Alex Feis-Bryce: “Diversity Role Models resonates with me on a personal level.”

The recently appointed CEO of Diversity Role Models sits down with Vada to discuss how the LGBTQ+ charity hopes to make schools across the country more inclusive, and the personal experiences that make him right for the job.

Alex Feis-Bryce is just a few weeks into his new role as Chief Executive of Diversity Role Models when I sit down to interview him. Although he might be just finding his feet at the charity, which prides itself in delivering workshops in schools from LGBTQ+ and ally role models, Feis-Bryce is no stranger to the charity sector, nor the organisation. In fact, when the top job at the charity came up the last time around, he applied and came in second place. Now in post, he tells me he can’t wait to make a difference at an LGBTQ+ charity, focusing on issues that he cares deeply about.

Diversity Role Models first came into Feis-Bryce’s sights when he was on a judging panel for the Third Sector Awards back in 2015. The LGBTQ+ charity was nominated in the category he was judging and ended up winning. “I thought they were amazing,” Feis-Bryce tells me over video call from the charity’s offices in central London. “I was really impressed with them and since then I’ve always wanted to be a part of the work they do.”

His career up until now has been, as Feis-Bryce puts it, “adjacent to LGBTQ+ rights.” The seasoned charity leader has already held the role of CEO at Transform, Survivors UK and National Ugly Mugs. This new role will put him front and centre of an organisation that seeks to make schools across the country more inclusive when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.

When I ask him more about the charity’s mission, he tells me Diversity Role Models wants to create an inclusive environment for all students. “We’re all about embracing difference, teaching young people to embrace difference from a young age. We want to end LGBTQ+ bullying in particular, but also all kinds of bullying that’s related to identity.”

To date, the charity has worked in over one thousand primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges. Diversity Role Models has a team of volunteers who tell their stories to young people, in the hope that it will allow them to empathise with them and erode some of their preconceived ideas around LGBTQ+ people. “Everyone has challenges that they overcome, particularly LGBTQ+ people, because of the way we’re socialised, through homophobia, biphobia and transphobia,” explains Feis-Bryce. “Diversity Role Models is about bringing people into the classroom who are comfortable and happy with themselves. They’ll be people who have overcome barriers, in order to live a happy and fulfilling life.”

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He’s keen to add that the charity doesn’t set any ideas around what success means to them, rather that success is unique to each individual. “We’re not about saying, ‘Look at this person, they’re making millions of pounds a year and look how successful they are.’ We want our volunteers to share their stories with students and inspire them by how they might have overcome barriers in their own lives to get where they are today.”

The notion of “upstanding” is something that the charity wants to promote through its workshops with young people. “Not sitting by awkwardly if you hear something going on that you’re not happy with, even if you’re not the target,” he explains of the American concept. “For me, these workshops are not just for LGBTQ+ people themselves, it’s for everyone. We want everyone to feel comfortable and embrace difference, just to create a better world.”

When I ask Feis-Bryce about his own experiences at school, he tells me that while he was not bullied, he certainly feels as though he hid parts of himself from others. “I tried to really be someone that I’m not,” he says. Feis-Bryce tells me of friends who didn’t hide themselves as much as he did at school,  and experienced bullying as a consequence. Yet he also believes that hiding parts of himself at school has resulted in challenges later on in life. “It made life as an adult, loving myself and loving who I am, a much harder process.” These experiences, he argues, have allowed him to understand the importance of young people being themselves at school – a philosophy he hopes to bring to schools through Diversity Role Models.

Was he somebody who challenged bullying of others when he was at school? “There were times when I was trying to blend in at school, where I probably stood by when other people were being bullied, and didn’t speak up.” It’s something that he’s now determined to change for the next generation, and hopes that Diversity Role Models will not only allow those who feel othered to feel included, but to empower allies as well. “Those who aren’t perceived as different, it makes them become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, or help facilitate that at least. That’s what is so powerful.”

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Raised in Chorley, Feis-Bryce studied at the University of Manchester. Drawn to the city’s LGBTQ+ scene, which came to life for him in Queer as Folk. “I wanted that life,” he says of the TV show. He subsequently moved to London and began working as a political researcher, with aspirations of becoming a politician. “I could have become an MP and I decided not to in the end, because I wanted to go out and experience the world a bit more,” he recalls.

After six years working in parliament, Feis-Bryce was suspended after he was arrested for assaulting a police officer one evening in June 2011, as he left a function at the House of Commons with a group of friends. The charge was thrown out on the first day of court, when CCTV footage from that night showed that police officers had lied about the alleged assault, and it was in fact Feis-Bryce who had been the victim of an assault by the police. “I believe it was a homophobic attack,” he says of the assault. He commenced civil proceedings against the police, for which he received an out of court settlement, in addition to a written apology from the Met’s Commissioner. And while Feis-Bryce lost his job, the police officers involved kept theirs.

When I ask him about the incident today, Feis-Bryce starts by telling me about how it allowed him to reflect. “I’m a middle class white guy, and until that night I hadn’t really thought about my own privilege,” he explains. “My dad is a lawyer, so that helped me and I was very conscious of that. But also being white in that situation, knowing how people of colour are treated by the police, with London being no exception.”

He knew that he wanted to go on and do something that was meaningful, using his own privilege to help other people. In 2012, Feis-Bryce founded National Ugly Mugs, a UK-wide charity that seeks to end all forms of violence against sex workers. “It was a really useful experience,” he says. “We were working with LGBTQ+ sex workers, female sex workers and migrant sex workers. I got to see the kind of oppression that sex workers face from the police to the state, and actually from politicians a lot of the time too. There’s this idea that laws should be passed when it comes to sex work, without actually speaking to sex workers first.”

Having left National Ugly Mugs, Feis-Bryce spent some time working for Ed Miliband, before landing the top job at Survivors UK. It’s another charity that is of personal significance to him, because he is a survivor of sexual violence. “As well as running the organisation and directly supporting survivors, I tried to shine a spotlight onto sexual violence experiences by LGBTQ+ people,” he recalls. “I think it’s important to be really sex positive in LGBTQ+ spaces, and not in any way trying to stigmatise any LGBTQ+ consensual sex or consensual relationships, but equally be mindful of where sexual violence can take place.”

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Feis-Bryce was sexually assaulted after one of the first times he went out on Canal Street. “It was supposed to be a big sort of coming of age experience for me, having grown up in a small town. And then obviously…” he trails off. “I would say it was a formative experience, because I don’t feel like I have loads of trauma associated with it, and I had support networks and so on. But [the assault] was definitely something that stayed with me.”

Through his role at Survivors UK, not only did he bring about more awareness of topics such as consent in LGBTQ+ spaces, he also became somewhat of a spokesperson for queer survivors. The media spotlight, however, being something that he wasn’t always comfortable being under.  “It was a bit awkward,” he says of family and friends watching him on the news talk about his experiences of sexual violence. “Sometimes you get into awkward conversations, but actually, I think that’s good. The whole purpose of talking about it, is to take away the stigma from it.”

In terms of the challenges that lie ahead? The stories shared by volunteers at Diversity Role Models will inspire discussion amongst the young people the charity works with, but it’s clear to Feis-Bryce that the schools who are the most in need of his charity’s services are the most resistant to having them in their classrooms. “We’re only in about 4% of schools across the country, so for the vast majority of schools, we haven’t been there yet,” he says. “We need to raise awareness, we need to grow, we need support from local politicians, and so on.” There also needs to be further backing from all political parities in support of LGBTQ-inclusive education. “More parties need to say, it’s really important going into schools and talking about these issues. It’d be great if they really saw the value of our work.”

Feis-Bryce tells me that what drives him forward in this new chapter of his career is working on something that means something to him. “Diversity Role Models is, on a similar level to Survivors UK,” he says. “It’s something that really resonates with me on a personal level.”

Alex Feis-Bryce is the Chief Executive Officer of Diversity Role Models.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.