This is an edited version of an interview that friend of damesnet Christina first published on her blog https://ionthecity.wordpress.com/, and we’re very grateful for her permission to reproduce it here.
In January 2016, Nicola Williams became the first Ombudsman for the Military. Previously she was the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC), which gave her oversight of how complaints are dealt with in all three sections of the military: Army, Navy and Air Force. Her previous post was as Ombudsman to the Cayman Islands, taking her back to her Caribbean roots.
As Ombudsman for the Military, she is able to overturn decisions, if she believes that the internal investigation has not been properly handled. She has been pleasantly surprised at the response and the recognition of the need for cultural change, in all the armed services, at the top levels.
Not bad going for a black girl growing up in South London, where her teacher’s advice was for her to get a job in Woolworths.
Nicola has experienced racism, had the ‘N’ word thrown at her, near her home by a respectably suited business man. But far more subtle and invidious is the institutionalized racism and sexism, which wastes the talents of so many.
Her immigrant parents were invited to the ‘mother’ country with high expectations, wanting to contribute their professional expertise in both the police and education. They were unable to get employment in either. There was a colour bar in the police in 1960s.
For her migrant parents, the final straw was how the educational system failed their children. Low expectations and failure to encourage ambition meant the family returned to Guyana, and when Nicola went from primary to secondary school she observed that black people could achieve.
Nicola Williams trained first as a lawyer, then a barrister, and then a judge, and is currently on the Crown Court circuit in South London, witnessing at first hand how things have changed. Her mentors and tutors in law were both women: the excellent Patricia Scotland and Helena Kennedy, and it was waiting to attend a seminar with both Baroness Scotland and Baroness Kennedy that we met.
It was chance that led her to the post of Ombudsman to the Cayman Islands. It had only been advertised once, but Nicola had thrown the paper out. By serendipity, she across it again as she sorted her recycling, applied and got the job.
‘Cayman challenged my resilience. I had to build everything from the ground up. My professional reputation, my friends, everything. I discovered I had resilience. It gave me confidence in my own abilities. I came out of all that better off. It taught me that I can count on myself.’
Hers is a talent which could so easily have been lost. She sees the importance of being a role model, not just for black South London girls, but children and people everywhere who may have been let down my the system.
Nicola has an interesting perspective on how women will ultimately achieve equality.
‘While the power structure is still largely white male from a certain social certain class, the only way a white man of a certain age will have his consciousness raised will be through his daughters.
These men now, if they’re in 50s and 60s, have daughters and granddaughters. As they get older, they are more aware of age discrimination and possibility of disability, and it’s not what they want for their daughters. They want their girls to have the opportunities they had.’