In Focus: Tabz O’Brien
Position: Senior Partnerships Manager, Greater Manchester Combined Authority
Specialism: Passionate about tackling homelessness, working towards a fairer society and equality & inclusion.
Background: National Homelessness Charity – Shelter
Board portfolio: Trustee, Manchester Action on Street Health; Services Committee Member, Albert Kennedy Trust
Inclusive Boards sat down with Tabz O’Brien to find out more about her experience as a Trustee and what can be done to improve LGBTQ+ representation at senior leadership and board level.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
As this interview is about Inclusive Boards I suppose it’s important to start with the personal – I am a 31 year old, LGBTQ women from Manchester. This feels like a long time ago, but I actually became a trustee for the first time as an elected student representative. This is when I realised how important it was to have people and communities you are working with and for, represented on your board. I’ve held this value very strongly ever since.
Recently, I stepped into the role as Chair of Trustees – Interim at Manchester Action on Street Health (MASH). We are a charity that works with women who are sex working in Greater Manchester, offering choice, support and empowerment. This year, I also became a member of the Services Sub-committee of the board of AKT, a charity that supports LGBTQ+ young people who are facing or experiencing homelessness.
For the past 8 years, I’ve been working around homelessness and multiple disadvantage, most recently for the Making Every Adult Matter Coalition (MEAM), and Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). I’m particularly passionate about breaking down siloed working in the VCSE and public sector, and disrupting and re-distributing power so that marginalized people and communities can create their own solutions and lead on systemic change.
What specialism do you bring to the Manchester Action on Street Health board? And are there any projects in particular that you are passionate about?
I started working with MASH in 2016 as an independent consultant focused on embedding service user involvement and co-production within the service. This included talking to women we were currently working with about the change they would like to see and how they would want to get involved in decision making. I was invited to join the board to further develop this culture and progress the ideas.
We now have lived experience expertise on our board of trustees, and a service user advisory panel sub-committee. This is led by women who are currently, or who have previously been supported by MASH. However much reading you do, however many jobs you have in a certain area, you don’t have the insight that someone who has lived through that experience has. Whilst I’m still 100% passionate about this area, it’s now being led by women with much more expertise than me – which is exactly how it should be.
I suppose my specialisms at the moment then would be the national homelessness and multiple disadvantage policy and practice environment, VCSE sector, and local government and devolution. Since stepping into the Chair role at MASH, I have learnt more than I thought I would ever need to know about charity governance and processes though, so maybe this will be a specialism in the future? Here’s hoping!
Could you explain to me a little bit about how housing is a particular issue for LGBTQ+ people?
Coming out as gay in Manchester when I was 16/17, I had quite a few friends who were experiencing homelessness due to family rejection, abuse, violence and discrimination. The safety net for LGBTQ+ young people just wasn’t visible – and to this day, it still has gaping holes!
LGBTQ+ people are over-represented in their experiences of homelessness, and yet it’s rare to see policies, strategies and practice really addressing this, in an intersectional way. However, barriers to housing and homelessness cannot be addressed in isolation. There is continued polarisation of public debate around Trans* rights, an increasingly hostile environment for LGBTQ+ migrants and refugees, and there are very live ‘debates’ around whether our lives should be included or represented in education. This all feeds into a system and a culture that makes accessing any type of support more difficult for LGBTQ+ communities.
It’s more important than ever for organisations to be supporting their LGBTQ+ service users, volunteers, staff and committing to addressing root causes of LGBTQ+ homelessness, and speaking out for social justice and human rights. An LGBTQ+ lens around homelessness is fundamental to making sure that everyone is included and thought about in responses to homelessness.
What can LGBTQ+ inclusion at board level look like? How can boards be more inclusive?
I think this is a really key question and I don’t pretend to have all the answers– but what I do know, it that it has to be about more than one type of inclusion. It has to be more than inviting people ‘a board room’, and thinking ‘job done’. I think it’s about developing an intersectional approach, instead of seeing inclusion as a box-ticking exercise. It’s about your board being connected with the communities and people you support, and those people seeing themselves reflected on your board. Your trustee’s being able to bring their whole selves to the role, and the board’s established ways of doing things flexing and adapting. It’s about not staying static as a board, reflecting on where you have gaps in knowledge, skills and insight and taking action. Ultimately, it’s about changing the cultures of our boards and organisations, and being prepared to have our worldview and approach challenged, so we develop and grow.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought the institutional and structural racism that exists in the UK to the forefront of national conversations. Campaign group Charity So White and the recently released ACEVO and Voice4Change England ‘Home Truths’ report has put the charity sector under the spotlight, and revealed some uncomfortable ‘home truths’ to white leaders in the sector. The MASH board may be diverse and inclusive in many ways, but we aren’t currently a racially diverse board and this absolutely needs addressing. However as the report reminds us, representation is important, but it’s not the end game. There’s so much more work for charities to do to become truly inclusive and actively anti-racist. As a white Chair, I am committed to listening, learning, and challenging myself and the wider team to engage more fully and deeply around racism, and to take action to address structural inequalities.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to become a Trustee?
Being a trustee is one of the best experiences that you can have. The learning and development you get is truly unbeatable. Over the past few weeks the range things I’ve been working on has been huge – from Covid-19 transition planning, to connecting with staff, to strategy, finance and even annoying IT issues.
I think the advice I would give is to look for a cause that you are passionate about as being a trustee is a big-time commitment – especially when worldwide pandemics hit! Really think about what skills and expertise you can bring to a board that would benefit the organization as a whole. I would also say that you are never more needed than now.
What was your experience of the recruitment process to board subcommittee for services (application and interview) at Albert Kennedy Trust?
I was really excited about getting involved in AKT – and linking in my knowledge of wider homelessness policy and practice, especially in Greater Manchester, and my lived experience too. It was great having someone from Inclusive Boards to keep me up to date and in the loop around the stages of recruitment. It’s important to acknowledge as trustee candidates that trustee recruitment is just one of a hundred things that charities and boards are currently juggling, especially in the current health crisis and upcoming economic one. So whilst moving the recruitment forward might be slow, it’s definitely worth it.
What was the best part of Inclusive Boards’ service to you as a candidate?
My contact at Inclusive Boards was very friendly and supportive – which is always helpful when you are going through a recruitment process. It was also really reassuring to know that diversity, lived experience and inclusion were key values in the recruitment process.