Excellence not Empire - Poppy Jaman OBE, a British Bengali social founder & CEO, shares her story, her values, her work in Mental Health, and her campaign to re-brand the British Honours system.

Poppy Jaman OBE - is campaigning for Excellence NOT Empire. A British Bengali social founder, Poppy writes about her response to receiving a high Honour from the Queen, her identity growing up in Britain, and her drive to create positive change. 

Poppy Jaman OBE - SocialFounder.org blog

Poppy, pictured above with her daughters after receiving her OBE, is CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance charity and recent Founder of the global Re-Balance organisation. Poppy is also co-founder of a new campaign, 'Excellence not Empire', to change the British Honours system. Many across our Social Founder Network will share Poppy’s mix of pride and ambivalence around honours and wider identity. Poppy’s blog is extra-timely, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh independence, and also mark Mental Health Awareness Week in May. Please do respond to, and share Poppy’s blog. Add your thoughts below, and if you haven't already, please do subscribe to our newsletter. 

Poppy Jaman OBE - Guest blog for Social Founders

Excellence not Empire – how as Founders and Leaders we need to create opportunities for restitution, and take pride in leading by example. 

Three years ago I was honoured to attend my Investiture at Buckingham Palace and receive an OBE  - the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - from the Queen. 

I’ve been fascinated by my inner dialogue and the conversations triggered by the award of the OBE. My family and friends were so proud, it was a truly humbling experience. We had lots of Obi-Wan jokes, lots of curtsy practising and I really enjoyed fuelling my inner megalomaniac by regularly ordering ‘off with their heads’ in my best Queen of Hearts voice! However, leading up to accepting the honour I had many deeper more thoughtful reflections that I’d like to share today. 

I am a British Bengali. The UK is my home. I’ve proudly dedicated my career to social good. I love my work, it is purpose-led. With the words “Excellence” and “Empire” in the title of the OBE, I would like to think I represent British ‘excellence’.  However, the word ‘Empire’ does not resonate with my sense of integrity. Colonial policies during the British Raj of my birth country ensured communities turned on each other for almost 200 years, its legacy still playing out in our homes today. 

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I was born in rural Bangladesh, in a house made of mud and straw. There was no sanitation, no running water, no electricity. We moved to Britain when I was 18 months old. I did well at school, but my education stopped abruptly at the age of 17, when I ran away from home.  My parents were typical of migrant communities; proud to be British, relentless in their efforts to contribute and embrace the opportunities Britain offered. Yet they were unsettled with a constant yearning for ‘home’. They worked around the clock, and often struggled to afford the weekly shop, let alone my school trips. My Dad kept boxes of panes of glass to replace our broken windows, as it was easier to keep fixing the damage than to work with the authorities to stop racist violence happening. These are the experiences that made me who I am today. 

Remaining connected to my roots and recognising my privilege is an important part of being a leader for social good.  Growing up, at family gatherings conversations of the Raj and the Empire would result in fallout. The word ‘traitor’ hurled by an aunty at an uncle from another village would often be the last straw. 

To my shame I only discovered the brutality of the British Empire’s legacy at a museum in Dhaka just 10 years ago. I cried and I could feel my heart bleed as I walked through the historical account of famine and devastation. This was the legacy of the empire, and I understood why I was not taught this history in school. My dual identity has a massive hole in it and my sense of belonging has been disrupted by the words ‘go back to where you came from’ which I have repeatedly heard throughout my life. 

 My fuel for life comes from the hardship, the health inequalities and injustice my community continues to experience. That’s the main reason for accepting the OBE - to honour the courage and resilience of my family, to have a seat at the table, to have a voice, and to challenge systems by bringing an alternative perspective. I am so proud of my dual heritage; my limited Sylheti is my mother tongue and my not-quite-Queen’s English is my pride. The ability to communicate in many ways is a privilege I don’t take for granted. 

Both my dad passing away and the award of an OBE have sharpened my focus for my search to understand my British Bangla identity which started with a conversation with Abdal Ullah, one of the founders of British Bangladeshi Power, and Inspiration on a snowy day in February 2018. He had called to invite me to an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Altab Ali, a 26-year-old man who was murdered in a racist attack in Brick Lane on 4th May 1978. Altab Ali’s murder was a turning point for the British Bangladeshi community. It brought us together and forced us to stand up and make our presence known, to demand the right to be a respected and protected part of the society we lived in. 

Poppy Jaman OBE - socialfounder.org blog

Over the past 50 years I’ve seen my family shift from living out of a metaphorical suitcase to settling and laying down roots in this country.  My dad ran restaurants and dealt with racism pretty much every day of his working life. He would say to me: “This is not your home. We are not here to build a life, we’re just visitors working away from home”. And as a child I remember thinking, “but I don’t know any other home”. It’s difficult to describe how it felt growing up as a ‘visitor’, not a citizen. But the benefit of seeing the world through tourist eyes was curiosity – I was interested in everything – and in search of my place in the world. George Santayana, wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

I may now be an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – but together with many others, I don’t necessarily agree that the Empire was wholly excellent. However I do know that I would not be here today representing Bengalis, women, and mental health had it not been for the East India Company and the merchant navy which recruited my grandad, and I’m incredibly proud of my British Bangladeshi identity. The OBE is for my service to mental health and I take only part credit for that recognition. My entire work family has played a significant role in making that bit happen. 

What I do take full credit for is consistently remaining curious, and always wanting to make sure my children felt home was home. I wanted to be a role model and encourage others to believe that anything is possible. I guess I took Dad’s words as a challenge to see if I could build a home, and not just visit. I took Santayana’s words to remember the past, and take pride in representing difference today. 

I honour the memory of all those Bengalis who lost their lives and on whose shoulders my generation of Bengalis stand. I am a proud British Bengali woman and I’m committed to celebrating today and every day that I grew up speaking Sylheti. 

I have written about my early life struggles. Today, my life couldn’t be more different. I’m a middle-class woman living a blessed and privileged life, far removed from those early hardships. 

I firmly believe that a leader for social good has to lead by example. We must talk-the-talk by both supporting and actively participating. Above all being a leader for social good means building self-trust which requires being transparent and accountable, being personally vulnerable, taking risks, speaking up, talking about my failures, consciously choosing alignment with my values. 

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I strongly believe that, in order to be part of a balanced, healthy society, we need to create opportunities for restitution, and that starts with knowing myself and learning to practise self-care and self-soothing. It’s that very balance that lies at the heart of my new global organisation, Re-Balance — an organisation that stands for equality and commitment to rebalance people’s lives for the better. And also my new campaign, alongside many other social leaders and founders, to change the UK Honours wording, from ‘Empire’ to ‘Excellence’. 

I promise to continue being radical and relentless in my expectations of myself, and to do better. Just like my parents did. I will take pride in leading by example. I will make mistakes and I will forgive. Equity depends on dismantling discrimination and replacing it with fairness. Without equality a healthy society simply isn’t possible. 


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Poppy Jaman is Founder of the global Re-Balance.org, and CEO at City Mental Health Alliance www.citymha.org.uk. You can donate to the 'Excellence not Empire' campaign to support our work here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/excellence-not-empire

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