colour I’ve found that you can’t be just as good as your peers, you have to be exceptional.

And, I will come back to that phrase.

Then, there’s the desire to progress and better yourself. Here, I still have the scars as my head has banged against the invisible ceilings I’ve hit in many past organisations- where it was clear that no matter what I did, how well I performed or hard I worked, I was never going to get that next role.

So what do you do in that situation? Do you stay or do you go?

For me, I’ve always taken the view that it takes a personal emotional cost to fight, and realistically in my roles in the past I’ve never been in a position to effect any cultural change in those organisations.

So, I’ve left and I’ve tried again elsewhere.

For me, it’s been this refusal to accept the limits posed by these invisible ceilings that’s helped me to progress. That alongside the acceptance that I will have to work much harder than others for any measure of success.

At this point, I want to come back to that word exceptional.

I got real insight into this point, after gaining a promotion to a management role many years ago. I happened to bump into one of the senior members of the recruiting panel later on. When we were chatting, I remember them saying; “You do know that, if you hadn’t been so exceptional in your current role, you wouldn’t have got the job.”

I didn’t say anything.

But that really stuck with me, “…hadn’t been so exceptional”.

It almost meant; they couldn’t ignore me but really…was it fair that I needed to prove myself to that extent? Should I have needed to clear the bar that much higher than everyone else?

The answer is obviously no…. but the reality of it is sadly, yes.

3 - Arriving at the top table

I’m very fortunate at the moment to work for a really progressive organisation, the IOPC. The IOPC’s mission is to improve public confidence in policing by overseeing the police complaints system in England and Wales. We’re not part of the police, we’re an independent organisation and we investigate the most serious matters concerning police accountability.

Personally, I have found in my organisation that progression is possible.

I have enjoyed two promotions in the past four years and am currently Regional Director for London and the Lead on our Discrimination work.

So, when I got my most senior role, for me it was like arriving at the top table. But as a person of colour I wanted to highlight today that the challenges don’t end just because you’re fortunate enough to get a seat at the table.

I am going to come back to that idea of being the only one in the room.

Working in London, one of the most diverse cities in the world, I naively expected at my level I would now just be one of many brown or black faces in my area of work. So, it came as a bit of a shock that most of the time not only was I the most senior person of colour in the room, I was the only one. In London…surely that can’t be right?

It’s not right, but it’s a reality that I’ve mentioned many times today and one I know many of you will be familiar with.

The phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ is used often when you get a more senior role. I tend to take a different view about this. That when you’re an ethnic minority…it isn’t actually imposter syndrome, its more to do with the challenge and reality about being the only person like you in the room. Which can also mean having very different views and perspectives from others.

This can be particularly challenging as it can be much easier to give into group-think. But the beauty of diversity is the ability to bring those different perspectives to the table, and the blessing of a level of seniority is for those different perspectives to be taken account of and acted on.

The important question that I always ask myself is that I’ve reached this position working in a way that’s always been true to my values, am I still being true to myself? 

I would argue that it’s so important not to lose what got you a seat at the table in the first place. This is where your values come in and ensuring you place these front and centre of your approach to the role.

So, for me that’s being a servant leader, it’s always the team that comes first and leaving your ego at the door. Living and practising a no- blame culture with your people, and ensuring they feel supported in the most challenging times and shining a light on all of their achievements, while cheering from the background.

This is what I’ve done throughout my career and I’ve no intention of changing my approach now.

4 - Trying to make a difference

In my role at the IOPC, for the first time in my life I can say that my skin colour and lived experience is an advantage.

As I’ve said my work involves ensuring accountability for the police and helping improve policing practice. Being able to discuss issues around discrimination in an authentic way and trying to effect positive change in policing on issues around discrimination put me in a very privileged position and also in a position of responsibility.

Being in post last summer during the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, was incredibly challenging – but it has also provided an opportunity to see these events as a catalyst for change. I am now working with policing about the need to listen and engage with concerns from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities around disproportionality and issues around trust and confidence.

As a person of colour, I know that in the past it has been hard to be heard.

Recognising this, I have worked with my stakeholder engagement team to pioneer a new approach in London. This is about reaching out to those who feel their concerns aren’t being heard. This involves proactively engaging with those communities who have lower levels of confidence in policing and raising awareness of who we are and what we do. Since last May I’ve been involved in over 50 meetings with community members and groups using a variety of different platforms to engage.

I’ve also personally led work on Stop and Search in London. Here, my personal understanding about racial discrimination was key in ensuring these issues were treated as a priority. The work has been focussed on making a tangible difference to the lives of black communities across London who are most affected by policing practice in this area.

And to ensure credibility in our work, the IOPC like any organisation needs to reflect the diverse communities it serves. Some of the things my organisation is doing to make progress in this area and I’m supporting are:

  • Running an Aspiring Managers programme specifically aimed at improving recruitment, retention and progression opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff.
  • Hosting six staff networks that drive the internal agenda for those protected characteristics; run by staff for staff.
  • We are also running an extensive and active Allyship Programme – where colleagues are called upon to champion diversity, promote inclusive practices and help remove barriers within the organisation.

I’m really proud of the efforts we are making in this space.


For me, one of the responsibilities for people of colour, is that when we can get into senior positions, we must remember the journey it took to get there, because that’s what makes us who we are.

We also need to be true to our values and really importantly, to remember not to pull up the ladder behind us.

In fact, let’s forget this idea of a ladder and for those that continue to struggle let’s build an escalator. It’s because of the challenges that we’ve experienced we need to help other’s by making it fairer.

I’m trying to do something about it, but we all have that responsibility.

I’d like to think I’ve come a long way from being that frightened wee 6-year-old boy hiding behind his mum, all those years ago. If I could go back in time, I’d tell him,

“don’t be scared, change is coming. And if you stay the course you can help be part of that change.”

My reflections would be that if I: as a Scottish, Asian, Muslim man working in London and trying to help improve public confidence in policing can do this job….

Then… truly anything is possible.


BAME into Leadership

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