Catching up with Labour councillor and CANDI alum, Gulcin Ozdemir

Gulcin Ozdemir

Gulcin Ozdemir is the new, optimistic face of Labour in Islington, having being appointed as Councillor for St George’s Ward at the end of last year. A champion of education and early intervention programmes, the City and Islington College alumn spoke in January about politics, identity and the role of Further Education.

Born to Kurdish immigrants, Gulcin talks proudly of her heritage, but finds it a complex topic: “Growing up as a Kurd in London was really difficult. People would ask me what a Kurd was and I would struggle to answer that question. I did not really know what my identity meant – why we did not have a formal identity, why people did not know who we were.

“I grew up like my parents, who migrated from Turkey; they were proud of who they were. I learnt about the injustices against Kurds and grew up in an automatically political home.”

The Islington native started her political career when campaigning to save the Whittington Hospital where she was born. Today, she lists her priorities as establishing a safe community and providing affordable housing on the former Holloway Prison site.

“I think the main thing for anyone considering politics is to find something that makes you feel passionate and focus on that. Find a campaign or an injustice that means something to you and get engaged with your community. Support a party or don’t – but either way I think it’s important to realise how you can affect the things you care about through politics.

“I went to secondary school in Camden and studied Citizenship. My teacher was very enthusiastic; he taught Politics at A Level, too. He told us that politics was everything, that everything was ultimately political and that by learning about it we could do something about it. It was an important moment. All of us from that class went on to study Politics at A Level.”

But life took a new direction with the birth of Gulcin’s daughter. Gulcin always intended to return to college eventually, but says she struggled to find balance between work commitments and a new addition to the family.

“There was a point where I thought I would have to choose between college and a job, but it was the support of my teachers at the Centre for Lifelong Learning that helped me to keep my job and carry on with the course.

“I retook my Maths GCSE first. It was done as evening classes, which made it a lot easier to balance. I was already at college and still wanted to study politics at university at the time. It made sense to stay on and complete my Access course there.

“I had a really good time. A lot was down to the friends I made, but also the teachers went above and beyond teaching the course. I received a lot of additional support through my History teacher, Saffia, who is still at the college. I was struggling and she helped me access additional learning services, which helped me with deadlines and let me sit down and talk to somebody. Having a careers advisor who can provide not only career advice but offer personal advice as well I also think is vital.”

For Gulcin, this is the sentiment she wants to try to foster in the broader Islington community.

“Having that opportunity to try again helped me to realise that it was the circumstances at the time that had got in the way – not my ability. Being able to return to education was really one of the best decisions that I have made.

But not everybody has the same privileges, she says. “Young adults going into Further Education face so many factors affecting whether or not they can access education such as rent and the cost of living. I know from experience that university isn’t for everyone and things like debt may be an obstacle for a lot of people. But for people coming from working class backgrounds, it’s so important to have these additional support services to help with the cost of study.”

Gulcin feels for those who are unable to access such opportunities. For many, a full-time education may appear unviable due to financial concerns. A recent report by Islington Council found that nearly 35% of the borough’s children are living in poverty and that 33.6% of secondary school students are eligible for free school meals – much higher than the 13.2% national average.

“I remember what it was like to be a young person lost in Islington and thinking ‘what am I going to do?’ I think that’s when people who are a bit older have a responsibility to share their experience and to provide that advice and encouragement for different paths. Many people in Islington do not have that. They may not know people in different positions in life. They should still have access to them. Young people need mentors and role models.”

Gulcin’s first-hand experience of the borough’s troubles motivates her words. She talks about direct experiences of knife-crime and violence in Islington and surrounding boroughs. “It starts with the mentality of the individual,” she says, and places education at the centre of tackling that.

“Early intervention is key to avoiding the same cycles. It’s the small changes, like teaching children that if you accept money from a stranger, it often comes with the expectation that you will commit a crime for them. Local schemes are finding that young people are also starting to open up about other problems that are going on when you start that conversation. So I think there is value to starting in primary school and then continuing with this as they grow up. Throughout their life, people will come across a lot of different challenges. Knife-crime doesn’t discriminate, and all young people should have a space to talk about it and learn how to keep safe from it.”

Tracking back, the councillor talks about the role of community identity in helping to build a safer Islington. We talk about political apathy and the new wave of young voters turning out at the polling stations. “Engagement,” she says, “is important and I don’t think that’s going to be an easy task. It’s that community spirit I want to see again. It’s about building trust with police and councillors and creating a dialogue with young people. To make people care, it’s about having people everywhere – not just teachers – who are dedicated to community engagement.

“In my experience City and Islington College did a good job of that.

“On the other hand, we as councillors have to be as accessible to everyone as possible – that people can have a say in the issues that matter to them in the community. It has to come from the grassroots. We have to build that bridge.”

Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week, Gulcin rounds off with a look at the issue of non-traditional routes into work. At the end of last year, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledged to create 320,000 green apprenticeships as part of a larger apprenticeship reform.

“I think the current system makes it really hard for people who want to do apprenticeships and who want to do more vocational courses to go to university. Vocational courses don’t receive enough investment.”

Many looking at careers still find themselves in need of a university degree, despite the fact that 31% of graduates are reported overqualified for a graduate role. An apprenticeship offers an alternative way of gaining experience on over 400 unique courses, but some universities still prefer traditional A Levels.

“It’s a problem because not everybody wants to follow that one path towards university. If that isn’t valued, then the people who are doing them aren’t going to receive what they need to in terms of being employable.”

Gulcin ends the conversation on a reflective note. A piece of advice for 16 year olds starting their way in life? “Prepare for the disappointments.

“Just know that it is not the be all and end all of everything. I wish I knew that a lot of it is down to my perspective. A lot of the disappointments in life were stepping stones, not failure. When you are young it often seems like ‘this is it’, ‘everything is over’ – I wish I was just a little bit kinder to myself. I wouldn’t change anything though.

“Even though we lost the General Election, what came out of that movement was that a lot of young people cared about politics for the first time because there was something on offer that was directly going to affect their future for better or for worse. And that’s a win. So I wouldn’t change anything.”

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