Role model Q&A Jan 21

Boys in Mind Meets...

An Interview with Joshua Williams

By: Kit Cooper-Harrison

Joshua Williams, Campaigner and Children's Rights Advocate.

Photo: Andy Go

My name is Joshua Williams and I have just started a new role in a national children’s rights and advocacy charity. Formerly, I was the President of my Students’ Union. I’ve been involved in different forms of activism and campaigning for social justice for almost as long as I can remember. I’m a big believer that every single person has the power to make change and influence decisions. Around the age of 16, I first took my first steps into activism trying to solidify change within my local region and my home city of Birmingham. That involved elevating my voice while also trying to elevate the voices of those around me. I don’t know how baby Josh had the time or the power! It was about making sure that I never wasted a single moment or a single opportunity.

At the age of 17, I launched the Elite Fashion Show which became Birmingham’s premier independent fashion show. It was aimed at making Birmingham a hub for high class international fashion. At the same time, it had mental health at its core; it was partnered with Time to Change and Mind over the three editions. Leading that while still doing my studies was scary but exciting too. At the midpoint of the show, we had local people with lived experience of mental health join the models on the catwalk in a display of solidarity among the fashion community in tackling stigmas relating to mental health. It was an opportunity for them to join that catwalk, free from any stigma or shame and to celebrate all that they have achieved and all that they want to be. The fashion show raised over £5000 over the three editions and it’s something that I will always be grateful for being able to do. 

It meant a lot to me to be elected President of my Students’ Union. Positions of leadership are usually white, middle class spaces and I’m neither of those things. I’m mixed race, I’m working class, I come from a council estate and I’m also a care leaver. It was a difficult year and at times I had imposter syndrome. Walking away knowing that I left a mark when it comes to black students, care leavers, and widening participation is something that will stay with me. People can talk about representing the working class or marginalised groups, but it needs to go beyond academic understanding. Proclaiming solidarity only goes so far; we need to physically fight for pragmatic, tangible change that is going to uplift people. It’s not a matter of bringing people into a sphere where they will still be excluded and still be “othered”. It’s about making sure there’s support and opportunity so that they can succeed as much as their peers. 

Mental health considerations have to be embedded into every decision that we make. All of us have the ability to make an impact but that also translates into mental health. We can make somebody feel supported, feel positive, feel worthy and worth it. We also have the ability, in that same breath, of tearing other people down, of being inconsiderate, of not being an ally or supportive friend. Mental health is so integral to everything, especially when we look at the world at the moment. It’s never been more unstable. Whether it’s politics or Brexit or the pandemic, everything seems so chaotic and so unstable and a lot of time without hope. We need to make sure that we are reaching out to those closest to us, gaining the support that we need but also providing support too. If we don’t do that, we risk losing a whole generation of people to poor mental health. 

When I first started campaigning, I was a child really. I was 15 or 16. I was working alongside the Time to Change campaign which involved getting people to talk about mental health and letting people know that it is courageous to speak up. It was breaking stigmas, breaking boundaries, and breaking stereotypes. I would argue that is not the priority anymore and things have evolved. People are talking about their mental health; people are aware of how to reach out for support. Now comes step two: do we have fully funded welfare services? Can people access the services they need? Is access uniform across the country? How do we make sure that people are not left behind? We have managed to win over the country to begin speaking about mental health, now we need to win over our government to begin funding it and ensuring it is available for as many people as need it. 

When it comes to my own headspace, I have tried everything from medication to holistic support to mindfulness. There are things that I’ve found that help more than anything. One is not thinking that I know everything. I have researched mental health for as long as I can remember. I understand the different dynamics, the disorders, the treatment plans. However, nobody understands me better than my family and friends. Being able to reach out to them can make a massive difference. If you find yourself in a bad place, even if you think you know which steps to take, sometimes that little voice in your head can try to sabotage you. Only your family and friends can be objective enough to make sure that you aren’t unknowingly sabotaging yourself. They just want what’s best for me in the same way that I want what’s best for them. That kind of partnership makes all the difference.

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