Wanda Wyporska on tackling inequality from the top

David Adams talks to Wanda Wyporska, CEO of the Equality Trust about her fight to reduce inequality and the power of social media for raising awareness.

As most Charity Times readers know only too well, social and economic inequality is a primary cause of many of the biggest problems afflicting society. Dr Wanda Wyporska, executive director of The Equality Trust, is driven by the need to improve understanding of inequality and to force policymakers to take action to mitigate it.

Her commitment to this goal has been shaped by her own personal and professional experiences. She grew up in Chester with her mother and her grandmother. Her maternal grandfather had been a Polish air force pilot who fought with the RAF during the war. Her father, who left the family when Wyporska was very young, was from Barbados. But her mother and grandmother were her greatest influences. They helped inspire her lifelong love of history, literature and the Classics, by taking her on childhood visits to cathedrals, stately homes and museums.

She did exceptionally well at school, winning a scholarship to an independent girls’ secondary school. There she was a linguist as well as a historian, studying “Latin, French, Ancient Greek – and Italian on the side”. But at around the same time, her grandmother was very seriously injured in an accident, meaning Wyporska became a young carer. “That had a huge impact – I grew up a bit more quickly than most teenagers.”

She was fascinated by Poland and spent some of a gap year working there before taking a degree in Polish Studies at UCL. The first phase of her working life was also spent in Poland, living in Krakow and working as a broadcast journalist. She then returned to academia in the UK, studying for a masters, then a doctorate in Early Modern European History at Hertford College, Oxford. Her work on witchcraft in Poland during the 16th and 17th centuries became the basis for her first book.

A career change

But the lure of work that could help to improve life in this society inspired a career change. She landed the role of press coordinator for the League Against Cruel Sports in August 2004, just as the legislation banning hunting with hounds was passing through parliament. “It was an amazing time to be in a campaigning organisation, but it was also a lesson about the danger of placing too much faith in legislation,” she recalls. “We won the battle, but we lost the war.”

In 2006, she took a job at the TUC, where she stayed for seven years, becoming deputy communications manager for unionlearn, a partnership between the trade unions, employers and government that widens participation in training and learning. In 2012, she moved on to work for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), later becoming its lead equalities officer. She was deeply involved in development of the Safer Schools Network, which aims to safeguard schoolchildren online.

Throughout this period, the theme of working to reduce social and economic inequalities was always close to the surface, so her current post at The Equality Trust, where she started working in 2016, feels like a natural fit. But she has sought to change the organisation, putting a greater emphasis on its campaigning capabilities.

“We need to ensure that our research reaches a broader public, in a way that people can campaign on,” she says. “We need a greater awareness of the fact that a lot of forms of inequality are linked. It’s not just about poverty. It’s about housing and why certain communities don’t have access to the same opportunities – or why Covid-19 has affected certain communities more than others.”

She puts great value on the organisation’s work through its network of grassroots activist groups, which lobby local MPs, councillors and local businesses to highlight the consequences of inequality in their communities. The organisation also campaigns at national level, on issues including equal pay and wealth taxes. One key goal is to persuade the Westminster government to bring Section One – the “socioeconomic duty” – of the Equality Act into force. This states that all public bodies have to pay due regard to the outcome of their policies on socially disadvantaged people. The socioeconomic duty has already been implemented by both the Scottish and Welsh governments.

Tackling inequality from the top

Wyporska answers diplomatically when asked about the prospects of the current government taking action to reduce inequality. She thinks many politicians are comfortable talking about poverty, “because it’s at a distance from them”, but uncomfortable talking about inequality, “because addressing that involves doing something to the top as well as to the bottom”.

She is enthusiastic about the work the Trust does in collaboration with other organisations, including as part of the international Fight Inequality Alliance. She also contributes to the work of other organisations seeking to reduce inequality, as a trustee of Equally Ours (formerly the Equality and Diversity Forum), of the youth charity Redthread; and of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

She is an effective champion of the Trust’s work and of the other organisations she supports via social media; and was named Top Social CEO for 2020 at the Social CEO Awards. She is modest about her digital track record, pointing out that she didn’t enjoy using Twitter when first asked to do so while working for the TUC, but soon realised how valuable social media networks can be as tools for campaigning, amplifying voices that might not get a good hearing in the mainstream media. However, personal experience of trolling is one reason she aims to keep her family life completely private.

The events of the past year have provided ample proof of the need to work towards reducing inequality, but Wyporska is worried about the impact the crisis has had on small, semi-formal grassroots organisations. “They don’t have the expertise to get the grants and get into some of the networks,” she explains. “My plea would be for some of the larger organisations in the sector – and I know some of them are doing this – to ask, what can we do to help?”

She also thinks there is a need for the third sector to “take a good hard look” at the way its own operations and priorities are shaped by our unequal society. “You have a dominance of middle class, university educated people – and that may sound rich, because that’s who I am! – but we need to be far more open in how we support people coming into the sector.”

The work the Trust does with young people who are affected by social and economic inequality is particularly important to her. One important issue is helping them to avoid feeling ashamed of their circumstances, which have been created by inequality. Wyporska says this is something she has witnessed throughout her career, but also a feeling she remembers from parts of her own childhood.

“We feel guilty,” she says. “We feel bad that we’re not wearing the latest trainers and can’t go on school trips. We feel the shame of poverty. I still have a fear of poverty.

“I really want to explain to young people that it’s not your fault, it’s not your parents’ fault, it’s society – it comes from the system, it’s not you. That’s why we’re producing schools’ resources and focusing some of our work on young people.”

This work has already produced some striking results: in 2018, more than 100 young campaigners produced an exhibition of artistic activism, “Who we are, who we aren’t”, which was exhibited at Tate Modern as part of Steve McQueen’s Artists and the City programme.

“I’m incredibly proud of these young people, who have become campaigners,” says Wyporska. At the time of writing, the Trust is planning an event in June 2021 that will include the launch of a young person’s manifesto for tackling inequality.

Outside work, Wyporska has a happy family life in North London with her partner and school-age son. She still has an active interest in history and is also an enthusiastic practitioner of various arts and crafts (“I’ve been captivated by pottery over the past year”).

Before taking up her current role, she had also started writing a trilogy of witchcraft novels. These have been put on a back burner for now, but considering her track record it seems reasonable to suggest that she will find the time to finish the trilogy in due course. And even if eliminating inequality might be a goal that not even Wyporska can achieve any time soon, you can bet she will give it her best shot.

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