Leadership development for change: key themes from a MEX event

Migration Exchange
9 min readMay 22, 2023

During a recent event in London, we heard from a range of people working to drive change through leadership development in the UK refugee and migration field. In this blog we look at the key themes emerging from the thought-provoking interventions by our guest speakers.

  • Developing leadership is an integral part of building power and political participation in movements led by communities with lived experience of the migration system
  • Leadership programmes should address and work to eliminate structural barriers to accessing leadership opportunities
  • Funders must recognise the need for, and allocate resources to, well-being support
  • Decision-making power of people with lived experience of the migration system should be embedded in funding and organisational practice

We were blown away by the way people from across the refugee and migration sector, brought together for an afternoon workshop in London, are harnessing different approaches to leadership to build power in their organisations, communities and beyond.

Following our recent report that showed there is an appetite to strengthen cross-sector collaboration in this area, the event, which took place in March 2023, was a chance to spotlight exemplary individuals and initiatives. Changing times, new challenges and a synergy among the participants gave a promising sense of urgency and cohesion.

Our speakers included knowledgeable and experienced community organisers, frontline workers, and programme designers, and in this blog, we are reflecting on some key themes that emerged.

We also share some information about the opportunity to partner with Migration Exchange on our upcoming community of practice, which will aim to generate a joined up and more strategic approach.

Image with text: Visual notes produced by Ada Jusic at the Migration Exchange Leadership Development discussion and networking event on Tuesday 21 March in London.
Visual notes created by Ada Jusic, at MEX event on leadership development on 21 March 2023 in London.

Leadership is integral to building power

While all gave examples of different approaches to developing leadership in their communities and movements, a central theme running across all the speakers’ interventions was the focus on power.

Ledi Pajaj from Shpresa, an organisation started by the Albanian community, spoke about how one of their underlying goals is to increase political participation, and thereby influence political decision-making. Leadership is instrumental to this, and is the reason why they’ve embedded practices which include action learning and mentoring in their own leadership training programme. Acknowledging that many people do not initially see themselves as leaders, Ledi explained that Shpresa listens to each individuals’ needs and takes a facilitative approach: “We focus on the lived experience of migrants and their successes and failures in building leadership of their community”.

Having been successful in its first phase of delivery, Shpresa is capturing learning from its training programme and hopes that this can be used to support other community leaders beyond the Albanian speaking community.

An organiser with Citizens UK, our next speaker Abigail Oyedele, similarly focused on power and engagement. Abigail shared insight on ‘relational’ leadership, created by identifying shared purpose among community members. The relational approach involves making space for people to discuss their aims and motivations, using the format of one-to-one conversations and intentionally taking time to generate connections, finding “common areas of self-interest which will form the basis of a relationship that can lead to change.”

Abigail has experienced how this is an effective starting point to building power in all types and sizes of campaigns — from getting new street infrastructure installed in a local area, to large national campaigns aimed at transforming the migration system: “The glue holding all the work together is the relational, one-to-one conversations that relational leaders have which helps them… to win change.”

Nurturing lived experience leadership

There’s a growing interest in embedding lived experience leadership in the refugee and migration sector. Refugee Education UK (REUK), for example, supports young refugees and asylum-seekers at every stage of their educational journey to build skills and confidence. Like Shpresa, they have developed their own tailored leadership programme.

A participant in the REUK programme who spoke at the event, Joana, said that the programme not only made her feel more secure, after having gone through the difficult asylum system, but it also inspired her to support others going through similar experiences. She spoke about the uncertainty of waiting for her asylum decision and learning she could not access higher education, which greatly impacted her self-confidence, making her feel secluded and trapped by her migration status. Participating in the REUK leadership programme taught her that “leaders are only as good as the positive impact they make on others around them” and it served as a way to find strength.

Moses Seitler, who coordinates the young leaders’ programme, described REUK’s “co-produced, co-delivered” programme as being designed to help young people understand their own values and experiences and then instrumentalise them as and how they see fit.

A key factor, added Moses, is to actively acknowledge the structural barriers faced by people with lived experience; to examine the “relationship between a person’s leadership journey and their other journey through the asylum system” and how this means “having to navigate the political, legal and wellbeing consequences of that.”

Moses described how REUK is conscious of the “trampoline effect” of facilitating young people’s leadership journeys and the incredibly diverse places this leads. Once the course has concluded, REUK has to know when to step back and allow the participants to continue their journeys independently, while also providing for continued opportunities for involvement if the individual feels that could be beneficial. Following the leadership programme and getting into university, Joana is a member of REUK’s Youth Advisory Board and a trustee of a charity, using her experience as an asylum-seeker in higher education to help others like her.

With a similar focus on dedicating time and effort to recognising what each individual has to offer as a leader, we also heard from Farkhonda Kabiri from Scottish Refugee Council.

Farkhonda is working with newcomers in Scotland and in particular a group of Afghan women on strengthening their community participation. Farkhonda emphasised enabling people to recognise their strengths, with the conviction that in this hostile political landscape “trying to change others drains your energy” and so focusing on individual strengths is key.

Farkhonda echoed other speakers, in that creating just one leader from a community that may not at first realise their potential, makes a big impact. Her focus in her work is to support with resources so that the people she works with can gain confidence…. Without imposing her own ideas on them.

Photo of attendees at Migration Exchange leadership development discussion and networking event. In the background, there are people sitting at three tables in a large conference room. In the foreground, there are four people sitting at a table chatting and writing on a large sheet of paper with post-it notes and markers.
MEX Leadership Development- Discussion and Networking event. Photo: Migration Exchange

Transforming funder practice through decision-makers with lived experience

As someone passionate about making sure people affected by the asylum system are part of decision-making processes, Ronnie Tagwireyi, a volunteer with Scottish Refugee Council ,spoke of leadership through the lens of funding processes.

Ronnie was part of a team of eight people, all with an asylum-seeking background, that formed a panel to design and allocate funding of £800,000 aimed at refugee organisations. After applications came in, the group collectively decided to give grants to low-income, small and refugee-led organisations. Ronnie said this felt like a real shift, moving resources (and power) to those who haven’t historically been on the receiving end of direct financial support. Ronnie reflected that these kinds of processes feed into change by shifting the landscape of who funding is available to — and going to those who know what is happening on the ground.

Ronnie also forms part of a refugee advisory group commissioned by Scottish Refugee Council to review and recommend how people with a background of seeking asylum or being a refugee can better be involved. This has shown how their collective “shared experience” of being in the asylum process can be harnessed for real change.

Enhancing peer learning among and between communities

“Diaspora leaders are natural bridge builders because they have their feet in different geographies… they have understanding of different contexts and spaces… which actually make them best placed to really impact change”

Reem Assil, from global non-profit Common Purpose (CP), started her career there as a participant in the first programme run by the organisation in the UK. From there, she continued to work to unleash the potential and power of people with lived experience of migration. Focused on creating “united diaspora” and “leading beyond authority”, the Common Purpose programme uses peer coaching as part of its approach.

With echoes of the approaches touched on by Abigail and Ledi, Reem said that CP’s UK programme demonstrates that people really value the peer coaching element of their leadership programme, which is “Experiential and immersive… participants spend a lot of time brainstorming and ideating on a specific challenge for their communities.. and they spend a lot of time sharing these challenges with each other and getting some peer coaching work on it.” Bonds among participants keep going for years.

Communities sometimes tend to be in a “bubble” dealing with their own issues, operating in silos, when we could “network with other communities that may perhaps have solutions to the issues we are facing”

The programme works with diasporas in the UK and across borders, connecting for example the Bangladeshi community in the UK with communities in Bangladesh; bridging across geography to exchange knowledge and resources.

Looking to the future, after building better bonds between members of the same diaspora, she hopes that CP can build bridges between different diasporas.

Recognising the links between wellbeing, racial justice and leadership

How can people thrive and develop leadership, when burnout among people involved in refugee and migrant justice is on the rise?

As a person with lived experience of the asylum system and her work with the funder Justice Together Initiative (JTI), Farah AlHaddad emphasised the need for wellbeing support to people in the sector. Conversations around leadership cannot ignore the fact it’s becoming harder to handle the sometimes extreme day-to-day challenges in the field, particularly in frontline work and for people with lived experience of the asylum and migration system.

Acknowledging the power coming from the people within the sector themselves, for example in fighting for better working conditions and other structural changes … Farah stressed the need for “money power, pushed in the direction of wellbeing”. Funders must pay attention to how the sector risks “replicating cycles of harm caused by the violent border system”. Farah added that wellbeing, racial justice and lived experience leadership are intertwined, and all these need to be tackled in tandem.

In her introduction to Farah’s intervention, Pascale Gayford summarised key findings from research carried out by Refugee Action in 2022 which showed that 76% of organisations are just “surviving”, with “overwork, financial worries and stress and anxiety” being the top concerns. It is no surprise though — given the increasingly hostile environment, the threat of far-right activity and of course “the impact of the cost of living crisis threatening the existence of charitable organisations” — that wellbeing is an issue.

New initiatives are getting organised and offering tailored support. For example this year the Black Wellbeing Collective delivered an eight-week programme for JTI grantees, specifically for staff of racialised backgrounds and who have experienced the UK immigration system. Farah described the programme as transformative, saying that investing in initiatives like this is really crucial.

Additionally, the Refugee Action good practice team is facilitating a working group on wellbeing made up of representatives from different charities, and the group is launching an online platform that will collect resources and signpost to support.

Towards a collective approach

The powerful insights from these speakers and the discussion session that followed among all attendees underlined that there is a clear appetite for ongoing focus on leadership development, though this cannot be separated from wider conversations around power, anti-racism, wellbeing, funding and working conditions in the sector.

A joined up strategic approach is urgently needed to sustain the sector’s impact. For the next phase of this work, MEX is looking for a partner to co-design and deliver a community of practice, to think further about what transformative leadership in the sector could look like. The aims of the community of practice will be to nurture existing connections and generate new ones to harness a collective approach on how leadership development opportunities in the refugee and migration sector can be more accessible, equitable and contribute to system change.

We have issued an invitation to tender and encourage people and organisations across the social justice field to apply.

Visit our website for more information. The deadline to submit proposals is Wednesday 31 May 2023.



Migration Exchange

A UK-based charitable programme whose mission is to cultivate insight, connection and action across the UK migration and refugee field: bit.ly/MigrationExchange