Leslee Udwin is one of those people that will go down in history for changing the world.
Whether through her pioneering film career or taking on the global education system, Leslee has continually stood out as a person driven by impact. This is possibly why the New York Times cited her as the world's second most impactful woman, second only to Hilary Clinton.
Leslee has been awarded the prestigious Swedish Anna Lindh Human Rights Prize (previously won by Madeleine Albright). She has also been named Safe's Global Hero of 2015, Global Thinker by Foreign Policy, and awarded the GlobalmindED award for Arts and Education in 2019. In 2019 Leslee was also awarded the UN Women for Peace Activist Award at the United Nations, UN Association USA's Global Citizen of 2019 and in 2020 received the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award.
We were overjoyed to spend some time with her to understand the fuel that drives her forward.
Tell us how you got to where you are today
I got to where I am by defining who I am and learning how I am, deeply and wholly. A series of challenges forged me on this path really. I didn't shirk from these challenges but embraced them head-on. Learning this strength and grit in myself was the foundation of these learnings.
The most significant of these was when the house I lived in as a 'sitting tenant' was bought at auction by Britain's most notorious, criminal landlord (Nicholas van Hoogstraten) who proceeded to cut off our services (heating and hot water) for over two years and terrorised us with threats to our lives, in order that we would leave him the house of 14 flats we lived in, with vacant possession.
The men (every last one) in the building all fled, and only the single women, led by me, stayed and fought. I refused to believe that this person could get away with bullying us out of our homes. Everyone (from the local law centre to friends and lawyers) advised us not to risk-taking on this man. He was extremely wealthy, had absolutely no regard nor respect for the law, and had already spent five years in Wormwood Scrubs prison for throwing a hand grenade through a tenant's front window.
But this didn't deter me, I needed to know if they were right, if the world we lived in would support a thug like him getting away with it, or if there was 'justice' available. I stayed on and fought, gathering four other houses in the borough who were harassed by him and his tactics. I studied housing law for 12 days and nights and forced Kensington and Chelsea Council to take action based on our findings.
When compelled by this group of determined women, they took the case to the High court and we set a legal precedent. The house was forcibly sold to the local authority and into socially responsible ownership on the grounds of harassment (pursuant to control order and compulsory purchase order legislation).
This taught me to be fearless and to stand my ground and always fight for what is right.
How do you deal with setbacks?
I see setbacks as tests of my mettle. They are nothing but spurs to get the job done quicker and more decisively. But this does take discipline. The most I allow myself is a few hours of sadness, mostly under the duvet, having an exhausted pause, letting the feeling wash over me until it is gone. But then I redouble my efforts. Especially when the setbacks are down (as I have to honestly say most of them are) to individuals who are somehow stuck in indifference or pessimism. Out loud, but alone, I will let out my anger, frustration, rage in a quite undignified way but I always end by vowing to show them how wrong they are.
Often my most creative and unexpected ideas come to me from this impulse to find another way around and to ensure that those who are obstacles to innovation due to territorial ego or pettiness are taught the lesson that what matters most is the children and moving our world to a better place, and not their own comfort.
Essentially I see setbacks as a pause and rewind function on a mission. They are mere catalysts to rethink critically and find a different solution. I drive myself hard (for the last 5 years I have worked 7 days a week and fairly shocking hours) and so the other way I rationalise setbacks is that they are an opportunity for me to 'rest' while I strategize a way around the setback.
Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?
You are convinced, young one, that there is time for so much, but that is an illusion. There is in fact time for so little. Waste not a minute in words nor in re-framing problems nor amplifying awareness about them.
Talk is only fruitful when it inspires and leads others to join in action, otherwise, it can easily be a waste of energy. Attend fewer conferences, resist the temptation to write chapters and papers. Just put your head and feet forward and walk and run and do - action is the only thing that matters. Positive change is the only thing that is worthwhile given the emergency the world finds itself in.
Lose none of your passion but learn to process your anger and frustration better, they lead to dead ends. Waste no energy on anything that doesn't directly lead to a change in yourself and for others.
Don't ever ask: 'who will let me...?' Ask only: 'Who will stop me?' Don't be beguiled by fame and the accumulation of wealth. You will only be remembered for the change you leave behind you, what you've changed, not what you gathered unto yourself.
I'd say don't be so dogmatic. There are shades of colour you will miss if you stay too rigid. Most experiences and situations are out of your control, so just focus on the one thing that is always, entirely; you.
But above all else, always be fearless.