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Bringing people together: Nor’s Coventry calling

Dr Nor Aziz explains why she works tirelessly to engage the Canley community and what her role as one of the University’s Regional Fellows means to her.

When the Warwick Institute of Engagement began assembling a group of Regional Fellows this year, Dr Nor Aziz was bound to be on the shortlist.

A familiar face in Canley, just a short stroll away from the University of Warwick’s campus, Nor has done more for Coventry than most – a lot more, in fact.

Her association with the city goes back 28 years to 1994, when Nor and her family moved to the UK from Malaysia so she could study Town Planning at Coventry University.

They stuck around.

“I followed up my BA with an MA at Coventry and then a PhD in Industrial Relations and Climate Change at Warwick, so I never left "

“I followed up my BA with an MA at Coventry and then a PhD in Industrial Relations and Climate Change at Warwick, so I never left”, Nor laughed.

Home is where your heart is

Now a mother of six, Nor felt at home in Canley with her husband and children. She’s always loved where she lives.

But Nor’s career took her further afield – initially only as far as Birmingham, where she spent a year at the Government Office for the West Midlands, but then to the capital.

“I took a job at Kingston University London in 2007,” Nor said.

“I was a Sustainability Hub Project Administrator, promoting sustainability and doing lots of community engagement.”

While she commuted throughout her six-year spell at Kingston, Nor found she was spending less and less time at home.

For someone so immersed in local life, that took its toll.

“I worked in London. I did all my shopping in Kingston. I missed Coventry,” Nor explained.

“Canley was where my kids were, but I was getting on the 5.50 train in the morning and taking one back at about 8.30pm.”

Gradually, an idea began to take shape – one that would take Nor back where her heart was.

“In Kingston, people are really passionate about their area,” Nor said.

“They have views on what it should be like and a sense of pride in their community.

“Yet when I came back to Canley, there wasn’t that same passion.”

She decided something had to be done.

“I was very active in the Kingston community through my work, so I thought ‘why not do that where I live?’.

“I wanted to get everyone to participate and help each other realise their potential"

“I wanted to get everyone to participate and help each other realise their potential.”

Changing attitudes and environments

Nor left her job in London in 2014 and set up Uniting Communities, a volunteer-led organisation that brings people together through inclusive events, workshops and food.

“I could see all the groups working in silos across Coventry, all the support from the council and the housing association, all the things charities were doing,” Nor recalled.

“I was keen to leverage all their efforts and get everyone working together to make a bigger difference.”

Just a few months in, events some 300 miles away would make Nor’s mission all the more important.

“After the November 2015 attacks in Paris, I think Muslims were seen as a bit of a threat,” Nor explained.

“Canley has many students from southeast Asia and there are a lot of people here with hijabs, and unfortunately there are some instances of hate crime and racist abuse.”

Nor was even affected personally.

“Someone threw a stone at my window. Children – quite young children, actually – sprayed my car. My own kids stopped being invited to their friends’ houses as often.”

Far from deterring Nor from her work, these events spurred her on.

“I wanted to show people what real Muslims are like – and the best way, I found, was through food,” she said.

Cooking up a storm

Uniting Communities organised the Canley Big Lunch event in 2016, where everyone was welcome to eat vegan noodles and homemade cakes, take part in a tug of war or a drumming competition, and enjoy DJ sets from local station Vanny Radio.

“The feedback was great,” Nor said. “People told us they wanted this kind of thing more regularly.”

So Uniting Communities secured a small grant from the police to set up the Canley Pop Up Cafe, which turns money seized from criminal activities into hot drinks, tasty treats and a space for all to discuss local issues.

“There’s no permanent cafe in Canley so the pop-up helps fill a bit of a gap – it’s a neutral place, not tied to any faith or community group,” Nor explained.

“More than 100 people of all ages and backgrounds come every month.”

The initiative won the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s Outstanding Active Citizens Fund Project Award in 2018, but is by no means the only thing occupying Nor’s time.

She was one of six active citizens engaged with the University of Warwick’s Planning for Real in Canley community planning project, which empowers residents to share ideas on a map of the neighbourhood.

“The University never stops trying to listen to us"

“The University never stops trying to listen to us”, Nor said.

“Planning for Real generated more than 600 ideas from local people. It’s built trust and has resulted in some real improvements being implemented on the ground.”

Local leader, Regional Fellow

Nor is also part of the team behind Playing Out – a three-year project partnership of Warwick Arts Centre and the residents of Canley that embeds creativity in the area through meaningful community engagement – and sits on the board of trustees for Culture Coventry.

Now, Nor is proud to be a Regional Fellow at the University of Warwick, where she completed a community leadership programme five years ago.

“It’s a real privilege,” she said.

“As Regional Fellows we are all from different walks of life, but we come together as one."

“I call it stakeholder teamwork, because as Regional Fellows we are all from different walks of life, but we come together as one.

“It’s the same approach I have been taking to help people in Coventry connect and improve our city for everyone.”

As for the future? There’s no sign of Nor slowing down.

“I want to put Canley on the map,” she said.

You certainly wouldn’t bet against her.