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Leadership Worth Sharing, episode #12: Raven Bowen

Welcome to Leadership Worth Sharing, a podcast in which ACEVO chief executive Vicky Browning talks to civil society CEOs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.

Previous episodes of Leadership Worth Sharing

Vicky speaks to Raven Bowen, CEO of National Ugly Mugs. NUM is an organisation that provides support to sex workers who have been victims of crime. This is the first episode of the podcast recorded remotely, as we are all working from home in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. From her bedroom, Raven talks about the challenges the pandemic poses to the community she serves, how she uses the lessons of agile working to keep the team laughing, and what she’s learnt as a chief exec about the dangers of friendly fire.

Scroll down for the full transcription of the episode.

I think one of my indicators of success has always been: “have I’ve been called and told off recently?” And who’s doing the telling off. So if sex workers feel like they can call me up and say, hey, I have a problem with what you did, that I know I’m on the right track.

Raven Bowen


Vicky Browning [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Vicky Browning chief executive of ACEVO, the network for charity and civil society leaders.  Welcome to Leadership worth sharing, a podcast in which I talk to civil society chief execs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.

Today, I’m speaking to Raven Bowen, CEO of National Ugly Mugs. NUM is an organisation that provides support to sex workers who have been victims of crime. This is the first episode of the podcast that we’ve recorded remotely, as we are all working from home in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. From her bedroom, Raven talks about the challenges the pandemic poses to the community she serves, how she uses the lessons of agile working to keep the team laughing, and what she’s learnt as a chief exec about the dangers of friendly fire.

Welcome, Raven. Lovely for you to join us for the ACEVO podcast. Thanks very much.

Raven Bowen [00:00:06] Thanks for having me.

Vicky Browning [00:00:07] Just to say, that the listeners can kind of picture things. I’m sitting in the back of my front room with a cup of tea. Raven, you’re sitting with a cup of warmed up coffee, whereabouts are you?

Raven Bowen [00:00:14] I’m in my house. So I’m in my bedroom, actually. My desk is in here.

Vicky Browning [00:00:20] So I’ve got a load of coats hanging up behind me and Raven’s got a fantastic picture of the universe.

Raven Bowen [00:00:25] So, yes, I have to make this space expansive.

Vicky Browning [00:00:30] Tell me a bit about yourself. Just to start off with, Raven. You… The chief executive of National Ugly Mugs. What is National Ugly Mugs? What does it do? What difference does it make?

Raven Bowen [00:00:39] National Ugly Mugs was formed in 2012, but it was out of a larger UK network of sex work projects where practitioners came together to collaborate and respond to some of the issues sex workers were facing in their communities. And one of the things that used to happen were sex workers, for generations, would document dangerous individuals or conditions that they wanted to warn each other about. So this is not something that NUM by any means invented. But in the UK, there were a series of punters lists, you know, dangerous punters list from the different front-facing organisations. And there was a movement to have that centralised so that it could be a resource that could be reporting and alerting, can have like… Just include all of the reports. And so that sex workers could have access to dangerous individuals who move or a dangerous condition that are arising. So there was like 10 years of advocacy from a lot of people, police officials, researchers and sex workers to have NUM come into being.

Raven Bowen [00:01:42] So the core of what we do is that. Is making sure that sex workers get this information in a timely fashion and so that they could just inform their decision making. And then other elements that we add is the crime prevention and the victim support element. So everyone who reports to us has access to independent sexual violence advisors who can support them in processing the harm and then deciding what’s next. And then we also do some community education to our stakeholder groups. And then, of course, the full circle around that is the systemic advocacy to make sure that we change policy conditions that might exacerbate harm that this population experiences. So it’s a full 360. You know, I came to the organisation in September of 2018. And so my goal is to try and make sure that we’re most accountable to sex workers, but also engaging in the advocacy and the education and the services that we need to be most relevant and useful.

Vicky Browning [00:02:42] The underlying mission of all of this is to end violence against sex workers. That’s the sort of the basic premise of everything you’re doing.

Raven Bowen [00:02:49] Yeah, and like lately, we’ve been discussing how we’re conceptualizing violence. What’s included, if state violence included, some of the sort of microaggressions and things that sex workers experience as well included. And also, yeah, like where are the sources of violence? So we have to kind of see there’s the traditional violence from people who pose as customers. But then there’s also violence and victimization from community members who find out that people are doing sex work. Unfortunately, sometimes from representatives of the state, we have to work with sex workers to define the harm and then find out where is NUM best placed to support them in achieving some sort of remedy or a resolution.

Vicky Browning [00:03:31] You started as chief executive in September 2018. What brought you to NUM and tell me a bit about where you were beforehand and what your journey’s been to get to running NUM?

Raven Bowen [00:03:42] I was born in the U.K. I was born in London, my lovely London accent by way of Canada. But so my dad was part of Windrush. So he came to this country, invited as a police officer, then went into the military and then decided, hey, we’re going to Canada. So we left. So most of my experience in practitioner work and activism has been there. And I came to the UK in 2015 to do a degree. I was all poised to return. But then there was this opportunity to run NUM, the CEO posting came out and I thought, wow, that’s a combination of a lot of things that sort of intersect in my life in terms of scholarship, practitioner experience and just the opportunity to run a national organisation. Because I’ve run regional and I’ve been an executive director before and I’ve done work in across various sectors. But it was an opportunity to work with this population nationally on something really, really tangible. And so the crime prevention victim support is very clear. It’s already national in scope. There’s been a lot of investment, especially with the relationship with police, because that’s unheard of. It felt like it was written for me not to be arrogant. The posting, although it was nine pages long, it resonated. It resonated with me a lot.

Vicky Browning [00:05:01] I’m showing my age, but quite a long time ago, we used to have a British telecom ad with a woman, grandmother says “you got an ology” to her son, because he’s achieved an exam. I mean, you’ve got a lot of ologies. You’ve got PhD in sociology. You’ve got to an MA in criminology. You’ve got a BA in sociology. I mean, your background is in academia. And, you know, that’s kind of where you’ve obviously spent lots of your career. How’s this switch been from working in academia to working not just in a charity and a front line charity, but one where working with people right at the front edge of some really kind of major issues. How have you adapted your kind of the academic ways to this kind of getting stuck in as a chief exec?

Raven Bowen [00:05:49] I became an executive director before I ever had any education, formal education. So all of it had come from lived experience, experiences or my peer group, experience working in the front lines of like various shelters and youth centres and that kind of thing. So when I came to academics mid-career because I had achieved chief executorship, but yet still oppressed because I didn’t have formal education. It’s about the audiences you can speak to. It’s about who, who’s heard and who isn’t sometimes in the charity sector, especially when you’re dealing with populations that are considered to be, well, just marginalised in a lot of ways. So for me, I was always moving back and forth. It’s like I engage in praxis. So it’s basically theory to practise back and forth. So academics only reinforces what I already knew. Gave me some new language, like a background in theoretical analysis. And, you know, I can make stronger arguments but the essence of what I do as a practitioner is still the same. Yeah. So I think if I had done education earlier in my career it might have been different, but it’s not enough to be… I think the blending of academics and other experiences are really important to bring to third sector. And I believe that people are called to the sector regardless of our backgrounds. There’s something that we have to contribute. And so I’ve always lived by that. And then, you know, they’re at war. I mean, academia is at war with practitioner experience, also with sex worker lived experience like the three ways of knowing can be a great blending that I’m trying to create at NUM. I think that we’ve achieved that. But all those three groups have different interests, different levels of power. Sometimes some groups or some entity speak instead of sex workers and really practitioners and scholars we need to support what sex workers have to say. Bring evidence. Yeah, be there in the ways that sex workers need us because they don’t need us to speak for them, but they may need us to open some doors or to reinforce what they’re saying. The backup dancer I always say.

Vicky Browning [00:07:50] That applies to organisations working with people with lived experience, whatever that experience is, that actually the role of the charity should not be to speak on behalf or speak for, but to allow them to speak for themselves and to facilitate that. And that presumably is something that you felt very passionately about throughout all the work that you’ve done.

Raven Bowen [00:08:15] Yeah. And it’s something that I have to hold myself personally to any organisation that I’m with. It is definitely… We have to know our place. And also have to find ways that the population is equitably and meaningfully involved in the work. So they’re shaping the agenda in paid capacities where possible. I mean, if everybody’s a volunteer, fine. But there are times when sex workers turn down opportunities to make money to participate in charitable work and rights-based work and that kind of stuff. So if sex workers are experts in their own lives, how we have to compensate and make room for them like we would any other expert. So I think I try and live that and I try and make sure that the policies in our organisation speak to that. And then I’m also open to criticism from this population. I think one of my indicators of success has always been “have I’ve been called and told off recently?” And who’s doing the telling of. So if sex workers feel like they can call me up and say, hey, I have a problem with what you did, that I know I’m on the right track.

Vicky Browning [00:09:13] We can’t ignore the current situation that we’re in. And you were talking about sex workers and the people you work with, being… they’re already marginalized. They’re already likely to be experiencing inequality and disadvantage. The coronavirus crisis is going to impact everybody, but not all the same. And people that you’re working with, I think are likely to be impacted to a much greater degree than, say, someone like me. How are you thinking about inequalities of how Covid-19 is playing out with relation to the people that you’re serving?

Raven Bowen [00:09:47] Well, this is where some of the structural inequalities that they face really comes to bear, because sex workers have no access to labour rights or recognition of their…even identity as workers. Some people don’t accept that sex workers can even be workers. Because of that, yeah, like any policies that Boris hands-down are not going to… They’re not going to make a dent for this population because they’re already being made homeless. Like, they’re hit hard and fast and sometimes because it’s an intersectional group of individuals. So if it’s, you know, mums and parents and students and people with disabilities, people across gender and age and class. You know, yeah. They just don’t have the same entitlements or access to resources as anyone else. So there’s a group in the UK now, the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement. They’re called Swarm. And they have called out for resources and they’ve developed a hardship fund to help sex workers with, you know, living expenses because those who are doing contact sex works, that’s just not available anymore. And so the folks who also work online, webcam, et cetera, you know, they might fare a little bit better, but the market becomes saturated because full contact workers try and move online. And, you know, there’s only so much space for that. And to also recognise who sex workers are. Yeah, they are neighbours. They are there are mums. They are the people that are serving us in other industries. They are going to be really, really hard hit. So what we have to do is to make sure that the digital investment that we did get from the National Community Lottery Fund last year goes towards creating those online services, those online dwellings, those places where people can come debrief, access resources, get support, making sure that our caseworkers are freed up to do the more deeper human work and that our digital supports automations where it can free people up and to expand those services to other segments of the sex work industry. And it’s also cost promoting things. Like, so with the Swarm fund, for example, it’s like what can we do as a charity to make sure that sex worker-led groups are heard or acknowledged or contributed to and are part of the solution that workers are facing? Right. Because they know what they need. Again, it’s about us rallying and making sure that they get what they need and then also do all that we can. So whether it’s phone calls and trying to move mountains in the back end to make sure that there’s some soft place to land for people. But it’s difficult. But lucky for us, we’re a digital charity. That was sort of, I would say, a challenge in the past, especially when you’re trying to tap into traditional resources and you’re trying to explain how you been four hours on the phone with someone or they Whatsapp you or you know. But I think nowadays and with this pandemic that we’re facing, people are going to understand how intimate and important online support and communication and interaction really is and how digital actually can facilitate deeper relationship. So I think we have to build the resources that are useful for them.

Vicky Browning [00:12:53] You talked about the Lottery funding you had. You’ve been through in the last couple of years a kind of major digital transformation project, haven’t you? So, and you now describe yourselves as a digital charity. Did you initiate that transformation when you started as chief executive or did you inherit it or was it already undergone? What point did you engage with that kind of digital side of it?

Raven Bowen [00:13:15] We just got the funding last year for this major transformation. But beforehand, NUM had before I even came on, it predates me, NUM had access to some resources to digitise the reporting and a learning process. So that’s been running since 2012. We were always quiet about the casework support because, you know, we had limited capacity to provide victim support. And so we did that alongside. I think some of the new innovations that I’m interested in bringing that lottery will support us with these things around how we can do learning using digital facilitation. So whether that’s webcasts or e-learning or what have you, and then how we can engage the populations in different ways like peer to peer chat. And there’s all kinds of things that are available for digital platforms. So we want to build the core service and then test some of these other features and services to see what works best and how sex workers may or may not use them. But the good thing is the idea of building something with sex workers. So we don’t have to ever guess what sex workers want and need. So we’ve just started our first consultation with sex workers. That was meant to be face to face with the first few groups. But now it’s sort of going to be a survey and potentially a digital focus group. But maybe we might be able to hear from a broader range of individuals just about our services, what they think, what they use, also how Covid is affecting their populations and what they think that NUM can do. And also in collaboration with other effects worker support groups, what they think or would like from other groups. So I think there’s going to be far more collaborative working and collaborative needs assessments and things like that. Yeah, I think digital can facilitate all of that. But. Yeah. NUM was always digital, but it was just… We have the opportunity now to create a comprehensive service. Sex worker groups don’t get this kind of investment. Not anything like I’ve seen anywhere in the world. We have no choice. We have to do this well because we’re only going to really get to do this once.

Vicky Browning [00:15:17] You moved back to the UK in 2015 from Canada, where you had been previously working as a chief exec. What do you think are the differences between the sectors in Canada and in the UK and what perhaps might we learn from what’s happening over there?

Raven Bowen [00:15:30] Well, actually, I think it’s pretty comparable. I think the environments and the economies are quite comparable. I think that charities still compete for very limited resources. I think the UK, along with Canada and the US and New Zealand are giving nations. Differences would be… Well, what do we have 160000 charities?

Vicky Browning [00:15:49] Yeah.

Raven Bowen [00:15:49] Roughly… So Canada has about the same amount. I think differences would be, you know, Canada’s probably 40 times larger than the UK with half of its population. But I think on this issue, we just have to encourage corporations to give and do their part. I think that individual donors always give and find the causes that speak to them and they will always continue to give in our, especially in our nations, that corporations have to pay their share. So that frees up resources for governments and other trusts and foundations to give to other charities and groups. But yeah, I think it’s just, it’s tough all around. And for us as a sex worker support charity, it’s always gonna be tough because we have to negotiate the needs of this population in the context of populations that people feel more sympathy for. But we have to keep reminding people who sex workers are and that they have every right to be part of this community, both as donors and as recipients.

Vicky Browning [00:16:50] And in terms of your experiences as a chief executive, you’ve been in post at NUM now for, getting up to 18 months. Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known when you’d started?

Raven Bowen [00:17:01] Oh, gosh, probably. Well, your hotline! And I haven’t sort of blowing up your hotline yet. I wish I was prepared for the challenges inside the organisation as well as out. So, I prepared for external challenges and just kind of fight, fight, fight, you know. But internally, friendly fire can kill you. I’m not naming names, but within organisations in general that I’ve worked at. Yeah. If I as a leader, if I had known early on that I had to find peer groups and support with people who are in lateral roles because nobody cares about what a CEO feels like, they say that thing about lonely at the top. Like, the view’s great. Yeah. But truly, nobody… Unless you’ve been in a situation or, you know, I don’t know, there are comparable situations like if you run a family or if you’re you run a business. But there are those situations where it’s all on you. You have to just take it and defend and be there for people. But there needs to be a place for you to then find ways to stay healthy in the role. So I’m giving myself a shelf life of three to five years, sometimes five to seven, and then I switch and do something else because, you know, the intensity. It’s 24/7, but it’s not all bad. I mean, I can negotiate power. I can negotiate space. And that’s one of the things why… Like why I’m put in leadership and why people hold me in leadership.

Vicky Browning [00:18:26] The work that you do and the people that you work for. There are some you know, you’re working on very difficult issues in a place as you talked about what a lot of people don’t care or worse than that, actively dislike. How do you protect your emotional resilience? How do you protect yourself?

Raven Bowen [00:18:42] I think being at this for a while help. I have networks around the world so I can always reach out to somebody in some other time zone to bounce things off of. Part of the pressure I feel is making sure that people who hear a lot of accounts and are processing a lot of the victimization are taken care of. So I feel like sometimes vicariously, if they’re taken care of, then I feel like, OK, I can kind of take a breath. But that’s always an active thing to do and make sure that we’re doing. We laugh a lot in the organisation. Gosh. And yeah. And there’s obviously like provide the professional debriefing and supports that people need. It’s keeping my eye on what the goal is and trying to see how I can measure all of my efforts around that and then also knowing when I need to kind of step back. It’s not always possible, but you can step back in really small ways, like kind of go off the grid for two hours to just breathe or I say stare at my ceiling for a while and you just find ways to help your team, help yourself, but also stay grounded in the fact for us that sex workers are dying. Sex workers are getting harmed in a lot of different ways. And we have to focus on self-care. But at times when we commit to this issue, we sometimes have to put our personal feelings and problems aside. But giving is a really good remedy to feeling bad or feeling however people may feel. That’s the thing with leadership, sometimes it is time for you to go and you let them know when that is. You have to vacate your seat so others can take up the mantle. But I think we have to be really realistic about what’s possible for us, sort of put parentheses around what we can do, not only in the role but also like on particular issues as well. And I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. I don’t have to be the leader in every situation. I think as a leader, I’m a great follower, which has made me a good leader. So it’s kind of like how you hand that off and how you share power. And when you need a break, you can say to… I can say to the COO, hey, I need a break. And we support each other through that and encourage that in our team.

Vicky Browning [00:20:50] Just again, back to the kind of current climate. How are you doing all of that remotely? You talked about the power of laughter. And actually, you know, that can be really cathartic for a team. It bonds you, it enables you to kind of get over some of those kind of bumps in the road during the day. Often you find that kind of sharing of laughter just happens when you happen to be together, you’re in a room. So how are you trying to keep that kind of atmosphere going when everybody’s sat in their own front rooms or their own bedrooms or across the city?

Raven Bowen [00:21:23] Well, we’ve sort of inspired by some of the tools of agile working. We’re doing, implementing stand ups and stand downs. 15 minutes, everybody gets on, hang out and just says what they’re doing today and what their intention is today. And then at the end of the day, another 15 minutes. What did you accomplish? Really, really simple to just try and bring like bring some unity. And then obviously teams in smaller groups or the caseworkers have their way of communicating through Slack and other means to just debrief each other and make sure each other is safe. I’m really taking a lot of inspiration from how tech teams work and just trying to build some of that in. It does impact our meetings. And when you just want to sit in a room with some post-its and paper and sex workers and solve a problem, but there’s certain tools that we can use to do digital post-it notes. So we’re going to find creative ways to do those kinds of things. But it is a big adjustment. We’re gonna deal with isolation. We’re gonna deal with kids in the background and all that. It’s just about having compassion for the adjustments to all of us are making and just trusting that the work will get done. And, you know, we’ll be there for our user group.

Vicky Browning [00:22:35] And do you think that there’s some… You’re kind of seeing a positive in the way that people are being more creative about how they interacting and using different technologies and that actually, you know, out of the difficulty could come some positives.

Raven Bowen [00:22:50] I think definitely digital has a way of bringing people together, and can. I think there’s a lot of care mongering and great things that are happening on an offline for people. I believe that will probably keep NUM in that way. Like we’ll have regional meetings, but we’ll we’ll stay quite remote. It does save resources. It does save travel. It’s quite green, you know, and we were always kind of pointing in that direction anyway. But this is just a very abrupt change. But lucky for us, we could make the conversion within days. Our major concern now is just to make sure that there’s sort of limited impact on the population. So we’re always going to be finding ways to add value to their lives.

Vicky Browning [00:24:55] How has your situation as a woman of colour? How has that impacted on you being a chief executive? What challenges do you think that’s thrown up within the last kind of 18 months of you, of you being at NUM?

Raven Bowen [00:25:08] Well, there’s several and I think some of them last the test of time. When people see me, that’s not the first assumption they make. They don’t make the assumption that I’m CEO or they don’t make those assumptions. I think there are stereotypes and I’m always challenging or combating whether I’m doing that actively or not. I think there are very few women of colour in the roles that I have that I’m in or in leadership roles across sectors as well. And also being a PhD, that makes me more of a unicorn. At times, finding a network of individuals who I can commiserate with is challenging because it’s a layered experience. There are things with authority and who feels comfortable answering to who and as NUM grows in terms of more media presence sometimes people will identify with how I present the issue and sometimes they won’t. In executive leadership, I’ve always had diversity in the spokespeople because even though I’m British, I don’t read as British, for some. Some people see me as an anomaly and not someone who’s like home-grown, grounded and shaped by the culture that I’m in. So in Canada, although I’m a dual citizen, it’s by naturalization. I was born here. So here I came back during the referendum. And so those feelings and being told in those interactions that I’ve had about belonging versus not belonging… Like I live those. And then sometimes I just like being a bit of a surprise. No, I’m not what you expect, but a lot of people aren’t what you expect.

Raven Bowen [00:26:40] Yeah, like, there are some real serious challenges in terms of the micro-aggressions and the things that people of colour live through anyway. And because I’m not like, my work isn’t centred around critical race, it’s intersectional. But, you know, race is a part of it. Culture is a part of it. But I’m not a black scholar studying race. Right. So it kind of puts me outside of some of those networks, but yet still having some access to those networks as well. But as a CEO, someone said to me a couple of weeks ago that there are more CEOs in the UK named Dave than there are people of colour. That was shocking. But in the context, I mean, I think charities have to represent the communities in which we are from. So, yeah, I’d be interested in being part of a network where diverse executives can come together and talk about all kinds of things: ability, sexual identity, gender identity, racial identity, all of those things. And how that those things contribute to our ability to lead.

Vicky Browning [00:27:39] You’ve done a lot of work across different sectors, so… Public, private, voluntary sector, building alliances. What are your kind of tips for that? How do you think civil society chief execs can be better at building those alliances across the different sectors?

Raven Bowen [00:27:55] Like, civil society leaders are mobilisers, they’re communicators, they’re strategists. They’re all of these really important… So sort of a lubrication, you know, to kind of get diverse groups in dialogue with each other and kind of come together around action plan. So I think the more knowledge and information civil society leaders can absorb and synthesise, and also having the opportunity to lean back in your chair and process things and then come up with strategies that serve greater good, the better. But I think that that’s more challenging to carve out the time needed. The networking is absolutely, absolutely incredibly important. And also for leaders in general to make room for the counter-narrative, to make room to hear from people and projects and like other things… that may not agree with your approach because I think the one thing that academics has taught me is criticism strengthens your work. There are times when, and we see this with sex worker rights because of the exclusionary politics where sex workers aren’t even allowed at the table in terms of policy development. So and there’s this tendency to exclude people who don’t agree with someone’s agenda. And I think that that is a very, very weak position. And so as leaders, we need to be able to be taught and to be led and then to give ourselves time to process and strategize and people and resources and all of that.

Vicky Browning [00:29:28] What about… for you, Raven… You talked about shelf-life for chief execs. And your vary, either three to five years or five to seven years. I imagine that changes during the day. Sometimes I’ve only got three years in me and then later in the day maybe you’ve got the full seven. But do you feel that you as a leader going forward, are you likely to stay in the sector? Are you likely to stay working with sex workers? Are you likely to do something completely different that none of us has thought of yet?

Raven Bowen [00:30:00] Oh, that’s a tough question. Yeah. Like, I think the sort of ship has sailed for getting wealthy in the private sector then using that money to donate. Like I wish I had done that, to be honest, because sex work issues are so intersectional. As I said, it’s slipping between other issues. I could see that happening, but for me, it’s about scope. So, you know, working nationally is novel and it’s good. And if I could work transnationally in the future, depends how we build out the organisation and that determines whether I can add value or not. I definitely think that I will stay in the sector. As I said, it’s probably too late to go into real estate! I’d stay in the sector and probably would want to work, yeah, transnationally or internationally, depending on where I can add value. But there’s always the opportunity to go into academics for me. So I would ideally want to blend the two in some way. But that’s the thing, if I live by this sector as a calling I think that the issue and the organisation and the future will find me and I just hope that I am able to answer the call.

Vicky Browning [00:32:22] That’s lovely, thank you very much.

This was Leadership Worth Sharing, the podcast by and for civil society leaders. Thanks for listening and we’ll meet again in a few weeks! If you want to know more about ACEVO, check our website (that’s a c e v o dot org dot uk) and follow us on Twitter, twitter dot com slash acevo. Bye!

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