Dr Laura Zahra McDonald


What do you do as the Director of ConnectJustice?

ConnectJustice is a social enterprise working with communities, civil society and state agencies to build trust and collaboration around issues of social justice, with a focus on extremism and exploitation. We achieve this through research, evaluation, training and facilitation. This means I get to work with people from many different backgrounds and sectors, on a range of projects at any one time. This might include: research with academic partners, such as our study with former violent extremists and their families; our regular forums to facilitate learning and trust-building between different community organisations, activists and state agencies; and our training projects for young people around political and social engagement. My role is very varied, designing and often helping to deliver projects, liaising with clients, and running the business end of things: in order to keep creating positive impact, we need a sustainable business.

What's a typical day like? 

The variety of the work is reflected in my days! Each week the team checks in and we assess our priorities – I might be speaking at a conference as part of our international engagement, meeting a local youth group, interviewing an ex-gang member for one of our crowdfunded films, or writing a report. I'm also a mum of two young children so my days are a blend rather than a balance between 'work and life' – meetings are sometimes late at night, I may be holding a conference call on the school run or breastfeeding my baby as I type...

What does ConnectJustice do?

Our focus on social justice, especially the most challenging and politicised aspects such as terrorism and child sexual exploitation, requires sensitive and inclusive approaches. We believe in community-led solutions, so we work with communities and grassroots organisations very closely, alongside experts and all the relevant stakeholders, including academics, practitioners and policy makers. There is a tendency for different sectors to work in silos, so a big part of our work is bridging – creating inclusive projects to bring all the knowledge and experience to the table. 

You previously worked as Visiting Lecturer on Islam and Gender at Cambridge Muslim College. What did that entail?

I've long been interested in the relationship between the theological and the social, and I did my PhD on feminism and the intersection of Islam, gender, and identities. Cambridge Muslim College runs a Diploma in Contextual Islamic Studies & Leadership, where traditionally trained Muslim scholars and imams engage with academia and the salient issues and challenges of our contemporary world. I was fortunate to convene and teach on the gender course for a number of years, where we discussed the practical, the sensitive and the controversial issues relating to Islam and gender. I believe that the challenge to, and eventual defeat of gender oppressive practices must come from the grassroots, and part of the shift requires proactive support from credible religious and social leaders. Having the candid, difficult conversations in safe spaces is an important part of the process, from the terrible realities of child marriages to recognising the religious and political authority of women.

Tell us about working as a freelance consultant, focusing on intersectional issues relating to equality and justice. 

I have always enjoyed variation and, before co-founding ConnectJustice, I often worked freelance - on policy papers on gender for charities, evaluation of youth and women's projects for local authorities, and scoping studies on counter terrorism for think tanks, for example. I also spent time doing voluntary work in prisons and for community groups, and on various boards and working groups on social justice including gender policy, hate crime and violent extremism. It gave me a great insight into the needs and priorities of different sectors and their working cultures, and the ways - positive and negative - in which the grassroots are engaged. 

You have done a lot of work in academia, for instance at the University of Birmingham. Why did you decide to co-found ConnectJustice? 

My passion for research started as an undergraduate and I continued on an academic path, completing my Masters and PhD, and then as a research fellow and lecturer. I love the academic environment - teaching and spending time supporting the education of students is a huge privilege, as is having the opportunity to research and write about the subjects you love. After my son was born, I felt at a crossroads in terms of what I wanted from life - I wanted to get more involved in practical, less theoretical work, so after a period of reflection I ended up taking the plunge and changing my direction - not in my interests but in the way I approach them. Co-founding ConnectJustice was a risk, but one that has been incredibly rewarding and has involved as much learning as any PhD!

Why the interest on Islam and gender? 

I am a convert to Islam - a journey that began as a teenager. Early on, I felt challenged by people's incredulity that a woman would embrace a faith that is often assumed to be misogynist - wanting to better understand for myself and answer others led to a personal interest that ended up as an academic thesis and important theme within my working life. 

Would you recommend the MA in Social Anthropology you did at the University of St Andrews?

I admit to being a terrible teenager, with little interest in my studies. I didn't feel particularly passionate about any of my school subjects. When I began thumbing through university prospectuses in my school library I came across social anthropology - a subject I hadn't heard of, but one that sounded exactly what I'm interested in - people, our social worlds and the endlessly inventive ways we live our lives and see the world. My path to St Andrews was somewhat serendipitous - it is a brilliant university and managed to support my academic growth despite my shaky start to higher education. The Scottish education system also allows students to try different subjects before specialising, so I was able to study Arabic, International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies which further enriched the educational experience. Social anthropology isn't a subject with a clear career trajectory, but it is relevant to many interesting paths.

Why did you decide to do a PhD at the University of York in Women’s Studies: Islam, gender & intersectionality? What has it brought you?  

I surprised myself with academic success at St Andrews, and got the research bug - my Masters dissertation on Muslim women, dress and identity whet my appetite so I decided to pursue a PhD, refining the subject to my interest in intersectionality. My supervisor Professor the Baroness Haleh Afshar and the Centre for Women's Studies at York were inspirational, and the different perspectives and standpoints I came across pushed my thinking and views, and allowed me further growth. Although my studies were full time I was permitted to work at the University Equalities Office, which kickstarted my freelancing and wider work on social justice policy and practice. 

What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman pursuing a career like yours might face? 

Women face barriers in their careers full stop - on my own journey I have often been underestimated and scrutinised in ways that male colleagues are not. Some of the arenas in which ConnectJustice engages, particularly the world of security and counterterrorism, are very male dominated, but personally and organisationally - ConnectJustice happens to have a majority of female directors - being women has given me an edge through my experience, insight and access to different worlds. 

What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career? 

Don't be shy or proud; learn as much as you can from as many people and sources as you can, but go your own way - embrace the risks, face the challenges, and don't let people scare you off. And enjoy it all.

 What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays? 

My first job was a waitress in a busy coffee shop and it taught me the value of people skills. Treating all people with respect and a friendly manner isn't just ethics, it makes life more fun and much easier.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far? 

Making a career out of my passions is exciting and hugely rewarding - founding ConnectJustice alongside dear friends as my colleagues is the culmination of my work to this point. The least rewarding moments have always been within projects that I took on out of a sense of obligation, people pleasing or an inability to say no, which I then resented and failed to produce excellent results. 

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

I have had to learn time management the hard way - becoming strategic, efficient and self disciplined is a good foundation for any career, but especially when you have a portfolio of work and competing deadlines. Pulling regular all-nighters is not a long-term option!

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt? 

I have learned that change can happen slowly, and that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the kind of subjects I work on - but that doesn't help anyone! Being more strategic in terms of identifying goals and how to get there has been a lesson learned late, and includes knowing when to say no to things that won't help you reach your goals, or that you won't enjoy. 

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it? 

It's a cliché, but developing confidence has been uncomfortable - I think women especially are brought up to behave and interact in ways which can undermine our self confidence and gravitas - not wanting to be arrogant or pushy or to show off can end up with others undervaluing or not recognising ability.

What achievements are you most proud of? 

I'm proud that I've succeeded in the things I have wanted to do, with grit and persistence at the more difficult moments.

Do you have a role model and if so who and why?

Those who dare to challenge the status quo and call out injustice when it is uncomfortable or dangerous - there are many famous names, but equally thousands at the grassroots, unsung heroes who don't get praise but make a difference everyday.

Dr Laura Zahra McDonald | Co-Founder & Director | ConnectJustice

14 years' experience

CV in brief: 

Studied PhD in Women's Studies: Islam, Gender & Intersectionality at the University of York | MA 1st Class Honours in Social Anthropology from the University of St. Andrews

Previous roles Visiting Lecturer on Islam & Gender at Cambridge Muslim College | Freelance consultant in Social research, evaluation and training | Senior Lecturer at The Deen Institute | Visiting Lecturer, Gender & Representation; Research Fellow, Communities, Security & Justice and Lecturer, College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham | Research Officer, Equalities Office at the University of York

Find her online: 

LinkedIn | ConnectJustice profile | The Deen Institute profile  

Exclusive email interview 5 September 2015

"It's a cliché, but developing confidence has been uncomfortable - I think women especially are brought up to behave and interact in ways which can undermine our self confidence and gravitas - not wanting to be arrogant or pushy or to show off can end up with others undervaluing or not recognising ability."

Laura Zahra McDonald - How to be a Muslim Woman