• Tess Kilburn

Allison O'Malley Graham and Collaborative Leadership

Allison O’Malley Graham is a third year HSPS student at Murray Edwards, and the current Chair of the Women’s Campaign. Allison was elected as her JCR Women’s Officer in her first term at Cambridge, and since then has held various leadership positions, in turn becoming JCR President, the Women’s Campaign Secretary and Chair. In each role, Allison’s involvement and leadership has been driven by her concern for others and desire to better her community.

In this interview, she reflects on her time at Cambridge, looking at the inspiration she takes from those around her, and the importance of facilitating and supporting others to make change.

What motivated you to get involved in leadership positions?

‘I started taking on more leadership positions when I saw things I wanted to fix, or change, or help with. Way back in my first term at Cambridge, there was a bi-election for the Women’s Role on my JCR, and I went for it. I took that on because I’d had a conversation with a friend, who was struggling with a GP and getting an endometriosis diagnosis. It was more about seeing a problem or something that needed to be addressed and trying to put myself in the best position to address that’.

How would you define leadership?

‘Leadership might just be being able to facilitate cooperation as opposed to leading a charge or being a visionary. I prefer to think of leadership as just people-skills and being able to facilitate others doing their best. Not even taking an active role in pushing people to do that, but just making the space for that to happen and giving them support if and when they ask for it.’

How do you think being a woman has influenced your experience?

Allison underlines her feeling that the women around her find it especially intimidating to speak up and get involved. She reflected on her experience in the women-only environments of Murray Edwards and the Women’s Campaign, and the importance of encouragement from other people.

‘There’s obviously issues with women’s colleges, they aren’t just these bastions of feminism. But, at the same time, I remember initially, as a first year who wasn’t sure how to do Cambridge, having a Director of Studies and supervisors who were very clearly trying to give me the skills to be more confident, that was cool.’

‘I remember when I started getting involved in the Women’s Campaign, for the first two terms I don’t think I spoke a single word at a single meeting. And it was only because the Women’s Officer at the meeting, Claire, would continuously pull me aside and ask me what I thought about whatever topic. That was the only time that I contributed. I just thought that I knew nothing and so proceeded on that basis, and was way too scared, not even of looking ridiculous, but just scared of doing wrong in the space’.

‘Now, there are moments where I’m sat looking at a zoom screen of people that I know are completely capable of having a conversation and have absolutely phenomenal points, but everyone’s so sure that someone else has something better than say, so everyone’s waiting for that person.’

‘I don’t think there is any one given person who actually knows all of it. So much of this knowledge is collective knowledge that we’ve all contributed bits and bobs to. It can be really daunting to contribute to that.’

What role do you hope that the Women’s Campaign will provide?

‘The Women’s Campaign space is a space where we are all engaging as women and non-binary people who have in some ways been shaped by those systems that might emphasise certain voices above others. It’s fantastic and amazing to be able to enter these spaces and have so much care and affirmation from your peers and people that you might not ever speak to outside that space, but within it they’re all coming together to articulate a common understanding.’

‘As Chair, my role is a lot more about thinking about the Women’s Campaign as a space, and how it can continue, and grow and interact with the other liberation campaigns, college FemSocs and the central SU. There’s a lot to be said for having a space in which to imagine things being different’.

‘One of the things I want to keep doing as Chair is to keep encouraging people to take up space and to give them the resources and confidence to do that. I’d love to make sure that the Women’s Campaign continues to be flexible and open to new people, and that welcoming atmosphere isn’t just incumbent on whoever the committee is but is institutionalised.’

What motivated you to run for SU Undergraduate President?

Allison views the university’s response to the pandemic as representative of larger issues surrounding lack of welfare provision for students. This motivated her to run for SU Undergraduate President, with a manifesto built on restructuring student welfare.

‘Online lectures would not be as terrible if years ago the university had decided to do online recordings for students who needed them. All of those institutions and structures could’ve been there, if that care and concern for student wellbeing had been built in before this pandemic hit.’

‘I was frustrated by the fact that the university had an opportunity at the start of this catastrophe to choose to focus on caring about students or academic rigour. They made the wrong call, because it was a choice. Even if it is framed as a response to a pandemic, they chose how to respond.’

How do you stay resilient?

Despite not winning the election, Allison notes how she has stayed resilient by remembering the work she has already done, and the people she has made change for.

‘When you get knocked down, you’d taken a pile of steps to get to that hit and you don’t lose those steps. And when you stand back up, you haven’t fallen back. You’re still exactly where you were, but probably with a different set of opportunities or choices available to you.’

Is there a particular female or non-binary figure who inspires you?

‘Dolly Parton, because as a country singer starting out in the 60s and 70s, some of her first songs were about how women are treated in healthcare and by their husbands, with songs about childbirth out of wedlock and all sorts of deeply stigmatised things. For example, ‘Jolene’, that was a completely different approach to that style of songwriting that didn’t seek to tear the other person down, but was cognisant of the position that women, especially in that time period, and in the environment that Dolly Parton grew up in, found themselves in. There’s a weird sense of unity that Dolly Parton has been able to create and facilitate.’

‘I think that when I’m 70, if I’m that cool and that open to acknowledging that I’ve made mistakes or my thoughts can and should change, I’ll probably be alright.’

Where else do you find inspiration?

‘It’s really cool and rewarding to see, in such a short time frame, across the university, what second and first years are doing and thinking about. It speaks to how much capacity there is for change, because their horizons are so much broader because other work has been done.’

‘When we talk about inspiring people, we often reach out for icons, but I think it’s really cool and really heartening to be able to be inspired by people in your community.’

Where do you see the future of female leadership?

‘The goal is not that we all approximate some type of hyper-masculine, white, male vision of what leadership is. It’s not that we enter into equality on those toxic, gendered, racialised terms, but that we shift systems and change structures so that that leadership and capacity for collective leadership is built in.’

‘I see the future of leadership for everyone as a more egalitarian, communal approach, with more emphasis on how we engage with one another, and shape and contribute to our communities’.

Do you have any advice for those wanting to get involved and lead towards change?

‘The structure of Cambridge, JCRs and committees makes it seem like you have to be in a role to be doing these things, but I think even just helping people out in the grocery store or doing smaller things, that’s a form of leadership. It’s articulating how you want your community and everyone to be interacting.’

‘Get involved. Nobody actually knows what they’re doing, even though so many people at this university act like they do, nobody does. I didn’t know how to write an agenda or facilitate a meeting or think about any of these problems before I tried and did that.’

‘So much of what I’ve been able to do has been because other people encouraged it and made the space for me to do it: my friend dragging me to a meeting, the second years and third years encouraging me to take on roles and explaining to me how to write agendas or how to read a budget.’

‘Get involved, but also once you're involved, get other people involved with you.’

Allison’s plans for next year are undecided while she waits to hear back from some Masters’ applications. Her aim is to continue to work in her local community and support others to enact change, whether big or small.

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