I wasn’t sure if I should salute. It’s not every day you get to interview a three-star general. But we had something in common in our lives, serendipity had led to my first interview with her, four years ago.
After Christmas, Nicola Williams will become the first Ombudsman for the Military. Previously she was the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC), which gives 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 will be 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 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 expectation at A levels was to advise her to get a job in Woolworth.
Nicola has experienced racism, the “n” word, thrown at her, near her home by 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 the failure of the educational system towards their children. Low expectations and failure to encourage ambitions, meant the family returned to Guyana and Nicola went from Primary to Secondary where she observed that black people could achieve. A similar experience to that of Michael Eboda who publishes the annual Black Power list.
Nicola Williams trained first as a lawyer, then barrister, then judge, and is currently on the Crown Court circuit in South London, able to observe 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, serendipity, that led her to the post of Ombudsman to the Cayman Islands.
They had only advertised once, but Nicola had thrown the paper out in the recycling. Coming across it again, as she sorted, her eye was caught by the advertisement.
“Living and working in an island paradise, I discovered I had resilience. I had to build everything from the ground up. My professional reputation, my friends , everything. Cayman challenged my resilience. It gave me confidence in my own abilities. I’ve come out of all that better off. It taught me that I can count on myself.
She brings back to the UK, not just experience of a Caribbean country, but also of other countries across the world she visited, including new Zealand. “Because I’m a civilian with a legal, judicial and Ombudsman background, I have a wealth of experience from which both the ministry of defence and armed forces will benefit.”
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. Like another of our role models, Rashada Harry she isn’t easily dissuaded.
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 60 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.”
We could be waiting a long time.
How will you encourage and support a younger person? This is not just about girls. Call out sexism and racism or gender discrimination when ever, and where ever it happens.