“We’re doing work that really matters.” An interview with Julia Unwin DBE

March 6, 2020  

To mark International Women’s Day 2020, we speak to Julia Unwin DBE, whose remarkable career has seen her lead the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and lead an inquiry into the future of civil society. She talks about the social passions and concerns that drive her, and the power of angry women in shaping communities. Julia will be speaking as part of Stronger Things on 12 March.

How did you end up where you are now?
In many ways I had the sort of accidental career that many women have. I started in community development in Liverpool in the 1970s, but curiosity, and a desire to do different things took me to local government in London, then to the homelessness sector, then to big regulatory roles, and then to a charity whose work I’d always admired – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I spent a happy decade there as CEO. All through that time I wrote and advised and got interested in the relationships between funders and the organisations they support and also the ways in which boards of trustees work.

What’s the common thread in such a varied career?
I know that I’ve always been passionate about social justice – and personally hugely committed to the value and importance of public service. I worry that the value of public service is being denigrated and is not seen as the defining value that makes our society work. In my view, it’s the highest calling and those of us who work to serve the public are hugely privileged. We’re doing work that really matters.

Of all the causes you’ve worked on, is there one that’s closest to your heart?
People’s sense of identity and belonging is the thing that really gets me going. It’s why issues such as people having to flee tyranny in Syria, or people living on the streets or those forced to move from place to place because of poverty move me so much. It’s why I see domestic violence as such a terrible abuse and why people having their homes flooded is so painful for individuals and families. My mother’s family fled Hamburg in the 1930s and I’ve always known that stability and security are the bedrock on which lives can be built.

You led an independent review on the future of civil society that was published in 2018. So, what is the future of civil society?
Civil society is everywhere – there are no cold spots – people have always come together to have fun, or because they care or because they’re angry, or because they want to change things, or indeed to stop things changing. People do that because there is a deep human need to belong and to be part of something. We need, as a country, to enable civil society to have a renewed and reenergised vigour and to reconnect people. It is the only way we are going to meet the challenges of the next decade, including economic volatility and the evident climate emergency.

What does ‘community power’ mean to you?
Communities are the best advocates for a place; they know what is going on and what is going wrong. They can use that knowledge and their deep-rooted connections with each other to improve their surroundings. Community power enables people to foster an identity, an inclusive one that gives them confidence to solve problems, gather resources, make changes. But those who think they have power in a place, whether it be at local or national government level, need to recognise they are a resource for the community, and the community is not a resource for them. Then real change starts to happen.

Do movements like this have a special meaning or impact for women?
I’ve never come across a community regeneration scheme or a neighbourhood-based support scheme, or a response to a disaster that is not powered, initiated and supported by women who are frequently angry, but have the drive, commitment and connection to push for real change. All too often they’re not the ones who get the recognition – but they are nearly always somewhere, making the place they love a better place.

How (if at all) has being a woman influenced your own career?
When I started out there were very few senior women, and that, I guess, made me even more stubbornly determined, and one of the great changes of the past few decades has been to see so many amazing women taking their rightful place. I always argue that modern leadership requires both curiosity and humility – and while I’d never argue that they are uniquely female characteristics, (and there are some women who lack both), together they are a different set of attributes to the ones that were lauded as essential to leadership in my early working life. Being a woman, and raising children, and at the same time trying to have a broader impact on the world around me has made me aware of my dependence on others but has contributed to my drive and understanding. But, of course, I’m still learning, and hope never to stop.

Is there a community-led solution to gender inequality?
There has to be. The vast majority of households living in poverty are led by women. Women bear the brunt of hardships in communities. But they are also the knowledge holders, the bridge builders, the connectors and the communicators. Without them nothing would work. Gender inequality is a gross injustice – the answer to it lies in the communities we serve.

What are you looking forward to most about Stronger Things?
A chance to learn, to think and to be part of a big step forward that acknowledges the ways we did things in the past are no longer adequate. And that new ways of working will change everything – but will also, if we’re rigorously honest with ourselves, allow us to create a more just, and a more resilient society. Stronger Things is the start of making the rhetoric real.

Julia Unwin DBE will be speaking as part of NLGN’s Stronger Things event on 12 March. Put your name down on the waitlist here.

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