After 16 years as Director of Headliners (UK), Fiona Wyton retired on Friday (24th April). Before she left one of our young reporters Aodhan interviewed her about her time with the organisation.

Aodhan: Lets jump straight into it…I’m going to start off by asking you how you got involved with Headliners?

Fiona: So, I saw an advert in a newspaper asking people to volunteer to be trustees of a charity called Children’s Express which is what Headliners was called until 2007, and I applied and became a trustee.

Within about 6 months of becoming a trustee it was obvious that there was a number of financial problems with Headliners. We didn’t have enough funding going forwards and because I was freelance at the time, the trustees asked me if I would have a look at how we could get funding for Headliners. So I went and got to know the staff of Headliners went into all the possibilities of funding in the future and went back and said ‘Look, I think Headliners has a really really great future, I’m sure there are lots of opportunities to get funding and this is how we might do it’ so they said ‘well if you think that why don’t you give it a go!’. It was a difficult time as there were quite a few redundancies but I just put a plan together, I resigned as trustee and I worked for Headliners for about a year doing fundraising mainly and then I was appointed full time director of Headliners.

Aodhan: Well done there! So, during your time at Headliners, what do you think are some of the highlights that stick out most for you?

Fiona: Well there have so many! I mean there have been some quite high-profile events where the young people have presented. I remember going to an event at Stormont where we had an exhibition of cartoons that the young people had made with a very important captions to them, there are some in the Foyle office still now. When we relaunched Headliners in London (we changed from Children’s Express to Headliners) we had a big launch at BAFTA and in the north east of England we have big celebration events every year where we have 400 people coming to them where we celebrate our NCS programme up there. So those have all been highlights, but to be perfectly honest, the bits I have enjoyed the most are when I have just been able to come and talk to the young people in Headliners.

You know I have been to the Foyle office on many occasions and just joined in when young people have been sitting around the table in the office there, talking about their hopes for the week and what’s stories they have been working on: just finding out about the young people we work with. I’ve also done similar things in London and in the North East so I think hearing directly from young people is fantastic, but also hearing from the staff who tell me I’ve been working with a young person and they’ve really grown in confidence: how they never used to say anything when they came in, but now they’re standing up and presenting at a conference and really learning about  all the fantastic things they have done and what they have achieved through the Headliners programme with the support of our staff.

Aodhan: So now that you’re leaving Headliners, what do you think you’re going to miss the most about it?

Fiona: Well I’m obviously going to miss hearing about the young people and their progression, meeting the young people and actually seeing their progress. I’m going to really miss the staff. We’re a small staff team spread all over the place but spread all over the place in London, Newcastle, Belfast and Derry/Londonderry but there aren’t many of us, 13 in total. We’re a tight knit group and I shall miss their friendship and their guidance and support and all those things. What I won’t miss is seeing the amazing journalism podcast and stories that young people produce as I’ll be able to see those in the future. I’ll continue to follow everyone on twitter and Facebook and through the website.

Aodhan: You said you had been around many offices, so what about these young people that are a part of Headliners, has anything surprised you, what were your first impressions, how did you feel and how does the work have an impact?

Fiona: I did a bit of a consultancy with Headliners when I first came in contact with young people as I mentioned before, and the group I first came into contact with also interviewed me when I became the Director (as most people that come to work at Headliners are). Obviously, I found it quite scary, but also interesting as they were asking me questions, but I was able to ask them questions about why it was they got involved with Headliners and what impact it had had.

I’ve had similar conversations with other people over the years and I think quite often the young people who get involved are sometimes slightly outsiders in their own communities, it might be because they are shy. It might be because they are interested in different things than other young people, all sorts of different reasons and I think they find a sense of belonging at Headliners as well as improving in their confidence in particular communications skills. The programme that’s delivered by Headliners and the staff that deliver it, are a really key part in young people’s growing up and transition into adult hood. I think the programme as delivered and the staff that deliver it are key. That’s always the information we get back from young people who have taken part.

Aodhan: Throughout your career personally what’s your biggest achievement?

Fiona: Well I think it would be at Headliners. Achievement is a funny thing. I think the fact that Headliners has been able so many young people over the years and continues to be able to support young people is a great achievement, buts it not down to me, it’s down to the young people themselves.

As you know we put great store by the fact that we involved young people in decision making, the strategy that we have has been shaped by young people as well as staff and trustees and partners that we work with so the achievement is enabling us is  to be able to involve all stakeholders and young people and everyone else in Headliners and being able to continue to progress as an organisation and offer our programme and to be able to do that in a sustainable way now. Obviously, we’ve had ups and downs financially. It’s not easy being a small voluntary organisation, but we’ve managed to get the funding that we need at the right time so be able to offer a continuous service to young people which I guess that would be my biggest achievement but it’s not just down to me, it’s down to all the young people and the staff, the partners, the funders everybody that we work with and we’re still going strong.     

Aodhan: Absolutely, what a great achievement. Headliners is doing great stuff definitely. So, what would be your message to the young people and the Headliners staff.

Fiona: So, my message to the Headliners young people would be believe in yourself. You’ve all got great talents even if you’re not sure what they are yet, you’ll find them, you’ll identify them with the support of our staff you’ll be able to achieve whatever you want to achieve, not just in career terms or money terms, it’s about finding out what interested you and excites you and making sure that you get your voice out there and heard. I don’t just mean through the media products you might produce, but also in your own communities, in your own lives, in your families, just make sure you keep having yourself heard.

To staff, please just keep supporting the young people in the way that you do. I know the staff work so hard and it can be very demanding work. I know we have to achieve lots of different things as part of funding and as part of what we want to do to help the young people but please just keep on supporting young people. When you hear all the stories of the young people who have come through the Headliners programme and the fantastic things they have gone on to achieve personally, it is testament to the staff and all the hard work they put in. So thank you!

Thank you to the young people and thank you to the staff and it’s been a real privilege to work with so many talented staff and so many interesting young people, fantastic young people over the years.

Aodhan: So now that you are leaving, what is your plan for the future and what are you looking forward to most after you leave?

Fiona: Well I am going to have a little bit of a rest! Immediately my plan had been to watch lots of sport on TV but that’s not going to happen at the moment given the circumstances (ed.CONVID-19) so I’m going to have a bit of rest and that my house is spring cleaned and that the small garden that I’ve got is sorted out so those are the immediate plans. I obviously can’t look too far ahead but I do hope to do some travelling in the future. But then I’d just like to get involved in some local projects. I live in South West London, so I just want to get involved in local projects and hope to support some local charities on a voluntary basis and yeah, keep myself busy, do a bit of campaigning and that kind of thing!

Aodhan: Well thanks a lot Fiona, that’s us done now.

Fiona: Thank you very much Aodhan that’s great.

Aodhan: You did a very good interview!

Fiona: Thank you. I don’t like being interviewed! I’m a journalist by trade but I’d prefer to be doing the interviewing … so thank you – you were an excellent interviewer!

Interview by Aodhan Roberts, 17 from Foyle 

Photo picturing Fiona along with a variety of young people, staff and trustees at the time taken at a Headliners Conference back in 2007.