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Sue Williams

Sue Williams, Senior Officer, Diversity Arts Council England doesn't particularly like her photo being taken or being videoed, so here she talks about leading, leadership and Arts Council England whilst sketching...

p.s. Sue wanted to also let everyone knows how much she loves what she does - she just forgot to say it whilst the camera was on - it's hard work drawing and trying to talk coherently at the same time!


I’m Sue Williams, I’m the senior officer for diversity at Arts Council England, I’ve worked here for eight years, and I’m responsible for Arts Council England’s national policy on disability equality.

Prior to working at Arts Council I worked for University of the Arts, London as a project co-ordinator, looking at access to the curriculum for art and design students. Prior to that I started out working for Artlink West Midlands which was part of the old Shape network, exploring access to the arts for disabled artists, and helping them with funding and support.

I hadn’t really thought that I would work for the Arts Council… it wasn’t something I had a desire to do until I went to work at University of the Arts and really discovered the joys of working for a mainstream organisation and making change, particularly around disability equality and the power of that change in that environment and I thought that was much more beneficial that working in a small organisation (not that I think working in a small organisation is bad, but its just about where I thought I would put my energy). So I find myself somewhere that I hadn’t expected to be.

I don’t see myself as a leader. I think the role I have at the Arts Council is very much a leadership role, it's leading on national policy, creating national policy and making sure as an organisation we observe that and actually achieve something in having that, so I very much see my role as creating visibility in some ways. So accessibility for me is often not something that is there at the forefront of things but it's invisible so that there is a certain amount of dignity around that. I think that in order to do that I am a bit like the elephant keeper in a circus. The elephant poo, the elephant dung – getting rid of that, dealing with the stuff that some people find difficult, clearing up all that. I wouldn’t say that dealing with disabilities is a cuddly area of diversity so you are ending up doing the things that other people don’t want to do, making people feel comfortable and engaging with issues in a way perhaps that they hadn’t wanted to. It's very much about providing clarity and strategic direction for the organisation and also that does involving making difficult choices – about what we are going to fund, about how we are going to support, how we are going to approach disability equality. It's about being clear and transparent about that, but it does mean some difficult choices.

For me leadership isn’t about the individual and it's not about the personalisation of leadership, it's about achieving a goal and having an impact. I think that’s because what I do is very important to me. It's part of who I am and what I do and I’m very passionate about it and committed to it. So it's very much about taking people on that journey and involving them in that process of transformation and that’s not about me as an individual, it's not about my ego, it's very much about the wider issues, having change, making change and opportunity. I think the primary thing is if you are taking someone on a journey, you’ve got to have a good hotel, good transport and it's got to be inclusive – it's about taking people on that journey.

I think working at the Arts Council for as long as I have, I’ve come to accept some of the limitations of that. One of the things I have discovered is that there is never a right time to do anything. So I think once you accept that change happens and is constantly happening, you learn to let go really. To let go of what people think about you, how things are panning out in that smaller sense and to move onto that kind of realities of what it is, and accepting your context. I think that by understanding what your context is you understand your limitations, and I think sometimes you can spend too much time trying to change the things you don’t have power over. I think it’s about understanding what you can change and how you can have impact that’s absolutely vital and that’s a big part of being a pragmatist.

When I started working in the arts, access and inclusion for disabled people was really just about being nice to disabled people and I’m quite pleased to say that things have moved on from there a bit and that change is happening, even if it's slow. I think we are seeing lots more disabled people in the arts, seeing lots more opportunities for disabled people to impact on the arts and I think that’s coming through now. I think one of the big things that I am aware of is that we give ourselves a hard time – I give myself a hard time as a disabled person. I don’t feel that perhaps I’m allowed to fail, I think that everything has to be perfect – part of that is internalised oppression and part of that is barriers I kind of impose for myself, so I kind of try and go easy on myself but it's still hard.

How do I cope - working at the Arts Council? Or how do I cope with all the things that go on in my life? I think that one of the things is that I am very passionate about what I do and the work that I do and as a disabled person working in disability, I can’t go home at night and forget about disability. It's part of who I am. My partner is also disabled so I experience discrimination and I have things to deal with in my personal life like I have to deal with at work. How I deal with some of that is to write letters to Westminster Council when I get parking tickets at work and ask them for Equality Impact assessments and give them a bit of grief about their disability equality scheme which is kind of what people do to me – it's quite funny actually! That amuses me.

What I really do is, having decided a while back when I reached 43 I was spending lots of time supporting people, to do what I wanted to do. The reason I got into what I do now is because I was supporting people to do art and for me that is really how I switch off, how I engage with the world in a different way. I keep a journal, I go out and draw, I sit in public places and draw. It’s a very, very different experience and it’s a very different way of engaging with the world, and people come up to you and talk to you as an artist, not as someone who is promoting disability equality.