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Interview: Beverley Jullien, chief executive, Mothers’ Union

20 November 2015

'Members made a difference to over 400,000 lives last year'

I was in the international pharmaceuticals industry, but I’d always wanted to move into the charity sector. Mothers’ Union was the perfect opportunity to apply my business skills to help develop a wonderful institution which does great things.


It’s a global organisation, with over four million members. I’d travelled extensively, worked with colleagues from across the world, and lived in two other countries; so I’m very comfortable with operating across different cultures.


I’ve always been active in our local church as a Sunday-school teacher, in education, and as a secondee for the British Olympic Association, which is member-driven, so I understand the ways of a membership organisation. I’m used to working with others to develop and implement strategy — for example, developing business for AstraZeneca in the emerging markets. I also love leading teams, and helping others to develop.


I want to ensure that this great institution continues to be as relevant and effective in transforming communities through faith in action in the future as it was when Mary Sumner founded it almost 140 years ago.


I’ve led organisations through change, and so I hope that I can work with members, trustees, and staff to ensure that Mothers’ Union continues to evolve successfully. In Britain, younger members are meeting in city centres at lunch time, for example, or having Sunday lunch meetings which involve whole families.


Yes, Mothers’ Union is an Anglican organisation, but we welcome anyone who has been baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity.


I have heard it spoken of as “the best-kept secret in the Anglican Communion”, and that’s something which I’d like to change. Our members made a positive difference to the lives of over 400,000 people last year, which is fantastic. The central team supports the membership, and the members serve others through transformational action, campaigning, and prayer.


Because I always wanted to move into the third sector, I’ve been an international advisory board member for the Open University, on the board of the National Centre of Languages, and a further education college in Lambeth, while I was deputy vice-chancellor at Southwark University.


Education is very important to me, and the literacy programme is still very strong in MU. An MU church-community-mobilisation programme might say: “If we could read, or understand our finances better, we’d be better placed to start more businesses, or buy more corn to grow more crops.” We’d facilitate that learning.


Languages are my particular skill. I studied French and German in Cambridge, then worked in Portugal for a while. It’s amazing that, wherever you go, if you can speak a few words in someone’s language, it makes a great difference. I was able to pick up a simple conversation in Mandarin when I was working in China. As I travel more with MU, where I can I’ll certainly try to learn a few words in the countries I’m going to.


I was privileged to take part in a recent evaluation visit to Uganda for the Eagle programme, supported by Mothers’ Union and the Isle of Man. Instead of giving hand-outs, the programme facilitates, through Bible study, communities’ working out themselves what their needs are, and the resources they already have, and could start to use together.


I was surprised at how deep the dependency culture had become in Uganda, but very uplifted to hear how these eight communities had really started to discover their own capabilities and to make a real difference, without needing to ask for extra help outside. Divided communities were working together, church congregations had grown and were working together, too, on projects like building a new church, providing mattresses to families, giving money for children to go to school, a co-operative piggery, growing new crops, making toys to sell out of “waste” banana leaves.

Mothers’ Union was at the heart of it,
 facilitating the change, but working very closely with the clergy and other groups in the community. What shocked me most was the level of domestic violence, but it was openly discussed. I was asked by a local journalist about my position on this. A major benefit of the Eagle programme is that, as families work more closely to improve their lives, the level of reported violence goes down. I was also heartened, on my way out, to read in a national paper that a member of Mothers’ Union was openly speaking out against female genital mutilation.


A great strength of Mothers’ Union is that it engages on issues that are of most relevance to each community where there are members. Worldwide, we know that at least 32,000 members were actively campaigning for social justice last year. In Britain, Mothers’ Union is probably best known for “Bye Buy Childhood”, its campaign against the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.


Gender-based violence is an issue that affects members in a large number of countries, and we help to train them to become confident in advocacy. This was evident in my trip to Uganda. Mothers’ Union also holds a seat at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and has been successful in influencing policy statements there


We’re also supporting the 16 days of activism from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to 10 December, which is International Human Rights Day.


Mothers’ Union’s specific call this year is “One in three to zero”: for the number of women globally experiencing domestic abuse to go down from one in three to none. We’ll be hosting a conference on 25 November at Mary Sumner House, with prominent national speakers, to discuss the issue.


It’s definitely a Christian issue, and Mothers’ Union is a member of two global Christian movements to end violence against women: Restored, and We Will Speak Out.


My father was away a lot and also liked to follow his own leisure pursuits. As children, we would have loved to have more time together as a family. My parents have been the greatest influence on my life. My husband and I have tried, as our children grew up, to make weekends especially a time to be together as a family.


What was wonderful to me as a child, and a tradition we’ve continued, was time together over Christmas and the New Year: time as a family, and also with special friends.


My older brother has become a priest, after years in insurance, and my son has just graduated and started an internship in a parish in Hornsey. My daughter’s just finishing school, and is very interested in politics and geography. She asks me lots of questions about MU, and provides lots of challenge, which is wonderful.


Mothers’ Union supports families at Christmas in different ways. For example, we’ve launched a Christmas card outlining simple ideas to address commercialisation with children, and to help them think about the real meaning of Christmas. In many parishes, Mothers’ Union provides a crib that travels to a different family each night during Advent. We’ll also be active in continuing our support to refugee centres and refuges.


I can’t speak for all women about how they define themselves in terms of careers and motherhood. Personally, I think it depends on context. So I was “work status” while at work, but I’ve always been “mother of” or “wife of" in private life. Mothers’ Union enables me to bring these two closer together.


I’m happiest when I’m at home with my family, and I just enjoy contributing locally where I can. I was a Sunday School teacher for ten to 12 years and helped run the church fair. I still contribute a coffee cake every week, and help with being a sidesman and administering the chalice when I’m needed. I’m also supporting the new work with the young children at church. I’m incredibly lucky, because I’m reasonably fit; so last year I ran in the London Marathon for the Leonard Cheshire Foundation.


I love the sound of the sea in all its moods. It reminds me of happy memories, especially of holiday with family and friends


What makes me angry is when bureaucracy gets in the way of making things happen


I pray most often for my new role, for the members and work of Mothers’ Union worldwide, and for guidance that I may help the organisation to continue to be as relevant in the future as it was 140 years ago.


If I found myself accidentally locked in a church and could choose anyone to be my companion, it would have to be Mary Sumner, the founder of Mothers’ Union. She would be a teacher and an inspiration.


Beverley Jullien was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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