An interview with Sheldon Mills, Stonewall's new Chair of Trustees.
Why did you first apply to become a Stonewall trustee?
For starters, I’d always been attracted to Stonewall because of the fundamental role the charity has played in opening up the possibility that we as LGBT people could be ourselves at work and in the community.
Then, when I was working for the Office of Fair Trading in the early 2010s, I was lucky enough to be sent on Stonewall’s Leadership programme.
Over those two days, I learnt so much about authentic leadership and how as a gay, black man I could be myself in the workplace.
What really struck me was seeing an organisation that could not just hold our community together, but support it to create a social change movement.
It was there and then I decided I wanted to be more involved with Stonewall, so I applied to be a Trustee and was accepted in January 2013.
What makes LGBT equality such an important issue for you?
LGBT equality is really personal for me. For most of my life, I’ve dealt with feeling that I’m different from the rest of society.
Being LGBT is part of this, but it’s also because I come from a mixed heritage background and was one of the first in my family to go to university.
Trying to find my place in the world as an outsider taught me a lot, but also took an incredible amount of energy.
What makes the movement for LGBT equality so powerful is that, at its heart, is a desire to get rid of the barriers we all face to being able to be ourselves, so we can feel like we belong.
So every one of us, regardless of our race, ability, class, gender and sexual orientation, can exist together as a united community.
Even though my family was incredibly supportive of me when I came out, I’ve had challenging moments being myself both at university and at work.
LGBT organisations like Stonewall and the wider community became such invaluable sources of support for me.
I want to do all that I can to make sure LGBT people feel free to be themselves in all areas of their life, all the time.
What are some of the things you’ve been most proud to have been involved with at Stonewall during your time as a trustee?
When Stonewall moved to become trans-inclusive it was a huge moment and I’m so grateful I was a part of making this happen.
If we want our movement to be the strongest it can be, we have to learn from our differences.
As a cis person, it’s important I listen to and learn from the experiences of our trans siblings. In the same way, I hope white LGBT people listen when I talk about what it’s like being a black, gay man.
If we understand all our struggles are connected that’s when real change starts to occur.
For that to happen, we need to share our platforms and bring in the voices in our movement who traditionally have been kept on the margins.
That’s why I’ve also been particularly proud to be involved in our international work, along with our activity to reach a wider set of diverse communities.
The more Stonewall can share our space with as many LGBT communities as possible, the more we can learn and start to find a collective spirit that achieves true equality for all of us.
You’re the first person of colour to be Chair of Stonewall’s trustees. How does that make you feel?
Without a doubt, it makes me feel proud. It’s always scary to be ‘the first’, so I’m grateful that I can look around me and see Lady Phyll leading Kaleidoscope Trust.
I want to use this opportunity to genuinely reach into diverse communities and groups to make Stonewall’s work reflects their voices, experiences and needs.
But at the same time, when you’re a person of colour taking on a senior role, you feel this extra pressure and responsibility to prove you cannot just do the job but do it extremely well.
The fact that I feel this way shows we still have a way to go in getting people of colour into leadership positions across our society.
What have you learned from Jan’s leadership over the past 7 years?
Jan is a phenomenally strong, ethical leader driven by values. She’s incredibly caring and consummate in the way she works with different people and that really matters.
She’s fearless and once Jan decides something is the right thing to do, she will see it through. So, what I’ve really learnt from her is to be clear about what you want to achieve, commit to it and be resilient.
What are some things you hope to achieve as Chair?
Over the past few decades, we’ve achieved an incredible amount of progress when it comes to LGBT equality. From the equal age of consent to civil partnerships and marriage equality, right up to the introduction of LGBT-inclusive Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) coming this September.
In many ways, life has improved for LGBT people in ways that the founders of our movement would have thought were impossible.
However, it’s clear that our work is far from done.
Anti-LGBT bullying remains rife in our schools, hate crime against LGBT people is on the rise and we’ve seen some alarming moves to roll back the hard-won rights of LGBT people in some countries.
We cannot be complacent. Stonewall needs to redouble our efforts to be a beacon for LGBT equality and fight to make sure that LGBT people everywhere can live freely and openly.
We’re all also living through extraordinarily challenging times. The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting us all in different ways, which means Stonewall needs to find new and innovative ways to support our community.
Minority groups are among the hardest hit during a crisis, so our work as a charity over the next year or two is perhaps the most vital it’s ever been. It’s my job to guide the organisation through this difficult period.
What do you think will be Stonewall’s biggest priorities in the coming months and years?
We’re undergoing a change in leadership at a time of global crisis. But that means we have an opportunity to think about the direction of Stonewall for the years to come.
The new Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer are going to create a new path for this organisation with an energy and spirit that builds on the legacy left by Ruth Hunt, our other previous chief execs and our founders.