In the spotlight: Susie Green

From a mother looking to Mermaids for advice to becoming CEO of that same charity, Susie Green talks to Melissa Moody about her journey, handling the media, and taking a leap of faith.

Transgender rights are dominating the news on an almost daily basis; whether it’s due to a ban on trans women competing in women’s elite swimming races, or the exclusion of trans people in the upcoming plans for a ban on conversion therapies. In the centre of this are charities advocating for these rights, many of which are often thrown under the spotlight. One such charity is Mermaids, which supports transgender, non-binary and gender diverse
children and their families.

Heading up the charity is CEO Susie Green, who first interacted with the charity as a service user when she needed support for herself and her daughter. As I speak to her, it’s clear how much the charity and its work mean to her. It’s definitely not just a job.

“I was seeing my kid become increasingly miserable because I kept telling her she was a boy, but it is okay to like girl things and she just kept saying to me: ‘that’s not true’. So I did a search on Ask Jeeves – I think I put in ‘my son wants to be a girl’ – and Mermaids was one of the options that came up.”

This was back in the early 2000s, so the website was “diabolical”, but Green found a
helpline number. “I had a conversation with one of the founding members. It was such a relief to talk to somebody who understood what I was going through,” she adds. From there, she got involved on a voluntary basis, and the rest, as they say, is history. After four years, Green became a trustee of the charity, and then chair, before becoming CEO in January 2016.

She became more and more involved as she recognised the prejudice and discrimination that was out there and how that affected not only her own child, but others too. “I wanted to do something about that and to inform people what it’s really like for trans kids.”

A leap of faith

Whilst she was on the board for Mermaids, the charity had a bit of money that went into a tech system, the same one as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau where Green was working at the time. It was essentially a virtual call centre, which enabled better reporting and allowed them to start ‘counting the numbers’, which led to a startling discovery – they were only answering
7% of calls.

“It was shocking because I know how much courage, soul searching and strength it took for me literally to pick up the phone to talk to somebody about this. And we found that actually over 90% of people who are reaching out to us couldn’t get through.”

At the time, the people who answered the phone were trustees and doing it around home, work and kids, but it was obvious that something needed to change. “We had to make a decision about whether we were going to get into this properly and professionalise processes, or step back and hope somebody else might plug that gap.

“But to be honest, there wasn’t anybody else who was doing the work that we were doing.”

As chair of the board, in 2013 she instigated the radical changes needed for the charity to
become what it is today – they began extensive fundraising, changed from an unincorporated charity into a CIO and had a look at what was needed to be done to employ people.

She worked “desperately” doing as much as she could in terms of publicity, reaching out to corporates and partners to deliver training in addition to dispelling myths about trans kids in mainstream media. This was on top of her 27-hour-a-week job. “I knew what it felt like to be in that position as a parent and feel completely lost”.

By 2015, the charity needed a CEO and Green was the only one who applied for the job. “I can’t imagine why,” she laughs. “We could only offer a three-month contract because that’s all the money we had in the bank so it was a massive leap of faith for me to leave my job of 17 years and take on this role of CEO at Mermaids.” That three-month contract was eventually extended, keeping Green in the role until today.

Under the spotlight

For any charity, funding is an issue, but for Mermaids, Green found knowledge was the first issue when talking to people. “Our funders who funded us in the first few years had never
funded a charity that supported trans kids before so getting past that barrier, just in terms of their knowledge of what the issues were, as opposed to what was being reported, was a huge challenge.”

In recent months, mainstream media attacks on trans rights have been increasing and as a charity advocating for these rights, Mermaids often falls victim. However, this isn’t a new thing. “As soon as we started getting funding, we were attacked in the papers for getting funding,” says Green.

As a result, funders would become “very nervous” about the fact they were seen as controversial, and even referred to as a lobby group.

“We’re a registered charity and have been for years. They still refer to us as a lobby group to try and undermine our standing and professionalism,” she adds.

The consequences of the damaging media narratives are far-reaching. The charity sees an uptick in calls and requests from service users every time trans rights are attacked in the headlines. “What they’re not seeing is the damage and the impact on young people’s lives and their feelings of feeling worthless and invalidated,” Green impassions. “This is constantly ramping up with hostility against kids who want to live their lives. That’s all they want to do.”

Of course, for every person that speaks out against trans rights, there’s others that will
speak up, and give funding, in support. A great example of this was in 2018 when the charity was awarded money from the National Lottery Community Fund to train local groups.

The next day it was in The Times with the headline: ‘Child sex-change charity handed £500,000 by national lottery’ calling the charity an ‘aggressive’ group. An award-winning writer then went on Mumsnet and told them to write to the national lottery and not give the charity funding. The grant was suspended pending an investigation into claims being made.

But, in January 2019, a Youtuber and Twitch streamer, Hbomberguy, began a stream attempting to complete Donkey Kong 64, raising money for Mermaids as a reaction to the grant suspension.

“We didn’t even know about it,” Green exclaimed. “We get into the evening and one of my friends messaged me saying ‘you have to see this’ and it was at 15 grand.” The stream blew up further, eventually raising £265,000 for the charity, well above it’s initial goal of $500 and attracted notable guests including U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
(AOC), Chelsea Manning, and Mara Wilson. Cher, Neil Gaiman and Adam Savage also
tweeted in support. “What we saw on that stream was actual public opinion and it was full of love. It was just amazing.”

The initial grant was awarded to the charity following the investigation.

A balancing act

Green has evidently put so much of herself into this charity, it can seem like she’s the only one pushing everything forward. But she’s not, she emphasises. Her own style of leadership is very collaborative and with 46 members of staff, the charity is still growing. “Every single person who reaches out to us, we aim to be there for” but burnout is a real issue they face.

People who come to work, or volunteer for Mermaids, often do because they have a personal stake “but then they’re catapulted into this horrendous environment where either themselves or their kids are constantly invalidated.”

Even in job interviews, the charity warns that it’s a difficult area to work in. As a result, the charity is “constantly talking” about wellbeing, encouraging people to step away from their screens if they need to. Running the social media accounts is “particularly tough” and it’s an area where they have several members of staff burn out.

“Even though you see the support and you see the joy. For every 99 positive comments, the one comment that you focus on is the nasty one so it sits with you.”

Green’s own accounts are set with the strictest security, or she would constantly face a barrage of abuse. It’s one of the reasons AOC is a leader she admires. “To see somebody else in such a public position with such a lot said about her in a negative way, and she carries herself with integrity.”

Being the CEO of Mermaids is a job Green evidently loves, but one that can take its toll. In her free time, she’ll walk her dogs and surround herself with her friends and family. A quote in one of her lectures on her Master’s course (which she’s doing part time, in addition to her job) said that the main indicator for health is not your diet, it’s not how much you weigh or
drink, it’s what you’re surrounded by. And that’s why love is so important.

“As much as I can, I surround myself with love because that’s the biggest protective measure for my wellbeing, mental health and ability to cope with what’s going on out there.”

What is the best piece of leadership advice she’s received? “Keep coming back to the reason that you’re doing what you’re doing, keep reminding yourself of your core purpose,” she says. Those are words, I think, any sector leader can stand by – particularly when things get tough.

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