Blog

Blog

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Dienka Hines from Travelling Light: mastering the art of leading quietly and leaving loudly

After a bit of a hiatus (blame a certain global pandemic), I’m excited to share the second story in my series about women leading charities.

Dienka Hines is the executive director at Travelling Light, a Bristol charity making brilliant children’s theatre. Here Dienka shares how she got there, the presenteeism/parenting dilemma and some absolutely sterling advice for aspiring leaders.

(I talked to Dienka in those relatively carefree days before coronavirus, so most of this post is based on that conversation. We caught up again recently to talk about leadership during lockdown.)  

Dienka Hines
Dienka at Travelling Light HQ in Barton Hill, Bristol

I’m waiting for Dienka at Travelling Light HQ in Barton Hill, Bristol. The office I’m sitting in is small and orderly, with shelves of box files lining the walls. On the spine of each box is the name of a show: Igloo, Boing!, Cinderella, Into the West. I imagine myself opening a file – The Ugly Duckling perhaps – and the show springing out in all its fantastical, feathery glory.

But enough whimsy! Those box files contain paperwork, not puppets, and that’s apt because today I’m meeting the person who deals with the business of theatre, rather than the art. (The latter is the responsibility of Dienka’s co-director, Heidi Vaughan – her story will be next in this series).

Dienka rushes in, full of apologies for keeping me waiting. I’m still confused about the job split so I ask about it early on.

“Heidi is the artistic director and I’m the executive director,” Dienka explains. “So basically Heidi does the art and I do the business, but we jointly lead the organisation.”

Travelling Light aims to bring outstanding theatre to children and young people from all backgrounds.

“It was set up in the mid eighties by two teachers who wanted to bring more high-quality theatre into schools, so they literally created touring shows with the sets strapped to the top of their car,” says Dienka. “Going out to where children and young people are is still very much at the heart of what we do. We make shows that work in a range of spaces like schools, community halls and libraries – not just theatre venues.”

Escapism and elitism in the theatre world

Into the West
Dienka’s first encounter with Travelling Light was when they performed ‘Into The West’ at her Bristol high school.

Dienka’s connection with Travelling Light goes back way back to the early nineties, when the company performed at her Bristol secondary school. Back then, Dienka was “quite a booky child – the smart one who didn’t have the cool clothes.” Aged 13, she joined the youth theatre at Bristol Old Vic where she enjoyed acting – at first.

“I liked the escapism of theatre, of being someone else,” says Dienka. “I wasn’t very confident so it gave me a different kind of confidence, because you could say and do things as a character that you’d never say or do as yourself.”

But by 16, Dienka was more likely to be found volunteering with the younger children in the group than performing herself. She had always felt welcome at the Bristol Old Vic youth theatre, but the elitism that can be found in the theatre world had put her off wanting to become a performer. And then this: “I’d already decided I wasn’t interesting in acting, but when I did drama A Level, my teacher told me I should think really hard about trying to be an actress because it would be more difficult for me because I was black.”

There was some “strange racist stuff” at the University of Sussex, where Dienka read English and Philosophy. Her friend Anu was repeatedly rejected at auditions. “We’re not making a play about an Indian girl from New York, therefore you don’t get the part,” was the not-so-subtle message from the drama society.

“So Anu produced her own plays and got actors of colour from across the university to perform in them,” Dienka recalls. “She even quoted the drama society people in the programme. It was brilliant! I was really inspired by that.”

Does Dienka think things are any better for performers of colour now?

“I think there are some better attitudes about casting diverse actors than there were,” she says. “In some ways things are changing, but the arts sector – and the charity sector – is still not very diverse, particularly at leadership level.”

Breaking into arts management

It’s appropriate then that Dienka’s own path to leadership began when she joined Fast Track, a programme run by the Independent Theatre Council that supported black and Asian people into arts management.

Dienka had gained lots of arts experience after graduating, including working with Bristol Old Vic and Show of Strength and getting a Masters degree in Applied Theatre at Manchester University. Then, through Fast Track, Dienka went to the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth for a three-month placement. She stayed for three years, helping socially excluded young people engage in the arts and bringing disparate communities together through theatre.

“That was a really lovely project,” says Dienka. “It was really inspiring working with young people who were so passionate about changing the world.”

Going corporate: grey suits, red tape, valuable learning

Next – a bit of a career curveball. Dienka returned to Bristol and, with low expectations, applied for the role of Culture Education Manager at Swindon Borough Council. To her great surprise, she got it.

“It was so different,” says Dienka. “A lot more corporate, a lot more structured. At senior leadership level there were a lot of men in grey suits.”

People almost mistook her for the work experience girl. “I got a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re young!’ I had to deal with a lot of pre-conceived expectations and I definitely had to work harder to prove myself.”

Dienka’s job was to develop education programmes in cultural venues, which involved building a team and partnerships from scratch. She learned a lot – fast – about recruitment, people management, navigating red tape and, because there was little budget, fundraising. “If I wanted something to happen, I had to make the money happen.”

The first year was tough. “But when you have a hard experience, I think it’s the making of you – if you can take the learning from it.”

Swindon Council clearly spotted Dienka’s potential because in 2012 it sent her on a one-week CLORE course for emerging leaders. “There was lots about people management, advocacy, tools you need for leadership and your own self-awareness,” says Dienka. “It was really valuable.”

After three years in Swindon, Dienka joined Creative and Cultural Skills. Her job was to promote and develop apprenticeships within the cultural sector across Wales. It was another corporate environment, with lots of conferences and presenting. Thinking back to the girl who enjoyed being someone else on stage, how does Dienka feel about public speaking – as herself?

“I don’t mind public speaking because I can prepare – I’m in control of my narrative,” she says. That makes sense – she still has a script of sorts. “I’m much more confident in that situation than, say, at those warm wine networking events when everyone’s looking over everyone’s shoulders.”

Back to the theatre   

Dienka joined Travelling Light as General Manager in 2014. At that time there was no administrator, so she took on a lot of the day-to-day running of the charity as well as the higher-level strategy work. She sees this as positive: she learned “all the nuts and bolts” of how the organisation was run.

Her current role as Executive Director covers business planning, governance, organisational development, line management and lots of fundraising. The latter is crucial in the rapidly changing funding environment – young people need escapist, inspirational theatre more than ever but it’s increasingly hard to find the money to give it to them.

Dienka explains that co-leading Travelling Light with Heidi is unique to the arts. “It’s important to have an artist at the head of an organisation who has the vision and you’re there to support the vision to happen. There’s safety in it too – it’s nice to have somebody to talk to because you can be quite isolated at the top.”

Dienka with ActionSpeak youth theatre group
Dienka and her co-director Heidi with members of the ActionSpeak youth theatre group, which Travelling Lights runs in partnership with WECIL. Image by Camilla Adams

Leadership, parenting and changing the rules of the game

Dienka had her daughter in 2016. When she returned from maternity leave and started working four days a week, her professional confidence plummeted. She felt less qualified because she had taken time out and, now working part time, she was worried about being perceived as less committed.

Eventually she made a conscious effort to recognise the skills and experience she’d gained as a result of that so-called time off, rather than thinking ‘I’m less of a leader because I’ve had a child.’ “Women aren’t really encouraged to do that very much,” she adds.

The arts environment is hard on parents, Dienka thinks. “There’s a lot of presenteeism. You need to be seen – and you need to be seen out at night. So even though I’m doing a lot of high-level stuff, I’m not seen as much as someone in my role should be and that’s impacted on my career.”

Relationship building doesn’t have to happen exclusively over drinks and after dark. Dienka finds other ways to reach out – for example, she’ll invite people to Travelling Light during the day, which is much better than “trying to grab them for 10 minutes at a press night”.

But it seems there’s no escaping some backlash. “Some sector colleagues would say that you can’t be an Executive Director and go and pick your child up at 4.30. That’s not how the world works.”

Aaaagh. I assume it’s men that spout such rubbish and am disappointed to learn that women are just as culpable. Dienka explains: “There’s a prevailing view that that’s how the game is played, and if you want to be in the game, you have to play the game. So that’s what I’ve struggled with most since coming back to work.”

The good news is many of Dienka’s Travelling Light colleagues have families. “So there’s lots of understanding within the team, even if there’s not so much understanding out there.”

Boundaries, balance and tracky bottoms

There were times when Dienka wondered if working in such a challenging sector was right for her. “But then I thought, what would I be saying to the team – that you can only be a leader if you can work 60 hours a week? And while I wouldn’t claim to be a role model, it’s nice to know that you can be an example – that people like me can do it.”

So – how is Dienka juggling the juggle these days?

For starters, she has relaxed her attitude to the unicorn that is the perfect work/life balance. “I stopped worrying so much about it,” she says. “Instead of putting pressure on myself to achieve the perfect balance, it was more helpful to figure out what my boundaries are. So if I have to get up early to send an email, that’s alright, because that’s what’s efficient for me.”

But you shouldn’t wait until becoming a parent to establish your boundaries, says Dienka. She describes how hard she worked earlier in her career, staying at her desk until everything was done, working far beyond her contracted hours in the process – all because she felt she needed to prove herself. “Because I’d always done that, it made it harder to communicate my boundaries when I did need to leave on time.”

So Dienka’s biggest piece of advice for women at the start of their careers – and the advice she’d give to her younger self?

“Start as you mean to go on,” she says firmly. “Don’t work late all the time – work the hours you’re paid to work, because every time you work those extra unpaid hours, you’re essentially giving yourself a massive pay cut.”

When Dienka quotes a film presented by June Sarpong about women in business, I know instantly it’ll be in the title of this story. “One of the women June interviewed talked about ‘leaving loudly’. So if she had a sports event with her son for example, she’d make a real point of pulling on her tracky bottoms and trainers – and off she’d go.”

‘Leaving loudly’. I love it! Dienka does too. “There’s not enough leaving loudly. People slope off feeling a bit guilty.”

However loudly she may aim to leave the office, Dienka is still the quiet, ‘booky’ person she’s always been – and proud of it. She thinks aspiring leaders should be authentic. “I know ‘be yourself’ sounds really cheesy but if you’re a quiet person, quiet leadership is great. I find it a real relief just to be myself.”

Getting ahead in the arts

Dienka recently joined the board of the Independent Theatre Council – the very organisation that set her on the path to arts leadership at the start of her career. What specific advice does she have for aspiring leaders in the creative industry?

Well, think back to those box files lining the office walls. It’s essentially understanding the contents of those – the finances, the HR contracts, the governance reports – that Dienka credits with helping her get ahead.

“I found it really helpful to know how to do things that other people don’t want to do,” she says. “So my advice would be – by all means learn about creative side of things, but don’t dismiss those broader skills. Learn to fundraise and learn about the accounts because those skills will be really valuable. They underpin everything. Because I had management skills, I probably progressed quicker than I would have done otherwise.”

But while Dienka’s role at Travelling Light is more spreadsheets than stagecraft, what she loves most about her job is making the art happen. The charity’s outreach work on its doorstep in Barton Hill, one of the most deprived communities in Bristol, is particularly close to her heart. It seems to me that by getting great art to children and young people from all backgrounds, Dienka is tackling some of that elitism that put her off acting all those years ago.

Travelling Light Image by Camilla Adams
Travelling Light provides runs free creative activities for children in Barton Hill. Photo by Camilla Adams

“I feel really proud of what we do,” she says. “And because we’re a children’s theatre company, there are days when I can bring my daughter into rehearsals and she’s part of the process of making the work. That makes me feel really honoured.”

The story you’ve just finished reading was based on my interview with Dienka pre-Covid. The charity and arts sectors have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and Dienka is currently steering Travelling Light through stormy waters, but she still found the time to share her thoughts on leading during lockdown.

“Now it seems strange to look back and remember being judged for not being able to do business during the evening over wine,” says Dienka. “Leadership has been stripped back to the essentials: keeping Travelling Light going, supporting the staff and delivering our charitable work as best we can.” (Here’s an article about how Travelling Light has helped Bristol children access creativity through lockdown.)

Along with working parents everywhere, every staff member at Travelling Light has faced challenges juggling childcare and work. Dienka hopes that a kinder workplace will emerge post-Covid.  “One thing I hope comes out of all this is that the problems childcare can present are out in the open, and that they become the subject of empathy rather than judgement.”

Dienka believes that these unprecedented times present an opportunity to rethink the way we work for the better. “I hope that will mean people are judged on their outcomes, rather than how many hours they put in at the office or out networking.”

She adds that this time has accelerated the demand for wider changes in society – particularly in relation to Black Lives Matter. How does she think the movement will affect the charity sector – and address some of the problems highlighted by the #charitysowhite campaign?

“Issues of racism are being openly discussed in ways I’ve rarely experienced,” says Dienka. “There’s a real drive to examine how charities operate and what it really means to have social justice at the heart of what we do. I think there’s a real opportunity to look at the society we want to be and the role we have in shaping it. The voices of women of colour have previously been unheard, but they are now shaping the conversation – and that makes me feel optimistic.”

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to show Dienka and Travelling Light some love, you can support them here (I should add that it was my idea to include this ask, not Dienka’s!).  Thank you so much.  

 

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Put up your hand and roll up your sleeves: Anna Smith’s route to CEO and advice for aspiring charity leaders

Here’s an infuriating statistic for women in charities (and women everywhere). Even though we make up 65% of the workforce, a 2017 report by Charity Finance showed that 71% of chief execs at the 100 largest charities are men.

Now, there may well be a more recent report out there with better numbers for women leaders. But I haven’t found it yet. And it got me thinking: why not interview some female charity CEOs and write some stories that might – just maybe – inspire other women in the sector?

So here’s the first of what I hope will be a series of stories about women leading charities. Huge thanks to Anna Smith from One25 for kicking things off. When we met in September, we talked about surviving blokey meetings, chucking yourself in at the deep end, parenting under pressure…and rogue lunch boxes.

Anna Smith
Anna Smith, CEO of Bristol charity One25

Sitting across from me in One25’s Bristol office, Anna Smith looks and sounds like one of those impressive people who was born to be a leader. So I’m taken aback when she tells me a story about how she responded, aged 12, to a task set by a supply teacher: write about what you want to do with your life.

Anna was one of four children. Her mum was at home and her dad went to work. In rural Cambridgeshire in the 1970s, she says, this was pretty much the norm. So the young Anna wrote in her exercise book: ‘I want to have children and then I’ll stop working.’

The teacher picked her up on it. “Why would you stop working?” she said. “You could carry on working, couldn’t you?” Anna remembers a light going on in her head. “I thought, ‘Whoah! I could!’”

Thank goodness for that supply teacher – because Anna did carry on working. Four decades on from that writing task and four children of her own later, Anna has built an impressive career in the charity sector, supporting some of the most marginalised people in society along the way.

Life in the Cambridgeshire countryside didn’t suit the teenage Anna. “I was screaming to get out of the village,” she says. “I went to Covent Garden on a school trip and I thought, ‘I want to live here.’ It became my obsession. After that, I only applied to London colleges.”

Anna made it – she read English at what is now London Metropolitan University. The college’s diverse, left wing environment spurred her into activism: when she wasn’t reading, she was campaigning. She Rocked against Racism, demanded freedom for Nelson Mandela and protested anti-abortion laws.

Anna Smith in 1985
Student and activist Anna during the summer of 1985

A speedy rise through the ranks

A job helping others was the obvious next step. Anna’s early roles involved supporting vulnerable people to find employment, first with the Vocational Guidance Association and then Workforce in Hackney.

I’m not surprised to hear that Anna moved quickly through the ranks. “But it wasn’t desperately out of ambition,” she admits. “It was more out of boredom. I wanted the challenge of something new and different, so I became a manager quite young.”

Freshly promoted to deputy CEO at Workforce, 26-year-old Anna became pregnant with her first child.  How would she break the news to Graham Finegold, her CEO? “I really thought he’d tell me what terrible timing it was. But he couldn’t have been nicer about it.”

Later I ask Anna who in particular has helped her progress in her career. I’m hoping she’ll name a woman, but it’s Graham Finegold who stands out. “Graham was amazing to work with: easy, bright, focused, visionary,” says Anna. “He was a great leader, but also compassionate and aware.”

Anna in 1993
Anna during her ‘Dr Martens/Annie Lennox phase’ in 1993, just before she became a mum

Blokey meetings and bump-patting

Anna remembers the external meetings and trips she attended on behalf of Workforce as ‘very blokey and jokey’. She was often the only woman in the room. “I’d go into meetings and people would make slightly dodgy comments about me being pregnant. Graham was always incredibly supportive of me as a woman in that environment.”

I want to hear more about Anna’s experiences as a relatively young pregnant woman in a senior role in a frequently male-dominated work environment. She remembers interviewing a male candidate when she was about seven months pregnant. “I remember standing up at the end and the guy put his hands on my stomach and said, ‘Good luck.’ It was well meant, but totally inappropriate.”

Would that happen now? Anna thinks not. “I do think things have changed. I was at the mayor’s office in London a few years ago and a guy stood up and said he had to go as it was his daughter’s birthday and I thought, ‘Good for you!’” (I ask which mayor. Sadiq, surely? It was Boris. Humph.)

Jumping feet first into consultancy

Back to the mid-nineties. Anna had a baby boy, Nathan. Having separated from his father, she was struggling to stay on top of work and single parenting. Graham suggested that she could soon be CEO of Workforce but she knew it was unrealistic. “I had a little boy. I wouldn’t be able to navigate all the late meetings without a partner to pick up the slack.”

So Anna left Workforce and worked both as a consultant in her own right and, for security, for a consultancy. She did training, fundraising, bid writing – anything that was asked of her.

“I’d say ‘Yes, I’ll do Managing the External Environment training!’ And then I’d think, what IS that even? But then I’d find out more about the audience and the subject and I’d try things out… and it mostly worked.”

That’s very brave. “I think you have to throw yourself into things,” says Anna.

Maximising nap-time

I work and I parent and much of the time I feel I’m falling short at both – and that’s with a supportive husband. So how did Anna cope on her own with a young son? She didn’t even have local grandparents to lean on.

She admits it was hard. “I can remember sitting and developing training courses into the early hours, and I would be alright if Nathan slept. If he woke up – and he wasn’t the best sleeper – I’d be screwed. I’d be like, ‘I’m running this in six hours and it’s not finished!’ That’s how crazy it was. But you just go on, don’t you?”

Anna did have a strong network of friends, most of whom were flexible because they didn’t yet have kids. One particularly brilliant girlfriend, Helena, babysat Nathan once a week for six weeks so that Anna could do an evening course.

Support beyond the sink

With her own consultancy thriving, Anna made the leap to full-time self-employment. She met her partner Oliver, had her daughter Rosa (named after Rosa Parks) and moved to Spain. She kept working: it wasn’t unusual for her to hop on a plane to London, run a week’s training and fly back to Spain. Around this time she became pregnant with her third child, Maya (named after Maya Angelou).

Again I’m in awe. How on earth did she manage? What helps massively, Anna tells me, is having a supportive partner. “I don’t mean just doing the washing up and sharing the laundry. I mean turning around and saying ‘Yes, I’ll hold the fort while you run your training for a week.’ Just working as if you’re two equals.”

Then she adds: “One thing that really, really bugs me is when people say, ‘Oh isn’t Oliver marvellous!’ Because he’s only doing what I’m doing, and nobody’s saying I’m marvellous.”

YES! I’m agreeing so hard that I almost knock my recorder over. I have a similar reaction to the phrase ‘Daddy day care’.

So long consultancy, hello CEO

After a year in Spain, Anna and her family returned to the UK and settled in Bath. In 2006 she had another son, Thomas. By 2008, the economic crash loomed and Anna knew she should get out of consultancy. “Anyway, I wanted to be back in an organisation – to feel part of something again.”

CEO roles came next: five years at Survive in South Gloucestershire, and two years at Advance in London. Both charities work with people affected by domestic abuse.

Anna at One25's Bristol office
Anna at One25’s Bristol office

Working with Bristol’s most vulnerable women

In 2017 Anna joined One25, a Bristol charity supporting women who are sex working or who have had their children removed. Earlier this year it made the headlines when Meghan and Harry paid a visit, but the charity has long deserved the attention: it has been doing exceptional, life-saving work with the most marginalised women in the city for many years.

There are no blokey jokes and inappropriate bump-patting here. Men are welcome in the workplace, but the One25 team is predominantly female and always will be. The best thing about leading One25, says Anna, is that every member of the team, from case workers to cleaners to payroll staff, cares ‘very deeply’ about the women One25 works with. Those women are seen and loved and supported, ‘wherever they are and whatever they do’.

How to be a good bad guy

And then there are the tough bits. Funding is always a challenge in the charity sector. So sometimes “really hard decisions have to be made for the right reasons but getting everyone to see that can be really difficult.” And as a CEO, “there are times when you just have to suck it up and be the bad guy. And that’s not nice.”

So how do aspiring CEOs prepare for those not-so-nice aspects of leadership? “Be honest, be yourself, admit when you’re wrong,” says Anna. “Try to put your best foot forward and be your best self.”

Words of wisdom for aspiring leaders

What’s Anna’s advice for becoming a leader in general?

“Roll your sleeves up,” she tells me. Earlier in her career she and a fellow manager spent a week sitting in a meeting room stuffing envelopes for a fundraising campaign. They could have said ‘That’s not my job’. But they didn’t. They got stuck in, because that’s what the organisation needed from them.

Remember the story of Anna volunteering to run ‘Managing the External Environment’ training when she knew next to nothing about it? She just went for it. And she thinks all would-be leaders should do the same. “Put your hand up,” she says.  “Say ‘I’ll do that!’ even if you’ve never done it before. Take yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Any more wise words for aspiring leaders? “Get yourself a mentor,” says Anna, who is one and has one. All the managers at One25 have mentors too. “Find someone outside of your organisation that you can go to and say, ‘Aaaghhh, I’ve got this problem, I can’t do this, I’m worried about that’, and let them help untangle it for you.”

Mess ups – and time for self care

I may be in danger of banging on about this but…how does Anna do it? How does she stay on top of a full time CEO role and four children (now aged 24, 17, 15 and 13)?

Anna describes a massive blackboard in her kitchen which charts everyone’s movements during the week, plus a sub-board for weekends. But she messes up all the time, she tells me. Once she was running the ‘walking bus’ to school and she forgot to take someone else’s seven-year-old across the road. “He dutifully stood on the green while another parent walked him across. Then he come over and told me off! I still feel bad about that.”

Another time, when Anna had three children under five, she sent the teenage Nathan to school “with a Tupperware full of cheese rather than his actual lunch.” (That one really makes me laugh, as I too have a tub full of cheese in my fridge and it’s pretty stinky. Poor Nathan!)

I want to know about that cringey but useful phrase ‘self-care’. When does Anna squeeze it in?

Every Saturday on the hockey pitch, it turns out. “Playing hockey makes me a better mother,” she says. “It means I’ve done something for me. I get home and think, ‘Ok, I’m really willing to give you the rest of my day now.’”

No one’s indispensable

As our interview winds up, Anna remembers one last piece of advice for potential leaders: keep your feet on the ground.  “You’re never that important,” she says. “At One25, the women are the most important thing. I need to remain functional and do my job well, but I’m not indispensable. I don’t believe in hierarchies and I don’t stand on ceremony.”

And with that Anna gets up, shakes my hand and strides purposefully towards the One25 kitchen. She’s on dishwasher duty.

Do you know a brilliant woman leading a charity that I should be writing about? If so, please get in touch.  

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Ten tales of courage, solidarity and badass women from #TUC150

When Catherine from Mile 91 asked me to help her produce 150 stories for the TUC’s 150th anniversary, I was excited by the scale of the project but, I’m embarrassed to admit, fairly indifferent to the subject matter. I didn’t know much about trade unions and – I’m cringing as I type – I thought the stories would be pretty dry compared to stuff I’d written in the past.

But how wrong I was!

#TUC150 proved to be one of the most fascinating projects I’ve ever worked on. By its end I’d produced over 40 stories spanning from 1788 (when Chartist leader William Cuffay was born in Kent) to 2017 (when Gladys Branche from Sierra Leone spoke up for the world’s least-respected women workers). It was an education – I felt like I’d done an A Level in the union movement. And I’d had a huge career highlight:  interviewing a union hero whose story made it to the big screen in one of my all-time favourite films.

Here are my top ten #TUC150 stories…

10. The brilliant Betty Tebbs 

Betty’s mum always told her that ‘girls were best’. So in 1932, when 14-year-old Betty turned up for her first day at the paper mill and discovered that boys got 13 shillings while girls barely made nine, she was furious. What did she do? She joined a union and she made sure her voice was heard. When she left the mill 18 years later, she and her female colleagues were the best-paid paper mill women in Britain. Here’s Betty’s story.

9. The WW2 recruits posted to the pits

Called Up, Sent Down book by Tom Hickman
Called Up, Sent Down by Tom Hickman – my Dad bought me this for my birthday (bless him) after listening to me rabbiting on about the Bevin Boys.

In 1943, union heavyweight Ernest Bevin was leading Britain’s war effort on the home front. A coal crisis loomed, so Ernest launched a controversial scheme: instead of being posted to the frontline, one in ten recruits were sent down the mines instead. Their names were literally pulled from a hat. Just imagine – one minute you’re all puffed with pride at the prospect of fighting for your country and the next, you’re fumbling around a pitch-black coal mine 5000 feet below Yorkshire. There was a lot of resentment among the Bevin Boys, but at least most survived to tell the tale, unlike so many of their generation. Read more about Ernest Bevin’s achievements here.

8. “We were a beacon of hope.”

After weeks of writing about long-gone union heroes via secondary sources, it was a treat to hear stories straight from the horse’s mouth. The horse in question was an 80-year-old former GCHQ linguist called Mike Grindley and by the end of our interview, I was a huge fan. When Margaret Thatcher banned union membership at GCHQ in 1984, Mike was one of 14 employees who refused to rip up their union cards – and were eventually sacked. Their passionately-fought campaign against the ban was the second longest dispute in British union history. Speaking of which…

7. When oh when will someone make a film about the 1914 Burston School Strike?

This story has it all! The setting: the big skies and bleak fields of Norfolk. Our heroes: Kitty and Tom Higdon, husband-and-wife super-teachers who want to educate and nourish the children of poor farm workers. Our villains: the rich landowners who want the poor to stay that way and feel threatened by the Higdons, so try to drive them away. The cinematic climax: the skinny yet spirited school children coming out on strike in support of their teachers – the longest strike in history, it turned out (pipping Mike G to the post). Sounds like a BAFTA winner to me.

6. Long before #MeToo…

…Liverpudlian clothes store manager Audrey White was speaking up about sexual harassment. In 1983, a senior manager behaved inappropriately towards four women in Audrey’s team. She complained – and got the sack. But Audrey was a union member and she was going to fight. Her campaign put sexual harassment at work in the spotlight and ultimately led to a change in employment law in 2005. Audrey tells her story here.

5. Bristolians boycott the buses

It’s April 1963. No people of colour work on Bristol’s buses because the bus company won’t hire them. Inspired by Rosa Parks and what she sparked in Montgomery, Alabama, brave local activists organise a bus boycott. It works. In August – just hours before Martin Luther King tells Washington that he has a dream – the Transport and General Workers’ Union votes for integration on the buses. Find out more about this big moment in Bristol’s history here.

4. “We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

Thank you #TUC150 for introducing me to Jayaben Desai, the factory worker who in 1976 led a high-profile strike against her employer, Grunwick photo processing. The 4’10 Jayaben is said to have told her 6ft manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.” Sadly the lions lost their strike, but Jayaben’s roar made it into the history books.

3. The match women rock their hats

Striking a Light book by Louise Raw
Louise Raw’s Striking a Light – required reading for all Bryant and May match-women fans

The story of the Bryant and May match women is well known, and justifiably so. Their working conditions were dire, they bravely downed their tools and went out on strike and they won. But here’s a lesser known, rather more frivolous, but still pertinent little detail about the match women. According to historian Louise Raw, they had their own distinctive sense of style – all thanks to their ‘feathers club’. They’d chip in to a kitty, buy the most extravagant hats they could find and then share them around. So if you had a date on a Friday night, you’d get a hat. Then you’d pass it on to the next girl for Saturday night. With all that resourcefulness and spark and sense of community, it’s no wonder the match women made such a success of their strike. Here’s more on the match women.

2. “I’ve nothing but pride in that film.”

I LOVED Pride when I saw it in 2014. So I nearly fell off my chair when I found out I’d be interviewing one of its main characters – the real-life version – for #TUC150. In the film, Dai Donovan is the warm, good-humoured Welsh miner, the founder of the surprising friendship between the striking mining families in his village and the members of the London-based group ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’.  The real Dai is equally warm and good-humoured and interviewing him really was nearly-falling-off-my-chair-worthy. The interview transcript came in at 3642 words, and I had to write a 500-word story. Aaagh. You can read it here.

1. Eleanor Marx, I salute you.

Eleanor Marx tea towel
Coolest birthday present ever (though I do wonder what Ms M would think about having her face emblazoned on a tea towel, with all its connotations of domestic drudgery!)

Bloody Brilliant Women. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Stylist magazine’s Visible Women campaign. I’m delighted that amazing women from history are finally getting the recognition they deserve, but why isn’t Eleanor Marx in any of the above? I totally hero-worship her (some would call it a girl crush). Yes, she was Karl Marx’s daughter. But she should also be known in her own right as a fiercely intelligent, influential and inspirational woman – a superb organiser, a devoted teacher and a wildly popular orator who, among her many other achievements, campaigned tirelessly for the eight-hour day. If my intro to Eleanor piques your interest, you should definitely get your hands on Rachel Holmes’ excellent biography of this ‘bloody brilliant’ woman.

I regularly write for story-gathering agency Mile 91 and this post originally appeared on their blog.