Simon Blake OBE (BA 1995) is Chief Executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England and deputy chair of Stonewall UK. He is a former Chief Executive of the National Union of Students (NUS).
Looking back now it was pretty clear my career would be one driven by social justice. However, the Radio 1 careers guide of the late 80s didn’t feature charity, third sector or social justice as far as I recall. And so it was during my time at Cardiff University that I started to find my voice and develop the passion for equality that still drives me now, 23 years after graduating.
The story begins in the mid-90s, when I was a founding member of Cardiff University’s Sexual Health Awareness Group (SHAG). I didn’t know it then, but it was to be the start of a journey that led me to work for fantastic organisations like Brook, the Family Planning Association and the Sex Education Forum.
Over time, my career diversified and I started to focus on the breadth of sexual health and wellbeing, then wider issues of wellbeing and equality. I was Chief Executive of Brook (enabling young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm), Vice Chair of the Black Health Agency, Chair of Diversity Role Models (challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in UK schools) and Chair of Compact Voice (working for strong partnerships between the voluntary sector and government), before taking on the Chief Executive role at NUS, where part of my job was to cheerlead, support, and have conversations with student leaders across a wide range of social and environmental issues.
Universities drive social change. They are a hotbed of new ideas, energy, discovery, creativity and activism. Walk through Cardiff Students’ Union today and you will see a vast number of initiatives focused on equity, inclusion and social justice. It has really excited me in recent years that my perspective on the world is being challenged with new, fresh and evolving ideas. As I age, I have to be careful not to become out-of-date. Younger people are challenging me to think differently and question my views. I value the learning across generations.
These conversations show me that young people are continually finding new ways of living in a rapidly changing world, just as we did through our teens and twenties. If you look at how far we have come on so many social justice issues, particularly LGBT rights over the last twenty years or so, things have changed beyond recognition.
There’s so much to celebrate. But of course there are still real challenges. There is often a large gap between the law, policy, media discourse and lived experience. What the law says and what people experience on the street are so often very different things.
As I start a new chapter with MHFA England, an organisation that seeks to train people in Mental Health First Aid, build mental health literacy and reduce stigma, I am more aware than ever that progress is so often two steps forward and one step back. Rights are hard won, cannot be taken for granted, and must be protected.
Inequity is embedded structurally in our society. Until everybody across the UK can access mental health services and support, has access to safe and legal abortion, can live without fear of racism, transphobia or other forms of prejudice, and can walk down the streets holding hands with the person they love –whatever their gender or sexual identity – our job isn’t done.
Read the next Game Changers article:
Kellie Beirne (BA 1997, MSc 2003) – Cardiff Capital Region City Deal
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