Interview with Lara Oyedele

Lara Oyedele is currently vice president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, and will become its president in October 2022.

Lara has worked in housing for 30 years, including a spell as chief executive of Odu-Dua, a small BME housing association in London. James Tickell, partner at Campbell Tickell, asks Lara how her life so far – including a period being homeless – has shaped her priorities as CIH president.

James Tickell (JT): Let’s start by talking about what you were like as a child, and how you would describe yourself.

Lara Oyedele (LO): That is a big question, and I haven’t spoken about it a lot. I was a quiet and insular child. I used to read a lot, and I spent a lot of time in a cubbyhole space under the stairs. I would sit there and read and imagine the future, and asked the world lots of big questions like, why is the sky blue? And how do trains turn around when they get to their station? And how do babies get born, do they come out of the belly button?

JT: What has stayed with you from that child?

LO: My curiosity and my energy. I have always had insomnia since I was a child so I don’t sleep a lot. I spent a lot of time at night thinking about things and imagining. I used to dream about how I could make things different, but I was a quiet child. I have very religious parents, and we disagreed about a lot of things. I learned to keep my mouth shut, rather than argue with them. I became good at keeping myself out of trouble, so I learned to stop asking difficult questions, and keep quiet.

JT: But you don’t do that now, do you?

LO: No, I certainly don’t. I tackle the difficult questions head-on now.

JT: On a similar theme, what is your spirit animal?

LO: Oh, that’s easy. It would be an owl. That is because I do a lot of my best work at night. They have big eyes, so they can see what’s going on around them. I think owls are underestimated as animals. They have sharp instincts, but people think they are cuddly. I’m not sure if they are compassionate and caring, except with baby owls. They are also considered to be wise.

JT: So your personal values are to be compassionate and caring? Does that sum up your purpose in the world?

LO: I’m happy to say yes to that question. The only reason for my existence is to help other people, and I do spend a lot of time thinking about my purpose in life. I don’t have children, I’ve reached the conclusion that my job is to help other people. So I’ve always had more empathy than other people around me. I was always that kid who wants to help. People have said to me, leave them alone and mind your own business. but I couldn’t. When I had that difficult time at Odu-Dua, I did spend a lot of time afterwards reviewing my life and its purpose.

I asked myself, why do I work so hard? What is the point of work? Our identities, in our society, are very closely linked to what we do for a living. When I was suddenly no longer a chief executive, and I had no job title, I thought why am I rushing around going to these meetings? What is the point? And then later, I became mortgage free, and I woke up every day wondering what I was going to do with the energy that I have been given. And helping others is the only conclusion.

JT: If you can, tell me a little more about the difficult time. I wasn’t going to mention it, but now you’ve brought it up, let’s go there.

LO: There is so much I could say, and ultimately it was a good learning experience. I learned about good governance, and how important it is to have a functional board. Chief executives and boards do fall out from time to time and they always will. My big takeaway is that board members need to be there for the right reasons, and ready to do the right thing.

JT: Tell me a bit more about how you overcome adversity, because you certainly didn’t sit in a cubbyhole on the stairs and keep quiet then. How do you overcome obstacles and adversity?

LO: I have a history of overcoming adversity. When I got my first housing job, aged 19, I was homeless at the time. I was street homeless for a bit, and then sofa surfing. It was just one of those things I had to get over and get on with. That’s always been my approach to life, and I think it started when I was a child, because my relationship with my parents was so traumatic. I’ve always felt, I’ll just deal with this now, everything will pass. It’s not going to last forever. I’ve always had this thought that nothing lasts forever, so whatever is going on, it will end, and then you will move onto something else. That is how I dealt with sitting under the stairs.

And then as a teenager, I found myself homeless with nowhere to stay. I did the right thing, which was going to the homeless persons unit every day. I signed in and said give me a home, give me home. And eventually they did give me a flat. I have resilience and persistence, and a belief that everything will change sooner or later. I still do that now, so when I get stressed, and have too much to do, I just keep going by taking one thing at a time. I was born with some sort of innate resilience. I take it one day at a time. I try not to get lost in the stress of today, because tomorrow is going to be another day. With all the traumas in my life, I can see that, that is true.

JT: I think you’re probably the first president of the Institute who has ever been street homeless at some stage in their life. I think people will find that inspiring. Was it the homelessness that brought you into housing?

LO: In a way, yes it was. My first job was part of the youth opportunities program, and I was the assistant to an assistant in the housing office. I was typing up letters with carbon paper, putting stamps on letters and booking repairs. Ironically that was when I became homeless. If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked for help, but I was too embarrassed. I never told people at work that I was homeless, and I slept in all sorts of random places, including sometimes in the office. When I got my council flat, I was able to go back and finish my A-levels. I then got a post A-level diploma and went to university for a degree in journalism.

With my degree, I went to America, but then came back and decided I didn’t want to be a journalist. I wanted to do something that was useful, and made a difference to people. I don’t want to sound too much like Mother Teresa, but housing was my chosen path. I didn’t fall into it by accident like many other people. I did some research into how to become a housing professional, and I was very fortunate that at the time the Economic and Social Research Council were funding graduates to do a masters in housing. I got a place at the London School of Economics, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now I can help people who were like me when I was homeless all those years ago.

JT: Now, you’re going to be president of the Institute. Can you give us your two top priorities for your term of office?

LO: Yes, it’s a shame it’s only one year, as that is a short time to make a big difference but that is what I want to, make a big difference. Firstly, on the charitable side, my campaign is going to be called ‘walking in my shoes’. It’s going to focus literally on shoes. I want everyone who participates in an Institute event over the year to donate at least one pair of shoes to the charity Shoe Aid. The shoes go to homeless individuals and families, and people living in poverty. Of course homeless people need a lot more than shoes, because they are struggling to pay for everything else. But nobody thinks about the need for shoes, and this charity refurbishes them, and gives them to people in need. You probably know that I have a thing about shoes, I love ‘em, but if you’re broke, you can’t afford to buy a decent pair of shoes, so this is important.

In terms of policy, I’ve chosen the boardroom, trying to ensure that boardrooms are truly diverse, again, that is about walking in my shoes. I’m on two boards of the moment, and I’m in a small minority as a woman from an ethnic minority background. I’ve been in many boardrooms and council rooms, but I often am the only black or brown face in the room, and one of few women. I’m focusing on boardrooms, but I think executive teams matter as well. When I worked at Notting Hill, and at Pinnacle, there were other women, black people and decent people at the junior and middle management levels that were great, but I don’t know what happened to them as we all progressed with our careers. There weren’t that many as I reached the boardroom level. It felt like there were just a dozen or so black women in the sector at that level circulating and popping up everywhere.

JT: Would it be fair to say that during your career you have encountered real outright racism?

LO: I asked myself that question a lot, but I want to give you a different angle on the response. Among black women, there is a lot of discussion about hair discrimination. Apparently if you have dreadlocks, it can affect your career progression. When I went to university, I was very poor, and the cheapest thing to do with my hair was to grow dreadlocks. I just used to twist my hair in lectures, and then it grew and needed very little maintenance. By the time I graduated, and was working at Notting Hill, my hair was halfway down my back. Then I had it cut only because I got bored of dreadlocks. I’ve often wondered whether there were jobs I applied for but didn’t get, because of my hair. But I suppose I shall never know. There are lots of articles about hair discrimination, but it is just one angle.

JT: What about people who commit micro-aggressions in everyday speech? Is that part of your experience?

LO: Oh yes. That is absolutely standard. I have got to the stage where I just ignore that kind of thing, and move on with the bigger picture of my life. I won’t let things like that be a traumatic experience, so they are like water off a duck’s back. I’m not going to worry about ignorant stuff like that, that’s how I’ve lived all my life, and I’m not going to stop now. There is an example from my early career. Whenever my employer won an award, I would be the one sent to pick up the award from the stage. They wanted to virtue signal their diversity, so I went to a lot of ceremonies. I ticked all the boxes, but that was fine by me. I used it to my advantage, to network, and get to know more people. I could have taken it as a negative thing, but actually it was an opportunity.

JT: What makes you angry?

LO: What makes me angry, really really angry, is poverty and homelessness. People sleeping rough, not able to sleep in their own homes, in this very prosperous society. I sometimes think we have too much wealth. Some people have so much, and others have so little. One man can spend billions on a rocket to go into space for 20 seconds. Others can’t buy food or shoes. There are much bigger structural issues in the country. I hate the fact that so many people have to go to food banks, or sleep on park benches.

JT: Now for some quickfire questions. First of all, what gives you joy?

LO: I love music, my taste is somewhere between jazz and reggae.

JT: And what are you optimistic about?

LO: I’m optimistic about everything really. I do think that things can only get better.

JT: That’s great, but what keeps you awake at night then?

LO: Well, apart from the insomnia, I’m not much of a worrier. Some bad things happen in life, and eventually you die, so enjoy the bit in the middle. That is my philosophy.

JT: What is the book that everybody should read?

LO: I have two. The first one is Enlightened Entrepreneurs, by Ian Bradley. It is about business ethics in Victorian Britain. The second book is by my good friend Patrick Vernon, called 100 great black Britons.

JT: When you step down as president in October 2023 what would you like people to be saying about you?

LO: I’d like people to say that I brought a bit of excitement and a bit of joy into being an Institute member. From there on in, I want them to think about Shoe Aid, and to remember homeless people. Because I will only have one year as president, I want to start a movement which encourages, and holds the boards of housing associations and housing organisations to account regarding the lack of diversity in the boardroom.

JT: Do you have any advice to your younger self, looking back? What would you say to the homeless 19-year-old now?

LO: Yes, I would say don’t be ashamed to ask for help when you are in a difficult situation. I would give the same advice to young people starting out on their own careers in housing. Most people are happy to help others if they can. I like to think that it’s human nature to want to help if somebody asks. It’s very rare that someone will say ‘go away I don’t want to help’. Most people will maybe suggest someone who can. I would also say in terms of your career, never stop learning. There is always something else to learn. Keep on top of what’s going on in the sector. Go to the seminars. Go to the webinars. Stay young in your outlook. Also, be kind to everyone you meet, if only because you never know where they will be in 10 years’ time. On my WhatsApp profile it says live life and smile! That’s my parting message to everyone.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in CT Brief 61

To discuss further, please contact James Tickell:


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