"We need allies": Kelsey-Rae Williams on the importance of strong networks, supportive mentors and lessons from her parents as she progressed into leadership

The head of equality, diversity, and inclusion at Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens shares her leadership lessons
Kelsey-Rae Williams

By Murielle Gonzalez

14 Oct 2021

British-born Canadian Kelsey-Rae Williams is head of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion at Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens. She spent the past five years working across policy and project management roles in the civil service. Williams progressed from an executive officer job in the Cabinet Office to head of Project Race at the Department for Education – a Grade 7 role. In this interview, she reveals the barriers she has encountered in life and her determination for progressing in her career.

Williams was born in London but was raised in an all-white neighbourhood in Canada. She moved back to London in 2013. Her parents are from Trinidad and Grenada, and her grandparents are part of the Windrush generation. 

Her family always made sure she had an understanding of why they came here and what that was like for them. "You hear stories of racism at a very young age, and not subtle but very in-your-face blatant racism that they'd experience," she says.

Has racism been an issue for you?

My parents were very concerned about how my brother and I would be treated at school and outside our household. So, the earliest understanding I had of racism was within my home. It was a very strong messaging coming from my mother that society sees you differently, and you have to hold yourself to a higher standard. For example, you can't look messy; your hair has to be neat. And you can't be showing up late because assumptions will be made about me all the time.

Did you experience racism?

Not personally, but one of our teachers showed us a really inappropriate movie about the Jim Crow laws and lynching - it was like an R rated movie. I didn't feel like I could react to it, but I remember coming home, and I just burst into tears at the dinner table.

So, having to witness that kind of racial trauma in front of a group of people who didn't understand it, with teachers who weren't providing the necessary support, was not good. 

Has your experience at work been any different?

Some of my worst experiences of feeling discriminated in the workplace have come from working in the civil service. People care about certain things in this country that I was not accustomed to. For example, class is a really big thing in the UK, especially in terms of the way people pick up accents and make assumptions about people based on that.

What challenges did you face in the civil service?

I started in the civil service as an EO. I had two degrees - political science and law. I was overqualified to do my job, but everyone just saw me as this young, black woman. I was in an executive officer role, which is where many black women are concentrated.

I'm smart, but they didn't see me as someone who could go further. And when I wanted to push myself further, I was shut down at every instance.

How did you deal with it?

It never really occurred to me to not deal with it. My parents raised me to be prepared for things that I might face in the world, and I think they did a very good job with that.

Fundamentally, they set me up to know that things would happen to me on the basis solely of my race and how people perceive me and that I must take control of my own life.

Having to be prepared for the worst is a common theme in the black community?

I see from other black parents that they prepare their children for how they might experience the world. And black parents specifically have to do that with black boys. Their children are a threat in the eyes of society. And so it's their life on the line. If you don't teach your children about this, things could happen to them, and you might not have your child that next day. 

Where did you look for support at work?

I surrounded myself with people of an ethnic minority background in the civil service because we encountered similar issues. So, participating in things like BAME networks and the different departments' equalities networks.

These support groups helped me because when things happen, you can have an emotional reaction to it, but you can't let it stop you from going down the path that you've decided you want to go in life.

What skills or trait do you think you have that has been key to dealing with these issues?

I do have a lot of self-confidence, but I don't think you have to be born with a personality that's maybe as strong as mine to be able to do that.

We can all build confidence in different ways, and we might all present ourselves differently. For example, how I present myself outwardly and how I feel internally are two different things. It's about having that support system around you, having good mentors, and having good coaches who help you back yourself up.

What was your mentorship experience like?

I have been lucky enough to have someone more senior than me who cares enough about my development, and they made sure I had a mentor. They set me up with someone they knew through personal connections.

I never had a black mentor in the civil service, and I don't think that's a bad thing. It's helpful to have different perspectives in terms of lived experience.

How did you manage to progress in the civil service?

I was single-minded about my progression. When I started, I didn't know what the civil service was. My only objective there was to earn a salary that would allow me to pay my rent and live properly. I was trying to progress through the grades with any job.

So, I was doing policy advisor roles across any policy area. I started in Cabinet Office and then worked for the permanent secretary who then moved to the Department for Exiting the EU – that was my first promotion. Then, I moved again in the Brexit department into a different role before taking the job at the Government Equalities Office. I moved to the Department for Education after that to head up Project Race.

Why did you enter the D&I space at Kew?

When I was doing Project Race, I knew that race was potentially too personally traumatic to work on every day for an entire organisation. But I liked working in the space of equality and having conversations about how you bring protected characteristics into policymaking and how we can improve our figures in relation to representation. I knew I needed to hone in on what I care about the most and what I'm interested in the most.

What is needed to make progress in terms of racial equality?

There's a really good understanding of what steps we need to take, and we know what we need to do. What I think is probably needed, particularly in the civil service, are allies. And when I talk about allies, I mean substantive allies who will stand up for it no matter what. We can't just have people of colour constantly trying to push through racial equality.

When things get tough, and you have to prioritise equality over other things, that's when we need allies to stand true. That would make a substantial difference in being able to see race equality move forward.

How do we get allies involved?

People always want to turn issues of inequality into something that's far away from them, something that doesn't impact them or is unrelated to them. But this is about you and me – it's about us in this space, right here. 

So, how are you going to work to deconstruct that actively? It is about bringing the issue to people's doors in a way that they can understand - and it's about meeting people where they are. It's about sharing things with them in a way that they're able to buy into the issue.

How was your experience at BAME into Leadership?

I've attended the event twice – in person in Manchester and the virtual event last year. It was beautiful to see so many people of colour in one space and know that they were all in the civil service. We're not a small group, we are actually large, and we should be represented.

What's the best part of the event?

Meeting so many people from all kinds of different departments – the sessions were really good. It was a heart-warming and uplifting experience in person - and the virtual event did much of the same.

Is BAME into Leadership an event for people outside the BAME community?

It's a great opportunity for white people to take part and listen if that's what appeals to them. But to me, the value of the day is that it was a space where I felt I could be myself without having to worry about what I had to say.

There was something about it that did feel like quite a safe space. And I assume people from a white background who came to that space were allies, so they probably would get it, and it would still feel like a safe space to be.

BAME into Leadership takes place on 21 October. Now in its eleventh year, the conference has established itself as the key event for those interested in  enhancing the capabilities and leadership opportunities for Black, Asian and minority ethnic colleagues across the civil service and the wider public sector.

Explore the agenda, and register to attend.

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Diversity

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HR Leadership
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