Episode 8

Influencing Government Policy with Dr. Omolade Femi-Ajao

Published on: 28th April, 2021

Dr. Omolade Femi-Ajao is a researcher at the University of Manchester, where she obtained her Doctorate after researching Nigerian women’s experiences of domestic abuse in the UK. In this interview, Dr Femi-Ajao talks about her audacious work in this area, including

  • what her parents taught her about perseverance and reaching beyond the sky
  • how to use facts and evidence to change the system from within
  • how to deal with rejection of your ideas
  • how important it is to be vulnerable, to ask for help and to offer help
  • how to break down large goals and approach them one step at a time

This is Dr Femi-Ajao’s page on the University of Manchester website.

The books mentioned in this episode are The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and Your Road Map for Success by John C. Maxwell.

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Maribel:

Omolade, thank you very much for joining us at our podcast AudaciousNess, we are very much looking forward to having this conversation with you. Can you tell us a little bit what it is that you do?

Omolade:

I’m a lecturer at the University of Manchester and what that actually entails is I do research as well as teaching, but I'm more inclined towards research. My research really is focused on helping women with lived experience of domestic abuse and particularly immigrant women and ethnic minority women. So I work with them and I also work with service providers and service provision, so it's all linked. And that's how I work. So that's pretty much the summary of what I do. And feeding into that, from evidence from my research actually, I created a charity. I started a charity that is registered in the UK and one of the things that we do is to create an avenue where the evidence from my research can be translated into service provision and then we work as a charity with other service providers, basically.

Maribel:

Where is the source of these goals coming from? How did you get to starting that path?

Omolade:

I think I can trace it back to my parents. Earlier on my dad, he had books, he had encyclopedias and libraries and things and so I find myself reading books. So I had that exposure to books early on and because of the books that were in my dad's library, I just picked up. So I remember vividly that my first book was The Power of Positive Thinking and I just continued from there reading and I just got exposed to setting goals, and that was it. And my parents just created an enabling environment for all of us really to just be like that, like, yeah, that's what you want to do, fine. So I was never told as a young child that you can’t do something. My family's from Nigeria, so I grew up in Nigeria and I went to grammar school, I went to boarding house. And I remember my dad saying, “Beyond the sky's the limit” and that was at a time where people, I mean, I've never heard people say, beyond the sky's the limit, I always said the sky's the limit. But my dad was always like, beyond the sky's the limit, beyond the sky's the limit. And I was very out of place, in fact I didn't realize it wasn’t normal until I started interacting with people outside of my immediate family, and then people started telling me, Oh, you’re a tomboy, you don't fit into the mold, because I'm like, well, this is normal. So my normal was not the society normal. Because obviously, as a female child you are expected to conform to some expectations. But my dad was just, “A child is a child”. So I think that was the source of it for me.

Helen:

Would you say that he was an important role model for you? Is it important that your parents, or one of your parents, is your role model? Are there other role models in your life? I wonder if you could say something about role models in general and how they affected you in particular.

Omolade:

Yeah, I think I definitely would say my parents are role models, my dad like I said and my mom as well, because they work as a team. So one of the things that I have noticed, or I've observed as a child, and even as an adult now, looking back is that you get the best out of my parents combining their resources, so one person could do something and the other person could do it. So as an adult now, I've been able to combine their resources to get good advice from them. So definitely, I believe in role models. I believe that we should ride on the shoulders of giants. I believe that we should learn from people that have gone ahead of us so we don't have to go through the same stress that if we can reduce the journey, we should do it and role models help because if they've done it before, if they've had similar experiences, then definitely it would mean that you would not have to make the same mistakes they made. I mean, you will make your own mistakes, right? But at least you know you can avoid the ones they made because they can tell you this is what I did, this is what I did, avoid this, do this. And that has really been very helpful for me as a person. I feel like I've achieved what I've achieved so far in my life because I had a lot of mentors and role models and teachers and that's something that I definitely am very proud of. I learned early on to ask for help. And ask because I have a lot of role models and mentors telling me, you need to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for charity. If you need help you ask for it, and people are going to give you help and then, of course, you are able to help other people as well.

Helen:

Yeah, that's words of wisdom there, very good advice. What would you say then, are the achievements that you're most proud of?

Omolade:

I mean, I have so many of them. I think the top of the list for me is being able to do my PhD at the University of Manchester. And that's because, like I said, my family's from Nigeria and so I came into the UK to do a Master's. And then I started a PhD. I got a job at the university and then I just continued. And it wasn't just the fact that I did a PhD that was the big deal. It was what it represented for me, because it was a milestone towards what I want to achieve. And what I want to achieve is to be able to help other people, be able to help women or people with traumatic life experiences, and for us to be able to help them in a way that is meaningful for them, address health inequalities and whatever challenges. We need to have services, and services are driven by policies and policies are influenced by evidence. So, doing a PhD means I would have the skill set to generate [...?] that can be used to inform policy that can then drive services for the people I want to help. So when I look at the PhD, for me, the PhD training was a significant milestone, because when I start talking about evidence for my research people will listen, because numbers don't lie. Our interpretation of numbers might lie, but numbers don't lie. And when you have the evidence and you're qualified to deliver the evidence and talk about it, people listen. And that's what I have found in my work so far, that when you begin to talk about what you found in your research, no one is gonna think, oh, you're just emotionally talking about it, you’re just making noise. Evidence speaks and so for me it was very significant.

Maribel:

So this research background, it has helped you to achieve more because it makes you reliable, believable, what would you say?

Omolade:

Well, I think for me as a person, it actually confirms for me that I can achieve whatever I set my mind to do. So on a personal note, I like talking, I like reading, I like traveling and the opportunities that I've had by conducting research and doing a PhD and working in academic environments is almost like everything that I want to achieve, I've been able to achieve it, and I'm still continuing to achieve it. So when I talk about evidence for my research, people believe the evidence because it also exists within the context of further evidence. So my work is not out of context, if you like, it helps to advance the frontiers of knowledge. So even though I look broadly at women's health, I also look at immigrant women, ethnic minority women, and then I focus on domestic abuse among them. And when I say to people, so for example, I live in England, right? And there is a model of supporting people with domestic abuse here, but if you are an immigrant woman from Kenya, for example, or from, I don't know, Ghana or Pakistan, and just think of any other country outside of the UK, especially maybe from Asia or Africa or somewhere in South America, for example, it's very likely that your socialization from your country of birth will be different from the way you socialize in the UK. So, for example, evidence from my research actually shows that women who were socialized in Asia or Africa would, in the first instance when they experienced domestic abuse, speak to the family, so either the responsible parent or someone in the family. Or if that doesn't work, maybe they will go to church or they go to mosque or they speak to someone to pray or to mediate or to intervene. Now, that's not very common around there, because obviously when you experience domestic abuse, we would want to keep women safe, so we tell them to call the police in the UK. But where they're coming from, you don't normally call the police because the system is not set up like that. So when such a woman comes to the UK and they experience domestic abuse and we tell them, You need to call the police, they are not likely to do that, because they don't have the strength within them. Their wisdom didn't raise them to be able to call the police. They want to reach within themselves, their strengths they have from their socialization, to actually speak and call somebody to help and that's actually what was happening. So my research actually was able to uncover. But when it comes to help-seeking practices for immigrants and ethnic minority women in the UK, they will do what they normally do in their country of birth, as opposed to what actually exists there, which is why it almost looks like ethnic minority women and immigrant women are not visible to the mainstream system, because really it doesn't work for them. And this is something that when I speak about it, we have the evidence that's been published and it also mirrors what happens in North America, for example. We have a lot of evidence from the US that actually confirms this. Even at the United Nations, it is recognized. So the work is there, so that it's easier to be able to contextualize the evidence and people can see for themselves. So when somebody says, Oh, we know that women from ethnic minority groups and migrant women have additional challenges seeking help from mainstream services, that's okay, but why? And what do we need to do about it? So my research is coming in to say, this is why and this is what you need to do about it.

Helen:

That's fascinating, I hadn't even thought about it because, you know, I live in the UK and I was just assuming, I guess, that if you're a victim of domestic violence, that that is the way that you go, you go to the police. But obviously, that's not the same in every situation, as you've just explained. I'm curious, Omolade, as to what drew you to this area, why this area of health and specifically domestic violence and abuse with ethnic minority groups?

Omolade:

So I think when I finished my Master's, I felt very confident within the academic environment. And I've always wanted to generate evidence to drive policy and reform, services for whatever area because my background is in public health as well. So I didn't actually start out looking at domestic abuse as an area. But when I came to the UK, as an immigrant myself, I plugged into the Nigerian community, the church and the groups I know, and I started hearing people talk about how there are no services for black women, there are no services for immigrant women, nobody supported. So I said, Why would you say that? Oh, these people, this group has something, this group has something for black women. So for me, I was like, Well, what are you doing about it? What can we do about it? There's nothing we can do about it because nobody listens to us, so we kept going on. And I heard it from a lot of people. So I said, Well, I can do something about it, because I wanted to do a PhD in public health. I didn't come in fixed on, this is what I was going to do it on, but I saw a need. And because I already have all these skill sets: there's a problem, let’s solve it, because I was coming with this problem-solving angle into health promotion and health education, it just became something. And it was very interesting, because by the time I was finished, I was writing up my thesis in 2015, the Millennium Development Goals that the United Nations uses changed to Sustainable Development Goals. And one of the Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations came up with was the role of communities in gender and development. So it was like, my research, my evidence just plugged into that SDG-5 on gender equality and women empowerment, and then recognizing the role that communities play. And it just so happened that I was at the right place at the right time, if I may say.

Helen:

And working on changing policy at a national level or an international level as you're doing — this is the goal that you've set yourself, to actually change policy — it's a pretty audacious goal. What challenges and what obstacles have stood in the way of achieving that? What challenges have you had?

Omolade:

So for example, because I'm just starting out and I don't have a following yet, I keep applying for different grants. And some of the comments are, Oh, this is very good but we can’t fund your work. Or Oh, this is absolutely fine, but we can’t fund your work. In fact, I just got a grant application rejected and what it said was, this is a well written application, the team is great, but the work you propose is too much for the time you said you want to work. So I was like, Okay, fine! So for me, I feel like I need to keep up because at this stage, it's not a priority. We know that these are problems, but it's not on someone's radar yet. So that's a definite roadblock because when you keep applying for grants and keep getting the rejection, it's like, Do I just stop? But then I have to tell myself, people who are at the forefront of Mental Health Research now, 20 years ago they probably were not there, right? So we know now that parity of health in the UK, we talk about parity of health, like the physical health is as important as mental health, but I imagine that it wasn't something that was really, really at the forefront 30 years ago. People had to stand and they had to pull together, and they have to continue to judge standard concepts, apply to things that are happening, really. So I think, for me, just recognizing that actually at this stage, the way I'm talking now, and the work I'm doing, it's not visible yet. But if you keep at it, one day the first £5000, £10,000, before you know what's happening becomes a big deal. And then the world opens up. Now, so far, I have been invited to a few tours. I've been linked to a few advocates and activists across the country, which is actually very fantastic, and I'm doing these podcasts with you ladies. And it's just, like, speaking and then people begin to hear. So things just grew. And I remember my boss said to me that if you keep applying or you keep talking or you keep reviewing applications, somebody somewhere someday is going to sit on a panel and they're going to see your name and they’ll say, Oh, yeah, I listened to her before. She knows what she's talking about, let’s give a grant to her. So you have to just keep at it.

Helen:

So is that the advice that you would give to anybody else who pursued a similar goal of changing national policy?

Omolade

Yeah, keep at it. Don't just sit at home and expect things to happen. You have to pull yourself forward. You have to know what you can realistically manage. But at the same time, you have to make sure that your voice is heard in a way that actually makes a difference. So one of the things I have identified myself as an advocate and someone asked me, what's the difference between an advocate and an activist? An activist is outside and tries to change things, whereas an advocate is part of the system trying to change from within. So for me, I feel like if you want to make a change, as much as possible be part of the system. If you want to be an activist from outside telling us to do it, that's absolutely fine if it works for you. But for me, I feel like I can make more changes if I'm part of the system from within. I work in an academic institution and in fact, one of the things that actually helped me to decide to do a PhD and to reform policy and change services, that was because many of my current firms were consulting for the United Nations and on national panels and groups, and they were academics who were based within universities. So that gave me the idea that if you want to actually have a seat at the table, you need to make sure that you're part of the system where you can be invited to be part of that seat. And when the opportunity comes to have a seat at the table, use your voice. So I see all these university professors that are at the national priority or something, it's like, you just keep chipping away at it gradually.

Maribel:

Fantastic. I was wondering, Omolade, what is the vision that is driving you forward? What is it that you would like to achieve?

Omolade:

Honestly, I think it’s just to improve people's health or their life, with their quality of life, really. So for me, my vision really is to make sure that I think to love my neighbor as myself. So I love myself, right, and our next person to be able to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve and have the opportunity to do it. So that's what drives me. Like, the other person can be the best they can be or whatever they choose to be or whatever they choose to do, they're able to achieve it for themselves. So I know that we all have different goals, for some people they just want to travel and just hike through the world. That's fine, just whatever works for you. You have the skill set to be able to do it. So for me, it's like, let's give people the skill sets and the tools they need to be able to achieve what they want to achieve, whatever that is for them.

Maribel:

Beautiful. Well, I do have one question, Omolade. One thing that I noticed is that there is a recurring theme in your life. You mentioned it was your father who said Don't be ashamed or afraid of asking for help. And in your work, that is exactly what you do — you offer help, or you want to help women coming from minorities in the UK. Can you say a little bit about that, about what you've learned?

Omolade:

I have observed that we help each other. We are all connected. So I remember when I was doing my PhD and one of my supervisors was very helpful. She was very helpful both personally and professionally. And the level of support I received from her, I think was due to the fact that I asked, because she wouldn't have known that I needed help. She’s been very straightforward with just submit your work, but then she was very interested and when you are surrounded by incredibly, very lovely people that have just decided to be very helpful. And it's just a natural thing for me because that's what I know, if that makes sense. So my socialization, my experiences have been that people help me and then I gravitate towards helping other people as well. It's almost like giving back or giving forward because someone just helps you and I'm in a position where I don't even go looking for people to help, it just happens. I just find myself naturally, it's almost like, you give and take — when I need help and I ask somebody, then they help me. I can give you an example. I remember, this was very interesting, but it's an experience that has stayed with me. So this was while I was doing a PhD. So I was also working with the university as a Research Assistant at the time and I was working on a project. I went to do an interview on site and then when I came back, we were supposed to have a staff meeting. So I came late because of the interview I went to conduct and when I got to the meeting, I sat beside someone else, someone who was also a PhD student, and we got talking, and she was saying to me how she was finishing and leaving the university because her contract was ending and she wouldn't be able to continue with the PhD and that was because she wouldn't be able to afford the fees. So she said if her contract ends she wouldn’t be able to get this staff discount. So I was like, staff discount? I didn't realize there was a staff discount! And she looked at me and said, So how have you been paying your fees then? So, what happened was after the meeting, I went and I checked about staff tuition fees. And I realized that I qualify for 50% staff tuition fees. And I didn’t even know that! And for me, I feel like I could have come earlier for that meeting and I could not have sat beside her and I wouldn't have known and I would have been struggling. And that actually saved me 50% of my tuition. And in fact it was more than 50% of tuition, so that's like, some very basic thing. And then I’d sit beside someone else and they’d tell me, Oh, I'm struggling with this now, just out of conversation and I'm like, Oh, what can I do to help? I have done this before, this is how you can do it. And they just go and say, wow, you just saved me three years of hard work. And it's just something very basic.

Helen:

You strike me, Omolade, as somebody who is very, very confident in what you're doing, and you would have continued with your goal, even paying the 100% and not realizing that you were entitled to a discount, you know, I'm doing this anyway and I'm helping myself and I'm wanting to help other people. I'm just wondering, you've had lots of achievements throughout your life as well, I'm wondering whether there's been any part of your life, and whether it still happens, that you doubt yourself? That the inner critic comes up and says, Who am I to do this? Have you had any experience with that, with self doubt, and if so, how did you deal with it?

Omolade:

If I'm honest with you, I think I have enough in my life to not doubt myself. The reason I say that is because from a very young age, I've been reading all these personal development books. So even when I wake up and I'm thinking, I'm not going to be able to do this now, I just stop it. And I have faith, so I believe in God, and sometimes I find myself going down. Let's take the example of writing grant applications. So I need to bring in money and blah, blah, blah, and I'm not getting a grant and you get to where you think, I don't think I want to continue with this now, maybe I should just look for something else to do. And then I could literally feel myself going down and then I get to the level, it's almost like I get to a baseline. And my baseline is, my help comes from the Lord, that's my baseline. So I keep going down and I think I don't want to go up now, I think I'm just gonna look for something else, I think I'm going to do this. And then I hit a point and it’s like, my help comes from the Lord and I start rising again. Like, Oh, come on, just the small goals, you know, don't look for the £50,000. Don’t look for the £75,000. Just look for the £5000. Don’t even look for it, just write the paper. So that way I have been able to, it's almost like I work in chunks. So the big goals, I'm like, I need to bring in £20,000, or I need to bring in £50,000 every year, but then it's not working. So instead of focusing on that, I'd say to myself, maybe if I break it up, maybe £5000, or maybe if I get £10,000 or if I speak to this person. And then I just go speak to that person, and I'm like, Okay, fine, if I don't even get the money, maybe let me get my name into these places and get my face into these places or begin to follow these people and then they can see me. And so in a way, if the big doesn't work, I know that big goals are made up of small, small, smaller goals, so I just focus on the tiny 200 feet in front of me, the paper that I can publish, the small study I can do to generate the evidence to advance the world. So one of the goals that I need to meet at work this year is to publish one paper in the 2020/2021 school year. So that's already the goal. So I already ticked the box for publishing a paper this year. But this is February. So now I have, between now and May, to use that paper that just will be published to drive up the research idea that I can put into the grant application. So I can say, Oh, we've done this research, it's been published, this is what the evidence is, we need to have grant money. And then obviously, you can see that even though I've had rejections from my grant money, I've been able to do something small, that they would not create another opportunity for me to be able to apply for another grant application. So the cycle keeps going and I'm like, just keep at it. So small steps.

Helen:

Exactly. Step by step. You climb a mountain one step after the other.

Omolade:

Yeah, one step at a time.

Maribel:

Sounds to me like a beautiful attitude towards achieving goals and life of perseverance and abundance.

Omolade:

Oh, and there's something that I wanted to add as well. When you talk about perseverance and persistence, I think that one of the things that I know as a child that I had was persistence. And as a child it was annoying for my parents, especially my mom, because I persistently asked for things. And it's about helping them to channel that, because obviously, they could have decided that you're too persistent and you're very annoying, so just take a walk. But for some reason, even though she still says No when I asked her for ridiculous things, it was a skill set that as an adult now, it's something that it's very useful for me. But as a child, it was very annoying, like always asking for the same thing over and over until… it's almost like you wear your parents out. This is now very helpful for me, but what I did was very annoying.

Helen 30,45

And that's served you well in the important work that you're doing now.

Maribel:

So let's move on to our final question, Omolade, and it's related to the name of our podcast, which is AudaciousNess. And the question to you is, while you are now pursuing your goals, where do you get the solid grounding to continue while everything else is in motion? How do you stay grounded in your vision, despite everything life throws at you?

Omolade:

For me, I'm looking at it as, who is going to benefit from this? So what's the goal? What's the end point? So like I said, I grew up reading a lot of personal development books. So one of the books that I've read is a John Maxwell book and it's tied to the journey of success, the title of the book is Roadmap to Success. And one of the things that he talked about in that book was: Begin with the end in mind. So with every goal I've set, I begin with the end in mind. What is the end goal here? What do I want to achieve? So for me, I want to be able to improve the quality of life, or I want to work in a space where women who live the experience of domestic abuse are able to achieve the best they can, despite their challenges. So that's the end for me. And then I work back from that end. So even if I'm doing this and things are not working, I just keep that end in front of me. And I just go with it. Now, one of the things that I've learned over the years is to take away the time component. In the past, I used to set a goal like I'm gonna achieve this in five days, I'm gonna achieve this in 10 years, I'm going to achieve this. And sometimes it’s good to have that because obviously it makes a goal measurable. But some of the time, I realized that it can also be very disheartening or constraining because if you don’t meet the five year mark and you're not actually that good like, Oh, I didn't achieve it in five years. But then the thing is, you get there eventually, because I remember that I set the goal to have a PhD at the age of 30. But I didn't achieve that goal at the age of 30, I did at the age of 32. And my friends are like, well, so what’s two years? At least you got there. And then for me, even though I had that time theme in there, I've also learned to know that it's just to make sure that I'm on the right track. You might actually be earlier, you might actually be later. But as long as you're on the track, then that's fine. So sometimes we put in structures to help us, but we can also get stuck on the structure. So the goal really is to have the capacity to be able to understand that actually I can continue to extend the goalpost, as long as I'm in the right direction. It's not a race to the finish line. And this is something that I got from John Maxwell's book, because he's saying that success is a journey, it is not a destination, you keep moving. So for me just having that, starting with the end in mind. At the end of the day, I want to be able to help this number of women, I want to create an atmosphere where, irrespective of your ethnic origin or your background or your intersectional challenges, you can get the services you need, when you need it at the time you need it. And so with that end in mind, I chip away at it one step at a time, one day at a time.

Helen:

But without being fixated on the how, that's a flexible structure.

Omolade

Exactly. Yeah. So it was a learning experience for me, because I'm very black and white. I'm very straight line kind of thing. But I've learned over the years to expand my capacity to recognize that actually the distance between two points is not a straight line. Just get there when you get there because you can move forward and move back, you zigzag. Just get there, as long as you're on the right track and don't get stuck on, “Oh, I'm supposed to have this at this time”, because when you look at it overall, you realize that actually I'm making good progress. Even if in a year I don't have all the money, by Year Three I've made all the money I was supposed to make in Year One anyway, so I've not lost anything. So it's about making sure that we don't have a monocular vision and just focus on that tiny bit, but if we look at the grand scheme of things, we do something very small. Like I said, I work in chunks as well, so one small bit of the big goal at a time.

Helen:

That's excellent advice, Omolade. Thank you very much for that.

Maribel:

Indeed. Thanks very much for this conversation, Omolade.

Omolade:

Well, thank you for having me as well.

Helen:

Well, we wish you the best of luck with this work and with your next grant application.

Omolade:

Thank you, yes. Thank you so much.

Maribel:

Thank you so much for your time.

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About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.