Sotez Choudhury, Community Organiser
Twenty-two year old Sotez Choudhury was beaten up and stabbed in the street, yet what shocked him was not being on the receiving end of the violence but the reaction of his contemporaries who said, “Let’s go find him and beat him up,” and the disdain of a man on a bike who cycled right past when Sotez was alone and bleeding and asking for help.
Of the desire for revenge, Sotez says categorically, “I don’t know what the answer is but I know that’s not the answer,” while the indifference of the passerby still still puzzles him. “I don’t know the man who attacked me,” Sotez admits, reflecting on the implacable nature of the incident ,“I was a random person. He was carrying a knife and he started hitting me without saying anything.”
This was an experience that inspired Sotez to think deeply about the kind of society he wishes to live in. It is a question that he confronts daily in his work for Shoreditch Citizens as a Community Organiser in the common interest, assisting people to work collectively to address social problems – in a role similar to that once undertaken by two of his role models and inspirations, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. But when Sotez told me his story, I realised that his brave passion to work and engage with people to improve the world around him is the result of a collection of personal influences, more profound in their import than this single isolated incident.
“My dad was a political leader in Bangladesh’s war of Independence. In 1952, they were taught they were Pakistanis not Bangladeshis and the official language was Urdu not Bengali. The name Choudhury is common in my country because the word means “landlord.” It stems from when the British appointed certain people to collect rents and wield power as they pleased, as long as they delivered the money. My father grew up under this and he rejected it, he stopped being a civil servant and became involved in the socialist movement, and he received death threats under the conservative government between 1971 and 1991.
In the late eighties, he came to Britain to work. He saw how many of his friends and family had suffered in the political regime in Bangladesh. Yet – on purpose – he kept his Bangladeshi passport because he only intended to stay a few years, but he met and got married to my mum, who had been born here, and he took a job as a journalist on “Deshpatria,” a newspaper based in Brick Lane. Then he fell ill in 1996 and became housebound when I was still quite young, and eventually he couldn’t walk or even speak, but he continued reading. He had done an MA in literature and he liked to read absolutely everything.
My mum’s family had been in this country since the nineteen thirties and they were among the first Bengalis to buy their own property here, in Princelet St, and they sold it in the sixties for four thousand pounds. With the money, my grandfather took the family to Wales to start a new life in Cardiff. My mum and dad, they always had the policy that you should work where you live. They didn’t want to move to Redbridge and work in Tower Hamlets, so I grew up in Kingwood House, Hanbury St, Spitalfields, and none of my family wants to leave this place now, even to return to the land we come from, because we love it too much. The reason I love it is the same reason I hate it, there’s so much I want to change and so much I don’t want to change, and that’s why I will always stay here.
My mother, she’s the matriarch, she’s always kept everything together. She had three full-time jobs while I was growing up, taking care of my dad, bringing us up and going to work each day too. “You can do everything, when everything falls upon you,” she says, meaning – the more you do, the more you can do. Everything ran like clockwork in our house. My mum got up early and took care of my dad before she saw us off to school. Then carers would come to visit him during the day. After school, I would pick up the little ones and when she got back from work, she would tend to the family, cook dinner and check that we had done our homework. She only slept four hours a night, and then she got up and did it again. This went on for more than five years, until my dad passed away when I was in my mid-teens. She’s always been there to help me and she helps other family members, and her job is helping people out, she’s a therapist counsellor at Mile End Hospital. She used to say to me, “You always worry about things you are not supposed to worry about.”
At school, I was told I had learning difficulties, and they took me out of my class and moved me down two sets. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I was told they had put me down to help the others. I was confident of my ability, so I set myself a target that I’d get into the top group because what they did looked much more interesting. I did get labelled as a boffin but I did achieve it, because I have always loved learning. Secondary school bored me because I was more interested in all the things my dad was reading about – the history of ancient civilisations, Egypt and Greece. It fired my imagination. I suppose because we were responsible for my dad, I never had much of the conventional childhood things, like kicking a ball around – though I wouldn’t change it. Now I’m older, it’s very enjoyable to discuss, but when I was younger no-one was interested in the same things as me.
When I was sixteen, I went to college in North London rather Tower Hamlets because I wanted to go somewhere different with a different mix of people. I thought it would be really good if I didn’t stay in my comfort zone. At this time, my father passed away and I wasn’t permitted to sit my exams, so I didn’t get into university but ended up doing Social Sciences at Westminster studying Psychology. At that time I was volunteering and I did a placement at the Financial Standards Authority. At eighteen, I realised it was not for me, so I got involved in youth charities instead.
After my degree, I had planned to apply to LSE to study Politics but I wanted to do something practical, and I heard of a Masters in Community Organising and part of it was a five month placement as a Community Organiser. So I learnt about the long history of community organisation in the East End and then I undertook the placement. This way you don’t study to be an organiser, you learn to be an organiser by doing it. The programme is about giving power to communities to change things in the interests of the community. By doing the placement, I learnt this is what I wanted to do and, after six months, I was given the job of community organiser for Shoreditch. It’s an area with one the highest crime rates, 43% child poverty and 40% unemployment. I did a listening campaign, including both churches and mosques, to find common interests. We are looking at large problems like crime and prostitution, but also at smaller issues such as solving damp in housing blocks.
My job is not to do the campaign but to be developing and supporting people to achieve what they want to achieve. A lot of people see you as an expert, but you’re not there with an agenda, the job is not to be a leader but to develop leaders. I didn’t know I was going to be doing this when I was twenty – I have discovered that it is politics that interests me, but definitely politics with a small “p.”
“My family in 1996 – my father Showkat H. Chowdhury and my mother Rowshanara B. Chowdhury with me at the front, Soroubh, the baby, and Shayok, my younger brother.”