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Be persistent, be focused, but start with your own community, says Lady Hollick
Lady Hollick OBE, Sussex alumna and a life-long campaigner for human rights and diversity, is receiving an honorary doctorate at the University’s Winter Graduation ceremonies this year (2018).
Here she reflects on how her alma mater – and her unusual family circumstances – helped to guide her.
Lady Hollick OBE, or Sue Woodford as she was then, knew when she arrived as an undergraduate at the University of Sussex in 1964 that she had found her natural home.
“Everybody wanted to go to Sussex,” she remembers. “They were looking for people who were different – and I felt different. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t like everyone else, although I didn’t know why.”
At the time she believed she was an orphan with an unknown cultural heritage (she was to learn the truth much later), and had found growing up in Streatham “as the only non-white face” difficult.
“It was not a multicultural community in those days. I was called names. I was hidden from view.”
But at Sussex, which from the outset had a global outlook, she began dividing her time between studying for a degree in English and, through meeting students from South Africa, campaigning for the anti-apartheid movement.
It was the start of a life-long focus on championing diversity and supporting human rights – not only for black and ethnic minority groups, but also to raise the profile of women.
Lady Hollick, wife of the businessman Clive Hollick (Baron Hollick), began her career at Granada TV reading the news and soon progressed to become a producer and director for the hard-hitting documentary series World in Action.
From there she became commissioning editor for multi-cultural programming at Channel Four Television – introducing audiences to ground-breaking shows such as Black on Black and Eastern Eye, and to Indian Cinema Seasons, New Wave and Bollywood, as it had become known.
“My remit was to do things that hadn’t been done before, with voices that hadn’t been heard,” she recalls. “This was in the days when we had big budgets and big ideas.”
Her passion for all the arts led to her holding directorships for several arts organisations, including English National Opera and chairing the London Region of Arts Council England. She is currently a trustee of Complicité Theatre Company.
She is also a champion of literature with her support of the Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize (through her family charitable trust), and is a trustee for Reprieve, an organisation that campaigns to end the death penalty around the world and defends victims of torture and extreme abuses of human rights.
In 2011 her dedication was acknowledged with an OBE for services to the arts. But the struggle is far from over. In fact, in some circumstances, she says we have seen stasis or even retrograde movement.
“I think it’s outrageous that the BBC hasn’t done more in terms of diversity on screen and behind the scenes,” she says. “People are saying that diversity and representation in the media is worse now than it was in those early days.
“The same is true for women. If you don’t have women in positions of power making those decisions then you don’t end up with a women-friendly product. I think the real power in the land hasn’t shifted dramatically, especially when you see how few women are on the boards of FTSE 100 companies.”
Lady Hollick’s drive for change stems partly from her own unusual family history. Her adopted parents, whom she called Uncle Dick and Auntie May when growing up, were actually her true grandparents, while her “adopted sister” was in fact her mother. This was only revealed to her in her mid-twenties, after her grandmother’s death.
Her father, she then learned, was the highly decorated West Indian war hero (she was born in 1945) Ulric Cross, who had gone on to become a highly respected and influential high court judge in Trinidad and Tobago.
Coincidentally, she had already met him as a 19-year-old during her gap year on VSO working in a school in Cameroon, although neither of them were aware of their family connection.
When she tried to meet him again as his daughter – by then in her late twenties – he was at first resistant.
“But I was persistent,” she remembers. “I pursued him. When we did get to meet I found him really interesting and attractive. It was great for me and for him that the relationship could grow and develop.”
He went on to become “the most wonderful grandfather” to her three daughters – Caroline, Georgina and Abigail. He died in 2013, and by then “all was forgiven”.
She says: “I like to think that I have inherited his sense of the importance of fairness and justice, and pride in who he was. He was comfortable in his own skin.”
She also recognises that persistence is the prerequisite to bring about any change. “You have to be focused, to know where you’re trying to get to, and you have to be persistent because things have a tendency to go backwards. Who would have thought we would be where we are now with Trump and Brexit?”
But her advice to anyone keen to make a difference to their world is to first look to see what you can do in your own small community. “Some people can go out and do world-changing things, but as individuals we only have so much capacity.
“The relationship with your family and those closest to you is crucial – and out of that maybe can grow bigger things.”