Celebrating excellence in diversity practice

I was delighted to have been asked to speak and give the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Excellence in Diversity Awards in Leeds last week – what a great celebration it was!

I was honoured to speak at the Excellent in Diversity Awards last week

I was honoured to speak at the Excellent in Diversity Awards last week

Congratulations to everyone who was nominated – and the winners should be very proud… and especially to Karin Woodley, Chief Executive of Cambridge House who was given the Lifetime Achievement Award. I salute you!… and what a superb speech you made… “fighting for social justice is our moral obligation”…

Here’s what I said:

I am very pleased to hear that there have been so many excellent submissions for these Awards this year – and that the numbers are rising year on year. This message should go our loud and clear into our society which sadly, is too often characterised as narrow-minded and prejudiced. Not true. Respect, diversity and inclusion are thriving.

What tonight proves is that many many companies and organisations ‘get it’ – they understand the argument that diversity is good for their organisations and good for business – and they want to tap into the strength of the diversity of our society.

At the risk of preaching to the converted, let’s just revisit why investing in diversity can give organisations and companies a competitive edge and bottom-line advantage… three simple reasons:

  • because they can attract the most talented people to work for them
  • because they can retain staff who go through life-changing experiences
  • because they can attract customers who might not shop with them.

Simples.

I am glad to say that Changing Faces has worked with many companies across the UK to help them embed respect for ‘face equality’ and so enable them to attract people with unusual faces into their workplace, retain them if they go through a difficult experience – like a facial cancer or a Bell’s palsy – and ensure that people like me get excellent customer service… and aren’t asked ‘Cor, what happened to you?’ at the check-out desk. Yes it happens.

But we also run into the usual excuses – ‘we are dealing with gender equality this year’ and ‘we are fully trained on disability so don’t worry’. Sadly, it is often not until one of our users reports a bad incident that companies are impelled to do something.

Similarly, in 15 years of Dining with a Difference events, I have been amazed at how the top Boards of big companies frequently do not ‘get it’… They fail to see that disability, disfigurement and diversity are important strategic business issues not just annoying HR problems. Dining has lots of light-bulb moments for them…

I think there is one factor that marks out organisations and companies that ‘get it’ and those that don’t – they have a champion in a senior or high-level position who gets it and is determined to embed ‘it’ into the very fabric of the organisation.

A classic example was a major bank for which we ran a Dining event… we were told that many of the top Board were coming and were tasked with getting one of them as champion… at the end of the evening, the Finance Director got up to say ‘thank you’ and completely unprompted, announced that he’d put his hand up to be the company’s Disability Champion.

He kept his word and went on to become the Chief Executive. The whole company’s approach to disability – and diversity across the board too – changed.

So my message to you this evening is actually a challenge: I task you all with finding and nurturing the next generation of champions on diversity and inclusion in your organisations to take the embedding up to the next level.

World AIDS Day

Charlie Sheen’s recent ‘coming out’ as living with HIV shone a much-needed light on the stigma that still surrounds HIV and AIDS, and set me thinking about parallels with disfigurement.

It’s more than thirty years since HIV was discovered, and more than twenty-five years since we lost some high profile names to the condition, such as Freddy Mercury. The combined efforts of people like Princess Diana, Elton John and Bill Gates have raised awareness and provided treatment around the world. And yet people still make jokes, discriminate, and make very uninformed assumptions about people with HIV and the treatments available.

After Charlie Sheen’s story broke, one Mirror journalist wrote about how he “deserves everything he gets”. Can you imagine a newspaper publishing a story about a famous person with cancer, with a comment that they deserved it because they’d smoked? Or someone with diabetes ‘deserving it’ because of their diet? But media stigma abounds on HIV.

I find it shocking that anyone would harbour such views about someone’s medical condition. But at Changing Faces we see and hear of such stories every day: people being discriminated against, targeted in hate crime, suffering in schools and the workplace – all because of their appearance.

People with disfigurements also live with other people’s assumptions, and assumptions are often linked with a judgment. In Lexxie’s interview with BBC Radio 5 Live at the weekend, she spoke about how people assume her birthmark is a bruise. Others with scars or asymmetry on their faces report comments to the effect that they ought to get it ‘fixed’. The work that Changing Faces does to challenge these assumptions – disfigurements can rarely be removed, for example – and stand tall against discrimination, is vital not only for the people that we support, but for the wider society too.

 

I sat with Sir John Hurt – who many will know for his incredible performance in The Elephant Man – at a Project Harar dinner on Saturday. He did voiceover for the chilling 1986 public information television advert on HIV, urging people not to take risks and ‘die of ignorance’. Thankfully, pharmaceutical advances mean that if it’s diagnosed early enough, an HIV diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was. But people still have to live with it.

On this World AIDS Day, we should celebrate the medical advances, but commit to ensure that the only thing that dies is ignorance and prejudice.

Being the People’s Choice increases my responsibility

I was almost speechless when in the historic Terrace Room of the House of Commons, the cradle of democracy, with the Thames at high tide just outside, my name was announced as the ‘People’s Choice’ at the Body Confidence Awards 2014. I was convinced that I was there to clap Gok Wan that I wobbled up to the stage to receive it, dazed but delighted.

James with Gok Wan

I was delighted to meet Gok!

It was an important night for everyone who believes that Britain needs to wake up to the brewing crisis around body image in today’s society and ‘be real’ in promoting ‘body confidence’ through all available channels – in the media, in advertising, in schools and in all walks of life.

The Campaign for Body Confidence which organised the Awards is revitalising the campaign and to judge by the winners, there are already many great exemplar projects in motion:

  • The Self Esteem Team delivering tailored body confidence lessons for teenagers ages 13 to 18 as well as parents and teachers
  • Girlguiding developing girls’ body confidence, training up 250 peer educators to deliver their ‘Free Being Me’ programme
  • The Jamie Oliver Foundation for ‘making healthy eating cool’ through focused work with schools and communities
  • Youth Sport Trust’s Girls Active programme to raise girls’ participation in PE and sport
  • The Guardian for its Body Image column on the website
  • Lancôme and its partnership with Lupita Nyong’o, a non-Westernised, dark skinned, African American woman, sparking debate around beauty
  • ASOS Curve for its understated, quiet, ongoing campaign to promote confidence of women through their affordable, fashionable clothes that they can feel good in
  • Breast Cancer Care for its brave and honest campaign showing mastectomy scars.

And just before my Award, that guru of the body confidence movement, Susie Orbach was honoured – and Radio 1 DJ Jameela Jamil, Gok Wan, and comedian, Juliette Burton wowed the assembled glittering crowd.

My over-riding sentiment as I left the event was of the enormity of the challenge facing us. Face confidence and body confidence don’t grow on trees. They have to be nurtured and strengthened over years and they often mean that people have to swim against the prevailing cultural tides – which encourage in so many people today unhealthy body image risk-taking.

So I will try hard to live up to the faith put in me by the people who voted for me – and I see that as my responsibility. But it is also the responsibility of the beauty industry itself and of opinion leaders in Parliament and the media to challenge the unhealthy and promote body confidence in all they do.