Meet our new Chair, Arfa Butt

Steve Moffitt, meets our new Chair to find out more about her career, inspirations and future aspirations

18 October 2022

A New Direction has a new Chair. I am very excited to share that Arfa Butt joined the A New Direction board earlier this summer in the role of Chair. Arfa is an experienced creative, working in the music industry with specialist knowledge and experience in participation and education. She is extremely connected and a positive force for good. It is a real privilege for us to have Arfa leading the board during this next period of change and transition for A New Direction.

Arfa chaired her first Board meeting in September, and after the meeting, I asked her a series of questions to find out more about her story. Here are the results of our conversation

Steve Moffitt (CEO, A New Direction)

Can you tell us about your career to date? Where have you worked? What has driven your work?

In the summer of 95, just after I left Langdon Secondary School, my brother recommended a radio broadcasting course at The Broadway Focus E15 in Stratford. There, I met a beautiful woman named Kae Shagourie, who loved me and invested in me, she changed my life.

Who knew a summer training course would be my break into the broadcast industry, this led me to supporting a team to host an RSL for a month (restricted service license) at The Cockpit Theatre, manage a float at Notting Hill Carnival, sound engineering, production and building a network and creative community all before I turned 18!

I went on to study Media Studies and A-level Film and Photography at New Vic in Plaistow. Whilst at college my brother and I saved all our allowance to pay for studio time, my dad found out so he built a studio for us in our basement.

When I turned 19, I was offered my first full-time job at MTV Base, leading the channel and developing the black music content for the brand. We created the soundtrack to so many people's lives.

I was then commissioned to create MTV’s 100th channel MTV Base Africa in 2004, bringing African music to the world. Over the course of 19+ years, I got to work with some of the most talented people in the music industry across the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Asia and Europe with MTV and independently.

What is important to you?

I didn’t make it to university and would see young work experience kids and interns come into MTV wanting to be presenters, they didn't have a clue about the other roles that existed in the music industry, they were lost within the system and people in the business didn’t know what to do with them. I started mentoring these young people, which led to me creating workshops on creative careers and navigating the creative industry I delivered with the Amy Winehouse Foundation, The Barbican, Arts Depot, Chelsea Football Foundation and more. Whether I’m supporting The Felix Project as a volunteer chef, delivering a programme on creative engagement for young people who've been excluded from mainstream education, coaching people who want to join the industry, careers guidance at a school or on The London Eye with The WOW Festival as a mentor on international day of the girl, none of this work is possible without the support of my creative community and family.

There are lots of people who’ve worked their way through music education and gone on to roles actually working in the industry. My journey is a little different, I sat in a space where I was privileged and had access to people, networks, information, and resources many just don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to parents whilst working with their children on getting into creative careers. I know first-hand the power of a supportive network and what that can bring out of a young person. I felt there was more value in me doing something that would support the next generation of creatives, something that would allow them to celebrate their languages, their cultures and help them develop their identities in the most holistic way possible. Creating safe spaces by removing barriers for young people to share ideas, advice on building their own creative communities, developing their own language and communication skills, sharing funding opportunities, and signposting them to opportunities, courses, programmes and jobs. I’d lived through everything they were feeling and often did it alone, I wanted to do better for them.

Why did you apply for the role of Chair of the A New Direction board of Trustees? Tell us about your previous experience of being on boards and what do you want to learn?

As an east Londoner and the Chair of Governors for Education Links, an alternative provision free school in Newham, I understand the challenges the young people in my community face and how A New Direction’s work has supported them. I have been on a few creative boards and love bringing people together and I feel I am one of a few people in the UK who is connected both to industry and education. I know the impact we can have with my network supporting A New Direction and the great work it does. I am humbled to have been chosen as Chair to lead the organisation through change and development - there is so much to do, many challenges and so much potential - I am excited about the next few years together.

What would you like to achieve as part of your tenure? From what you know of A New Direction’s work, what do you think our priorities should be over the next 5 – 10 years?

A New Direction has worked tirelessly to support young people over the years and as we move from delivering the bridge function for Arts Council England into a new shape and iteration, now is a great time for us to really spread our wings and fly. Staff are so busy delivering projects there is no time to celebrate how beneficial this work is and has been to the communities we partner with and support. We have the best people in our team and on our board, my plan is for the staff and trustees to develop and invest in each other. Really building a clearer picture of the impact we’ve been making and shouting about it. So that we can make more of it with more people and partners across London and beyond. Refining the organisation’s narrative, communication, language, and identity, in order to best convey what we do, why, how, who for, to what end and why these matter to us – for different audiences and stakeholders. Creating a safe space for the team and the board to engage, understand and discuss so the board can gain a clearer and more strategic understanding of the work that A New Direction do, and what we bring. Bringing in new partners and funders who are just as passionate and dedicated as us to support young communities.

Everything we do is heart work. I hope as I’ve stepped into this position as chair this manifests through our values, culture, and practice. This is how we connect directly with children and young people, how we support and develop our staff, build and connect with our community and how we relate to our partners and funders. This work is key to how it makes a difference and brings out the best in everyone.

Tell us about your first meeting and your work with the other Trustees? How was it?

I believe we all need a place we can share, the board had a groove, it was beautiful. I made time before our first full board meeting to connect with the trustees. We get lost in job titles and work experience, I wanted to meet the people behind all of this. We discussed being a caregiver and watching our parents get older, raising our children and the challenges that come with communicating and understanding their needs, changing the course of our careers, what self-care looks like for us and how the experience in our personal lives has equipped us with the knowledge we may need to support A New Direction and be the best board we can be. I left every single conversation with my heart full. I feel this approach matters because people assume that trustees aren’t approachable and have unrealistic expectations of organisations, when in fact the reality is the A New Direction board care deeply about the young people we support and, in order to make the most difference in the world - particularly for young people - and do our best work, we need to connect, work with integrity, come together as a board, a team and with other people.

You are a Newham resident and grew up in London – what does London mean to you? Tell us about your experience of growing up in the city and the value of being a Londoner. What would you like all young Londoners to experience as being part of the capital?

I grew up in a creative home, my father was a musician, actor at times, worked in fashion and had his own business. He came to the UK as a young child in the 60's; a creative career wasn’t understood or encouraged then. But he made sure we got to explore creativity from a very young age.

One thing we don’t often talk about is how so many people come to the UK so they can support their families back home, in my case that was Pakistan. My father had three jobs, my mum was a seamstress and designed some of the most beautiful outfits I’ve ever seen or worn. For them it was about survival, supporting two families and raising their children in the best way they knew how. We would have jam sessions in our home till in the early morning, a harmonium, tabla playing. My dad shared stories of that time he was an extra in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Minder, Little Napoleons on Channel 4 and so much more.

London is the hub of creativity, we have everything on our doorstep, we set trends and others follow. People from all over the world come to London to make it, yet the young people who live here don’t feel like they belong and are often missing from this dialogue and delivery. Young people's voices should be present in the development and creation of programmes, exhibitions and content. We must stop telling them what they should experience and ask what they're interested in instead, bringing in strategic brands and partners like Google, Adobe, Sky, Playstation, Red Bull, Nandos, Nike and Clarks, Epic Games and Lego, sports and music foundations, creative hubs and institutions so we are all having one conversation. We all change and get better if we do that.

Let’s bring back learning through play and see what magic happens.