When entering a boardroom, my biggest worry was Norm. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Norm. Norm can genuinely be a nice person. When we enter the room, Norm and I can both be nervous as we’re about to present ideas and know there will be challenges ahead.

Norm can walk in and be authentically Norm.

He is a man, he is straight, he is white, he was born in the UK to a middle-class family, he went to a good school and a good university and got a degree (or two). He doesn’t have caring responsibilities, he is able-bodied. He is Neuronormative (he doesn’t have ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia or another SpLD), and he appears to have good mental health (he doesn’t have Depression, Anxiety, or Schizophrenia). He seems to be about the same age as everyone else in the room and perhaps went to school with the people around the table.

Norm looks like everyone else in the room. There might be a couple of people like Ahmed, or Norma, and sometimes more rarely an Akshata, or a Khadisha.

So, why would a visibly non-binary, queer, disabled migrant from a working-class background, a school at the bottom of the league table, with a long history of poor mental health, think they could have a place next to Norm?

With this idea of Norm playing in my head, how can I see myself being taken seriously on a board? Why would someone like me even become a Pilotlighter? What can I bring to the conversation?

I am lucky. I bring the voice of someone who has survived against the odds.

The average life expectancy of a trans or non-binary person is less than my age. Living older is rare because we struggle to get the mental health and health care support we need - not only for being trans or non-binary but also for the everyday things life brings.

We have problems with employment because there is always a reason to hire someone more like Norm. We struggle with money, not because we aren’t good with it, but because it is rarely the stable, steady income of continuous employment.

Our families, our relationships can hinge on us fitting in with what people think we are. We can be shunned, rejected, broken up with, made to feel we are not worthy of love when we start to talk about how we want to be seen when we express our authentic selves.

Our education can be fractured, broken up by periods of non-attendance due to bullying. Being sensed as different makes us vulnerable to abuse from pupils and staff. We often give up on education because it is hard to do school when you struggle to be seen. We take courses that are below our potential ability because we want out of those institutions fast.

We are bullied, at times, physically threatened or assaulted. Because we don’t look enough like Norm, or despite everything we do, something gives us away, our nervousness, our anxiety, means people look twice. And in that second look, they see someone who doesn’t fit into the image of Norm.

So, we work to hide ourselves, damaging our mental and physical health to try and fit and look like Norm, to stay employed, housed, educated, loved.

I am lucky. I bring the voice of someone who can see the advantages I have had.

Despite going all the way through primary and secondary education at a school at the bottom of the league table, I got into a university and managed to complete several degrees. The advantage I had was that I had parents who had the financial ability to value my education over my contribution to the household. I could work some evenings, weekends, and holidays, and I could remain in education. Many of the people I was at school with did not have this advantage and left school or university without making the most of their potential.

I have the advantages of being white and being from the right sort of colonised country. My features, my name, my accent, my father being from England meant I could walk in with the right passport and, while a migrant, avoid the costs of visas and arrangements to show I should be here.

I am lucky. I have had people show me solidarity and care.

When at one point, I was unemployed for an extended period, friends would feed me. Offering dinners and drinks, and sometimes a covering loan. One friend covered me when a company I was freelancing for took over 120 days to pay an invoice, and I ran out of money for food.

Friends have picked me up when I have been at my worst; more than once, friends have worked to ensure I am not left on my own, that I have eaten, that I have slept. That I am going to see the doctors and therapists. That I haven’t just walked out of my life.

One workplace, in particular, Thoughtworks, stood by me when my mental health literally shattered. Even when I was in a safe place, I couldn’t cope with the grief and anger of the workplace bullying and harassment I had been through. They got me to the right sort of help and gave me time and space to recover.

I am lucky. I am here, and I am in the mental space where I can be authentically me.

This is why my voice in these spaces, talking to leaders, matters.

I have a perspective that no one else in the room has. I have been through things that make me question “Why Norm?” that allows me to see the world through lenses no one else around the table will have.

If everyone in the room has always had a steady job, would the way food poverty and fuel poverty interlink be part of the discussion around staffing patterns in stores?

Would anyone else have dreams of unrealised utopias where publicly stated support for LGBTQ+ people is not only for Pride?

Would we question the diversity of hires into a graduate programme if we expect them all to have the same degrees? Why do they need time at a university? Are we making adjustments for SpLDs?

Having me in the room is about making space for me, listening to my voice, valuing my opinion, understanding my passion.

Including me is about challenging the structures that got us all around the table.

Doing that means I can walk in and be unabashedly, unapologetically, authentically me.

So, could I walk in and take a seat in your boardroom?

Dr J Harrison became a Pilotlighter via our Ignite Initiative. They’ll be coaching One Roof Leicester, a Weston Charity Awards Winner, via the Pilotlight 360.


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Dr J Harrison
Pilotlighter - Harbinger of Change at Thoughtworks