G15 Ethnicity in Housing Awards: Words from our Winner - Sarah Willis (MTVH)

At this years’ G15 Ethnicity in Housing Awards that took place on 25 May 2022, MTVH’s Sarah Willis won the Ethnicity Ally Award. We caught up with her after the ceremony to see how she was feeling.

Congratulations on your award. How did it feel to hear your name read out as the winner?

"If I’m really honest, it was slightly scary as I don’t like walking up on stage and being in front of an audience. However, what I was really delighted by, was the fact that my colleagues had gone to such an effort to nominate me. Hearing the lovely things they had written about me and to see how proud they were, that was a real moment for me!"

Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do at MTVH?

"I am Head of Strategic Partnership and National Delivery, so, my job has two strands. The first is the strategic partnership work, which involves building external relationships with high level partners that relate to the challenges that impact our residents and communities. Then, I drive some of that strategic work to support our localised teams who deliver one to one services and our community investment work. In short, my job is about making sure our operational delivery and strategic work meets the needs of residents."

Can you tell me what being an ally means to you?

"Being an ally to me means showing up and standing up every day and not being a bystander. It means taking action to be proactively anti-racist and proactively tackle microaggressions as and when you see them. It also means constantly educating myself and always examining my cultural compass to broaden my horizons.

It is about being open to other perspectives and to constantly asking yourself why you view things in a particular way. It is about considering how you can see things differently, and how you can unlearn things that might prevent you from being culturally aware. Being an ally is also about having conversations that other people want to have and to really listen. To really accept people’s realities."

Your nomination said that you have a profound sense of commitment, passion and integrity to ensuring you use your voice to amplify the voice of colleagues and residents. Where does this passion come from?

"My passion comes from an a very early age. I was raised in a household with parents who always encouraged me to questions things and to participate in things. I was taken out on ‘Ban the Bomb’ marches, I did Artists Against Apartheid. I was also encouraged to read about things that impacted other communities, I was also always encouraged to embrace and enjoy difference. This is where my passion for social justice came from.

In my formative years, i think my own sense of where I could make a difference grew with me. Whatever career I have had, I have always sought to do voluntary work in the communities that I am a part of. This is where I developed a lot of the skills and leadership abilities I use today, as you have to be authentic when working with young people."

What do you think are the most critical things organisations and colleagues can be doing to include and support minority ethnic colleagues?

"The first thing is around our use of language, and ensuring we are all using language that does not immediately make people feel that they are in a deficit or lesser than. We must develop the cultural competency of our leaders to be able to tackle structural racism and the change the language that we use.

There is also many things we must be doing around recognising talent and enabling people to develop as leaders in their own, authentic way. We can have a very Eurocentric view of how to do things and what makes a good leader however, people need to be given the opportunity to lead in their own way. I often see people from the African and Asian diaspora who feel they have to edit how they show up. We need to work to ensure that everyone can feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. We must support people to show up with the talents that they have, and we must foster these talents."

Finally, where is your award being kept?

"My award is kept in the dining room. I don’t know why its in the dining room, but that room happens to have a lot of things that are about the important people in my life and the children that I love, many of whom are dual heritage."