BLACK HISTORY MONTH | INTERVIEW: Joshua Williams
Proud Brummie Joshua Williams is a journalist, broadcaster, presenter and ambassador for several high-profile community initiatives and corporate brands.
He’s also been crowned Mr Birmingham, is an avid fundraising fashionista, a vocal social activist and was elected President at his university’s student guild – and he’s still only 22. We caught up with him to find out how he manages it all…
INTERVIEW with… Joshua Williams
You’re a journalist, presenter, city ambassador, social activist and local public figure. How do you juggle all of these commitments?
So many choices in my life were made for me. So many experiences I couldn’t control as much as I may have tried to. At times, it felt like I was just an extra in some awful coming-of-age movie without a real sense of purpose, worth or direction.
These commitments gave me something to work towards. Something to make me not only feel of value, but feel like I was giving something of value to the people and the world around me. To me this isn’t work, it’s core to who I am and who I hope to be. There isn’t an end goal because there doesn’t need to be one. I want to know with all my heart that I am trying to leave the world just that little bit better than how I found it.
You were most recently President at the Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham. What did that involve and how was the experience?
This was an elected sabbatical year where I represented the voices of the 38,000+ students within the University. Some of my proudest achievements are reforming Birmingham’s offer for care leavers, launching the Black Voices campaign – a campaign shaped and run by Black students to elevate the Black student experience as well as implementing a new democratic structure within the union.
Often, positions of leadership – especially elected positions – seem out of reach for so many outside of the typical white, middle class mainstream. I am not your typical President. I am a proud Black, gay former care leaver from a council estate. My election was a testament to the fact that there is a place for all of us. No longer will marginalised voices be silenced. We can, and we will, carve our own future.
You’re also a journalist, news and showbiz presenter, and a local media personality. How did you get involved in this?
It started with a little column with a local paper just talking about my thoughts, current affairs – and even my grandparents! Following this, I stumbled across an advertisement for I Am Birmingham who were looking for someone to cover an event in the city. I wasn’t very experienced but I had nothing to lose and I sent over my details. They took a chance on me and it led to me working with them for around four years on a whole host of things happening in the city.
I think we often sell ourselves short – be it for employment, education or even relationships. We often tell ourselves we can’t or we shouldn’t or this is as good as it gets. Tear apart that mindset. Take a chance. I Am Birmingham took a chance on me but I would have never even had that opportunity had teenage Joshua not put himself out there.
What have been some of your media career highlights so far?
I’ve worked quite a lot with the BBC and other organisations over the years on a whole host of things – from the EU Referendum to actual Brexit, student politics to Black Lives Matter. I have a big mouth and a voice and I will always use it wherever I can to advocate for change.
I must say my biggest media highlight though would be presenting and covering Birmingham Pride for I Am Birmingham. Interviewing some of the artists I grew up listening to – or still listened to in many cases – was quite surreal albeit very terrifying at times.
Your first foray into the public limelight came through fashion and charity fundraising. What was the inspiration behind that?
I’d always had a fascination with fashion as a teenager (although my outfits wouldn’t have told you that let me tell you!). I’d started modelling after being scouted at around 16 and it was energising to me. It was a whole different world and for the first time, I felt like the lead in my life – not just the extra.
Around the same time, I had begun working quite closely with Time To Change and Mind on welfare service usage and reform – particularly BAME welfare and youth involvement. Here I saw an opportunity.
At the time, Birmingham’s fashion scene had stagnated and I wanted to bring that London or Manchester level fashion production back to Birmingham but for a purpose.
For three years, I founded and managed the largest independent fashion show in Birmingham that put mental health at its centre. The fashion world is an environment that seems so far removed from talking about mental health and I wanted to change this whilst platforming some of the city’s fantastic talent.
The show saw international designers come to the city but also those with a lived experience of mental health issues walk the runway alongside the models showcasing these garments. The show saw performances from some incredible rising stars but also speeches about the stark reality of overcoming mental ailment.
It saw the fashion world meet what it had been scared to confront whilst raising thousands for charities over its three editions. As a not-for-profit event, I didn’t make a penny from it and I have no regrets about that.
Its purpose was to change the game in the city, and years later I can still see the impact it had on those involved. That’s priceless.
As a young person, you experienced homelessness. How did that shape who you are today?
That experience marked a fundamental shift in my life and how I viewed the world. I was still in school at that time but it demonstrated the need for me to take my life into my own hands.
Sometimes things happen that are completely outside of your control. They may be unfair. You may be mad at the world – but you have to pick yourself up. You have to keep going.
Despite everything, I genuinely think I got lucky. Others in a similar position to me have gone down a completely different route because they have no more fight left. We have to keep fighting for them, however we can. And that goes for all the people we meet within our lives.
You identify as LGBTQ+ and are very socially active in the LGBTQ+ community. Do you feel there is an added struggle as a gay person of colour?
Absolutely. As queer people, we advocate for equality and acceptance no matter who you are. More often than not, the LGBTQ+ community fails to extend that same courtesy to people of colour – in particular those who are Black.
The fetishisation of Black men is still running strong – that is if they haven’t been blocked on Grindr yet. Black language and culture is still appropriated as a means to look ‘sassy’ and ‘quirky’ yet Black individuals are demonised and viewed as the other for the exact same thing.
Black trans women are still at the bottom of the queer social hierarchy. Many of our queer spaces are not inclusive to those that are Black and queer.
As we’ve seen with the success of Black Pride and local queer groups such as UnMuted, those that sit on the intersection between black and queer are constantly having to create their own spaces as the existing ones are either unwilling or too slow to place value on their inclusion. This is all an extension of the cultural and family barriers that people of colour will experience when coming to terms with their queer identity.
Change relies on all of us playing our part to make things better.
Staying on social activism, you’ve been campaigning for Black Lives Matter and against racism. Why is this important?
Simply put, because enough is enough. It is 2020 and we are having the same conversations and the same rebuffs that have been going on for decades. Despite the constant petitions. A Government enquiry. Another Black name trending on twitter. Nothing seems to change. This is not just about police reform.
Our society was built upon racial inequality. Many of the things we pride ourself on as a nation – our education system, our criminal justice system, our healthcare – all of these things were created, built and moulded at a time where Black bodies were not seen as equal. And they have grown and evolved. Yes, there has been reform (to an extent).
Yes, they have been tweaked around the edges. However, at its core, they are still rooted in inequalities that to this day see Black bodies devalued, dehumanised and seen as less than their white peers. Enough is enough.
The Black Lives Matter movement is now the largest civil rights movement in history with its impact being felt around the world. This is not just a moment. This is all or nothing. If change does not come from this, change will never come. If this global movement cannot make our leaders place value on Black bodies, what will.
Simply put, we have no choice but to keep fighting and keep shouting as loud as our lungs will allow that Black Lives Matter. We do not have the liberty of a choice because that choice has been taken from so many of our brothers and sisters.
Blissful ignorance is betraying them. Silence is betraying them. It is our responsibility and our duty to continue the fight and demand justice. Demand true reform across all our structures. And build a society and a world that is no longer built upon racial inequality.
Are race relations in the UK and US at a pivotal crossroads right now, do you think?
A crossroads would suggest that our elected Governments are listening and there is two paths they can take. As it stands, they have tunnel vision – even after all of this. They have done the bare minimum to demonstrate that they are listening. That they understand. That they even desire to make things better for racial minorities within their countries.
We have to keep momentum. We have to keep pushing. Our respective Governments have already demonstrated that they will whip up racial unrest for political purpose. They have already demonstrated that they will do the bare minimum and call it progress. They have the power to change things but none of the desire to do so.
Keep pressuring them. Keep in contact with your MPs. Register to vote. This isn’t a crossroads, we are still mid-game.
Why is Black History Month important to you?
We as Black people have a shared identity. A shared culture. Due to colonisation and historical oppression of black bodies, so much was taken from us. At the forefront though was our history – outside of the watered-down version we are taught in schools. (Or the weird fascination the UK education system has with teaching American Black history opposed to British Black history.)
To me, Black History Month is an opportunity to educate others about Black history – but also continue to educate myself on my heritage and my culture. Black history is fascinating and I’m eager to continue embracing this.
During Black History Month, you’ll be joining Migrant Voice and MiFriendly Cities to help inspire refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to amplify their voices. Why do you feel this is important?
Over the past few years, we have seen populism explode within our political spheres – capitalising on the things that make us different and exploiting them to turn the masses against the most vulnerable and those already marginalised.
Rather than focusing on what unites us and working to bridge this divide, our Governments have willingly widened this gap, throwing minorities under the bus to cement their own power and objectives.
We see this with Brexit. Trump. Boris. Marine Le Pen. Andrzej Duda. To name a few. It is more important than ever that we platform the voices of those that are repeatedly attacked by our Government’s and political figures for their own benefit. As we become more isolated as a country and more protectionist, we need to amplify the diverse voices within our communities.
Hear their stories. Understand their journeys. Stand in solidarity alongside them. And fight to make this country a country for each of us – not just for the elite.
Finally, what are your plans for the near future, and what is your passion and mission in life?
I am currently studying for my Masters degree in Poverty, Inequality and Development at the University of Birmingham but honestly? I have no idea. I don’t have a set direction or a set path or end goal. My mission in life? It’s to know that I have left things just that bit better than how I’d found them. I just want to be the best person I can be and know that I’ve made just a small difference to those around me and my community.
This interview was originally featured in BEYOND magazine for Black History Month. You can view the full magazine below: