COUN SALMA ARIF: From being a youngster in Harehills to the Executive Board
Image: Google Maps
She is a trailblazing Leeds councillor, representing the community she grew up in and preparing to make history in the next fortnight.
Coun Salma Arif is set to become the first female British Asian member of Leeds City Council’s top decision-making body, keeping an eye on the health of the city.
The trailblazing councillor has opened up about growing up in Harehills, taking on the male-dominated world of local politics and her plans for the health portfolio in Leeds.
Salma, 33, grew up in Harehills Lane and enjoyed a happy childhood.
“To me, Harehills has always been Harehills,” she said.
“For me it is home – I played on the streets of Harehills.
“It was a really friendly place to be around. It’s very multicultural and that is what Harehills is known for. I think growing up here made me really streetwise – you’re out on the streets playing cricket and smashing a few windows as you go on.
“I only have really fond memories. Other people think Harehills is this place that’s scary and has lots of crime – I knew there was deprivation, that was obvious.
“But having spent 27 years of my life there, I have nothing but fond memories.”
After attending Allerton Grange High School, she then studied media at Thomas Danby College before taking on a law degree at the University of Huddersfield.
She said that, while a career in politics had never been the plan, the Labour Party had always felt like a natural home.
“I lost my father when I was nine-years-old,” she said. “Mum had five young children to raise.
“The era I grew up in was the Tony Blair era, so I was on free school meals, and I went to college thanks to EMA (the Educational Maintenance Allowance scheme).
“I was also lucky I didn’t have to pay £9,000 university fees, so while politics was not something I actively sought out when I was younger, but when I was at University, I thought who I aligned myself with.
“Labour was always my political home, but I was never a card-carrying member.”
But all that changed when former Leeds East MP George Mudie announced he was stepping down prior to the 2015 general election
“He was retiring, and we were selecting our next MP,” she said. “I thought ‘I need to go to this meeting’ because this person was going to represent me nationally.
“I walked into the meeting and, I’m not going to lie, it was dominated by men. They were lovely people, but it was a little bit of a shock to me, because it was so overwhelmingly male.
“But I went home that night and thought to myself ‘you are part of the problem because you’re not getting involved’.
“So that one moment was when I rang up the local branch.”
Now living in Gipton, Salma’s involvement with the local party led to others suggesting she run for office.
“I think as a woman you can get an imposter syndrome, especially at that point in my mid-20s, I thought ‘surely I can’t be a councillor, it’s way out of my league’, but loads of people gave me confidence.”
After being selected to contest the Gipton and Harehills ward at the 2016 local elections, Coun Arif won with a landslide 79 percent of the vote. Despite a good job working as a legal adviser at a software company, she chose to become a full-time councillor a year into representing Gipton and Harehills.
So has she faced barriers since entering local politics?
“I think for me it’s the opposite,” she said.
“I was seen as a young Asian councillor, so everyone kind of put their arms around me – the support I got at all levels in the council was brilliant, from experienced councillors who had been there and done that.
!Even if it was a phone call or a word of advice, I was also really well-supported by ward colleagues.
“I can’t say I felt I was treated differently because of the colour of my skin. Sometimes as a woman, you face barriers, and as a woman of colour, there are definitely barriers, and preconceived notions of who I am and what I represent.
“But in terms of how I was welcomed into the council, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. With the roles I have, it shows that the council is promoting diversity, which is important.”
Following the House of Lords peerage given to current Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake, Coun James Lewis was selected by the ruling Labour group to become the next head of the authority – expected to be finalised next week.
Shortly after it was announced, Coun Lewis announced Coun Arif would become his executive member for health – the first time an influential Leeds City Council executive board position has been held by a female British Asian councillor.
So what does she plan to do in the role?
“We are obviously going through a global pandemic – that is the most immediate challenge,” she said.
“Public health is a really important portfolio for where we are.
“I want to focus on the vaccination side of things. Coming from the community I come from and looking at the figures in terms of the reluctance and hesitancy around the vaccination, I feel like I have a fairly big role in relation to building that trust.
“This pandemic has exposed health inequalities in this country, and I am well placed to help deal with this with my background.”
Words: Richard Beecham, Local Democracy Reporter
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