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Transcript: Episode 6 – Sharmila Kar
Vic T – Host: 00:00
This is the strong Manchester Women podcast, a series of inspiring conversations with the change makers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who make our city and beyond a better place to live, work and play. Now, Manchester has a history of very strong women, women who are forces to be reckoned with, women who push the envelope, start movements, smashed glass ceilings, stand up for their rights and turn the wheels of progress. So join me, you’ll host Vic Elizabeth Turnbull as I speak to these women, women who you may not have heard of before, the underground heroes who are changing lives and making a lasting impact in our communities.
Vic T – Host: 01:08 So in this episode I speak to,
Sharmila Kar: 01:13 My name is Sharmila Kar. I am the Director of workforce and organisational development for Manchester Health and Care commissioning.
Vic T – Host: 01:23 And we talk about inspirations,
Sharmila Kar: 01:24 my grandmother was a very inspirational woman, when I’m ninety nine, I want to be like her.
Vic T – Host: 01:30 Feeling isolated,
Sharmila Kar: 01:31 If you’re not plugged in and you don’t know where those support groups are, you don’t know where to look. Particularly coming from India, I didn’t know where to where to go for my support.
Vic T – Host: 01:40 Finding your tribe,
Sharmila Kar: 01:42 I remember the first time at Canal Street, I thought it died and gone to heaven cause ‘oh my God, there’s people like me here!’.
Vic T – Host: 01:50 and much more.
Vic T – Host: 01:52 I speak to Sharmila in her office at Manchester Health and care commissioning just outside the city centre.
Vic T – Host: 02:00 So tell me more about the moment that you found out that you’d been selected as one of this year’s Manchester strong women.
Sharmila Kar: 02:08 I was really quite honoured and privileged to be asked.
Vic T – Host: 02:10 What characteristics do you think a role model has?
Sharmila Kar: 02:15 I think it’s, it’s different for different people, but I think for me in terms of what I look for in a role model is somebody who is honest, somebody who has integrity, somebody particularly for women, somebody who leads the way and you know, puts a ladder up for other women to get to places and doesn’t pull the rug from under your feet. Somebody who’s funny, you know, has a sense of humour, you you need a bit of that. Particularly in the climate that we’re in nowadays.
Sharmila Kar: 02:44 Somebody who’s ethical, somebody who has principles, somebody who believes in justice and human rights, somebody who I can look up to…
Vic T – Host: 02:51 Just to turn it on its head. Do you consider yourself a role model?
Sharmila Kar: 02:54 I’ve never thought of myself in those sorts of… In that light, a close friend of mine who I went to school with, she lives in Canada now. She once said to me that she role models herself on me and that you just follow the same career path. And I was really quite touched, but I don’t, I don’t see myself as a, as a role model. I don’t think it’s just something doesn’t come naturally to me. And there’s something about role models being able to inspire as well. So I think that’s really important.
Vic T – Host: 03:21 Who inspires you?
Sharmila Kar: 03:29
I found that incredibly inspiring. The reason it was an inspiring, first of all, it was two black women talking to each other, which you don’t see in public that often. The conversation was very down to earth, but they were really talking about some really important issues around, you know, what it is like to be a woman in the world today, woman and work or you know, a famous woman, but a woman of colour. Women generally who have inspired, my grandmother was, is another very inspirational, was a very inspirational woman. She lived to the age of 99 independently. She only moved into a nursing home six weeks before she died. And she was a force to be reckoned with, but incredibly generous, incredibly progressive and incredibly funny. She’s another woman who,I think, when I’m 99, I want to be like her full of beans, inspirational, living independently.
Sharmila Kar: 04:21 Over the years there’s been different… it depends on which stage in my life I’ve been throughout that, that journey, different women have inspired me.
Vic T – Host: 04:29 I like that from Michelle Obama to grandma. That’s so lovely,
Sharmila Kar: 04:32 Two very different women. my grandmother was a northern working class woman from Bolton. Grew up during the war, really inspirational and I remember her very fondly.
Vic T – Host: 04:47 That’s how you, I suppose when we all go we want to be remembered fondly that way.
Sharmila Kar: 04:52 Absolutely.
Vic T – Host: 04:53 And it’s the seeds we plant now.
Sharmila Kar: 04:54 Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Sharmila Kar: 04:56 And so it’s when during the course of work and I sometimes run training sessions and people say, ‘oh, well, so and so’s too old to accept gay marriage or whatever’. I say, ‘well, my grandmother was 99 and she didn’t have a problem with me. She came to my civil partnership.’ I don’t believe that it’s an age thing. I think it’s something. else.
Vic T – Host: 05:13 That’s a great examples as well,
Sharmila Kar: 05:16 But the other influence for me in terms of my own thinking has be my partner because we come from very different backgrounds. She does challenge me quite a bit or has challenged me quite a bit on my own thinkings.
Vic T – Host: 05:26 When you were little, you don’t have to tell me how long ago that was…
Sharmila Kar: 05:29 A while ago!
Vic T – Host: 05:31 What did you want to be when you grew up?
Sharmila Kar: 05:34 I wanted to be a train driver. I was fascinated by trains. I think it was about 10 when my grandmother bought me this really…one of those motorised train sets. I just loved the idea of being able to steer one of those forward. So that’s something I did toy with. But growing up in India as a girl, that’s not a profession that you aspire to and that was soon knocked on the head.
Vic T – Host: 05:57 Do you still love a good train?
Sharmila Kar: 05:59 I do love train journeys. I love train journeys. I think it’s a great way to see the world.
Sharmila Kar: 06:03 But I never really gave it that much thought. I’ve meandered through life, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do.
Vic T – Host: 06:08 I think for most of us listening to this podcast. We’ve all felt a little bit like we’ve meandered through so many aspects of our life, whether it’s been a little meander or a big meander! As with most of the Strong Manchester Women in this podcast. I want to dig a little deeper to see if there’s any clues in Sharmila’s past that have helped lay the path to where she is now.
Sharmila Kar: 06:37
So it’s something I think my parents have instilled in me. I think growing up in India where the poverty is so in your face that you, it’s not like here where it’s much more subtle. It’s just by the grace of God that, I wasn’t born into poverty. I was, you know, I was born out of poverty. That enabled me to do what I wanted to do. So I think growing up it’s always been something that I’ve been passionate about. I also grew up, particularly my dad, we were always a very politicised family. To this day we have,arguments about politics. I grew up with that ability to have the debate, have the discourse, talk about stuff. So I think that’s been part and parcel of my childhood. I think also growing up in India, it’s a very, particularly in West Bengal, politics plays a really, really important part.
Sharmila Kar: 07:27
So I think that’s in your DNA. The Bengali community of a well known for pontificating, but also having debates around politics has really, it’s a key part of how you grow up. That’s been there with me the right throughout my childhood. I’ve always been interested in history. So my degree was in history and I think one of the advantages of growing up in India, you get a much broader perspective of the world where there’s, I think perhaps being schooled in, in Britain or Europe, you get very Eurocentric view of the world and I think that really helped. And the other bit, growing up in India, particularly around the anti apartheid movement in South Africa, that was very prominent in India in terms of India was a big ally of the ANC. So that was part of the debate as well. I think that the politics of India, the history, the colonisation, you grow up with that. So I think you do come, you do grow up with a different mindset. I don’t think you can easily switch off from it. I don’t you can here. And I think people shouldn’t, when you switch off, I think it’s dangerous.
Vic T – Host: 08:25 It’s interesting how people and place can influence your path.
Sharmila Kar: 08:29 Very much, you’re right, it’s very much linked to place.
Vic T – Host: 08:35 And also as well, obviously it’s the political climate as well.
Sharmila Kar: 08:37 Exactly.
Vic T – Host: 08:37 All the ‘P’s’.
Sharmila Kar: 08:41 I think we have a duty to challenge in the climate that we’re currently in, because I think people forget history and if you’re not careful, you see history repeating itself and not in the best way. So I think have even more of a duty now to, to raise issues and challenge stuff. It’s, it’s very close to my heart that you have to keep up the good fight.
Vic T – Host: 09:03 So being young and being outspoken, I presume that you were…
Sharmila Kar: 09:07 I was, yes.
Vic T – Host: 09:09 That takes confidence, doesn’t it? So were you quite a confident young girl looking back now?
Sharmila Kar: 09:15 I think I was, we were quite unique because, I was born and brought up in India, but I grew up in a mixed race household. My Dad’s Indian, my mother’s English, she’s a Lancashire lass from Bolton who married my father here in Britain.
Sharmila Kar: 09:29
And then they both went over to India in the 60’s, so we were quite unique growing up. And I think my mother’s quite a matriarch, so we were never brought up to be second class. So there was three girls and me and my 2 sisters. In a way, my mother was that role model again because I think going from the UK to India where she was a minority but almost like a reverse minority, but in a very male dominated society, she really had to make her voice heard. And I think we, we role model that. So we were never told to be quiet as children or not allowed to express our opinion. And I think that gave us the confidence. So I’ve never thought about it. But if you reflect on it now, I must have been quite confident to be able to speak out.
Sharmila Kar: 10:13 It got me into trouble because I went to a Roman Catholic school run by the nuns and speaking out doesn’t get you any brownie points! So it did cause trouble sometimes, but at the same time, whilst I was outspoken, I was also quite conformist.
Vic T – Host: 10:28 I asked that question because it’s very easy for us where we are now, to tell people to speak up and to tell people to use their voice. One of the problems is people don’t know how or think that ‘I won’t be listened to’.
Sharmila Kar: 10:40 Or people don’t feel empowered to. I reflect back now, the conditions particularly in our household was such that we were empowered. Particularly for girls. I think it’s different here, and things are changing in India, but particularly for girls, you’re not meant to be outspoken.
Sharmila Kar: 11:02 We were the exception rather than the norm. Both me and both my sisters, we were all quite outspoken.
Vic T – Host: 11:10 And what are they doing now?
Sharmila Kar: 11:12 They’re both teachers. So we’re all in public service and I think we’ve all chosen to be in public service. My parents are both in the medical profession or were, they’ve retired now. I certainly made a conscious decision to do public service, and I wouldn’t change that.
Vic T – Host: 11:29 Has there been tangents along the way?
Sharmila Kar: 11:31 Sometimes, I used to say by the age of 30, I want to be X, Y and Z. But I think in terms of the way I’ve got to where I’ve got to, it’s been a linear path. I think some of it, I’ve been lucky, some of it’s been circumstance, some of it’s been place, opportunity.
Sharmila Kar: 11:45 But I think I made a decision early on in my career that I knew that I wanted to work in the public sector. What in the sector I wasn’t sure of.
Vic T – Host: 11:55 What bits of public sector have you worked in?
Sharmila Kar: 11:58 I started working in the disability rights commission, which then became the human rights commission. I have worked in central government, I have worked for the not for profit sector, so I used to work for NACRO one of the largest crime reduction charities. And then for the last five and a half years I’ve been in the NHS. So it’s been varied public sector. And then I worked for myself for a bit. And then I do voluntary work as well. I’m a trustee at the LGBT foundation and I’ve done volunteering work for Amnesty International, UK. So it’s been varied but very much rooted in public service.
Vic T – Host: 12:33 Certainly one of my favourite things to explore with people who work within the public sector is to understand how they create change within the structures and bureaucracies that often present themselves with working in that sector. So I asked Sharmila,
Sharmila Kar: 12:56 If I think of what we do here, Manchester Health and Care Commissioning. We’re a an NHS organisation in partnership with the City Council. So we commission health care, health and adult social care services. Decisions we make as a commissioning organisation have a massive impact on health and population of the people in Manchester. So the decisions we make absolutely have a direct correlation to how we want to improve health and care outcomes for people in Manchester. So you can. But sometimes the public sector, it seems that like there’s this massive bureaucracy and it is you and you have to navigate your way through the bureaucracy. It’s been interesting because a lot of my jobs until I worked for the NHS, had been national roles. You almost see the impact less when you’re working nationally than you do working locally.
Vic T – Host: 13:39 And how did that leap happen? From history at Uni, to public sector?
Sharmila Kar: 13:46 You know, you asked me what, what, what I wanted to be when I grow up. If I reflect now, I think I would have done law. It’s, it’s not been a straightforward path. I did a degree in history and economics and politics and then ended up being a graduate trainee in the hotel industry, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had a friend who was working in the hotel industry and I went on holiday to see her and I thought, ‘well, this looks interesting’. I’ll do this. I did my graduate traineeship and decided it wasn’t for me, but that got me into human resources. And so it’s the human resources line that got me through the private sector, into the public sector.
Sharmila Kar: 14:23 And so I’ve done it under workforce, organisational development, inclusion, and that’s the route in.Instinctively I knew that’s where I wanted to get to. When I started out my career, I didn’t quite know how to get there. And I think it was just circumstances, where I was working for B&Q in HR and a job came up at the disability rights commission and I applied for it and I got it. And that’s been my route into the public sector. And once I was in, I knew that I didn’t want to go back to working in the private sector.
Vic T – Host: 14:55 I love how hospitality industry, B&Q, public sector. I love that.
Sharmila Kar: 15:01 Yeah. Random. It was a bit random.
Vic T – Host: 15:03 Well, these things are, aren’t they?
Sharmila Kar: 15:04 Yeah, ‘m a true believer in everything happens for a reason…
Vic T – Host: 15:07 Because I’m very nosy, I want to hear from Sharmila who helps her be her? Who does she go to for support? Who does she go to to pick her up? I went to know what Sharmila’s support network looks like.
Sharmila Kar: 15:22
Fundamentally, my partner and funnily enough, her background is equality and human rights as well, so I think we were meant to be. She’s the one who I would say is the most important person in my life in terms of not just support but challenge. I’m incredibly lucky to have her in my life and my family. Very important to me. And then my wider circle of friends who again, are a really, really supportive bunch of people and then work. I love working here. It’s hard sometimes, it’s frustrating, but I work with a really good set of people and some great colleagues. I’ve got a puppy now as well, so she keeps us well grounded.
Vic T – Host: 15:58 What’s she called?
Sharmila Kar: 15:58 She’s called Millie and she’s a little cocker spaniel.
Sharmila Kar: 16:01 It’s really important to have that support network because otherwise, you can be quite isolated. And I have had periods during my life where I have been really isolated and particularly when I was struggling with my own sexuality and growing up in India, it was really, really hard from that perspective. I only came out when I came to England. So that period of time was really a difficult time. My family were really supportive, but you’re going through your own struggles and, and there were periods and bouts of real lows.
Vic T – Host: 16:33 Did you go out to try and boost any of those support networks? Did you go and try and find people that were going through the same as you?
Sharmila Kar: 16:41 Yeah, absolutely. And that’s where I first came across the LGBT foundation where I joined them as a volunteer and just so that I could meet other people like me, because I was in a new city, very isolated.
Sharmila Kar: 16:52 You need to know where to go. Particularly if you’re not plugged in and you don’t know where those support groups are, you don’t know where to look. Particularly coming from India, I didn’t know where to go for my support. The first port of call was my family, but there are things that you can’t talk to them about. The foundation work was really critical. It was many, many years ago, a good 20 odd years ago. They were incredibly helpful.
Vic T – Host: 17:17 People talk about finding your tribe, was it like that?
Sharmila Kar: 17:21 Yeah, I remember the first time I went to Canal Street, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because it’s like, ‘oh my God, there’s people like me here’. It’s very empowering and it’s very liberating because you’re carrying all that baggage with you and then all of a sudden you think, ‘oh my God, there’s a whole world out here where you can be yourself.’
Sharmila Kar: 17:40 And this was way before any legislation was passed around employment, civil partnerships, you know, goods and service, etc. But there was still that sense of family and people with similar stories, similar experiences, and just being in an environment where you could just be yourself. I think that was the most liberating.
Vic T – Host: 18:00 That leads really great into the next question about Manchester and could you see yourself being you and doing this anywhere else?
Sharmila Kar: 18:07 I absolutely love Manchester. It is the best place I think in the world. I have lived in other parts of the UK, but those cities and smaller towns don’t offer what Manchester has. And it’s not just in terms of being out and being gay, but it’s also the diversity of being a woman of colour and the whole Manchester acceptance and vibrancy. London’s probably the only other place I think could probably offer that, but London hasn’t got the Manchester feel and the friendliness of Manchester’s. I’m biased, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I think I can call myself a Mancunian now.
Vic T – Host: 18:45 Now, while we’re on this theme of Loving Manchester, I want to know from Sharmila who are her strong Manchester women.
Sharmila Kar: 18:56 Well, I want to say Emmeline Pankhurst.
Vic T – Host: 18:58 You don’t have to say Emmeline Pankhurst!
Sharmila Kar: 18:58 Councillor Bev Craig is another role model. I think she’s great for a young LGBT woman. I think it’s great to have somebody like her, out there in the public. I worked with Jackie Driver, I think she’s amazing. We worked together when I was at the disability rights commission, she’s another activist who was got a long history of activism in Manchester.
Vic T – Host: 19:22 It’s full of strong women, isn’t it?
Sharmila Kar: 19:23 Yeah, it’s the history. It’s littered with the first of so many things. It’s got a real history in terms of disability rights, a real history in terms of women’s rights, real history in terms of trade unionism.
Vic T – Host: 19:35 It’s a city of people power and revolution.
Sharmila Kar: 19:37 Absolutely. We’re discovering Manchester every day and I think Manchester downplays it, in terms of its history. They’re very, u, what’s the word?
Vic T – Host: 19:46 Modest.
Sharmila Kar: 19:47 That’s it. Yeah. Really modest about it.
Vic T – Host: 19:49 There’s some bits of its history it doesn’t downplay, like it’s music.
Sharmila Kar: 19:54 Yes. Yes. And unfortunately I wasn’t in Manchester during the heydays of the Hacienda, which that’s something I do regret not being around for.
Vic T – Host: 20:02 Did you make up for it though?
Sharmila Kar: 20:04 I did. I did. Definitely.
Sharmila Kar: 20:06 It’s difficult to pick and choose to be honest and that’s why I think I like living here. You’re kind of part of that history and is there with you all the time. You just have to walk around the city centre. It’s out and proud, which I love about Manchester.
Vic T – Host: 20:21 Now moving on from Manchester, if we may, Sharmila’s involved in so much stuff from her day job to her volunteering work. I’m interested to hear how she manages to look after herself on top of all that. Does she strike a good work life balance?
Sharmila Kar: 20:41 I try and switch off when I’m at home, so for example, I, unless I’m on call, I don’t do emails in the evening, unless it’s something urgent. I do a lot of health and wellbeing, so have massages, do yoga. I’m not as fit as I should be. I’m trying to get fit and lose some weight and at weekends as well are trying to make sure that we do some nice things at the weekends. So or just sometimes you don’t just don’t do anything.
Vic T – Host: 21:02 What do you do this weekend?
Sharmila Kar: 21:04 We went to Anglesey for the weekend, it was lovely. I do a lot of things outside of work. Theatre, cinema, read. I try and balance my working life and try not to get too worked up about work.
Vic T – Host: 21:18 I bet that’s taken awhile?
Sharmila Kar: 21:20 Yeah. But I’ve got much better at it as I’ve got older.
Sharmila Kar: 21:24
I do remember particularly when I was working for Nacro and I was commuting between Manchester and Birmingham and Manchester and London work wise, it was really hard to get that work life balance and y doing, working in the evenings, working on the weekends, I wouldn’t do that again. Your life outside of work is your life and I think it’s really important to have that balance. And that I always say to my team as well, just because I’m sending an email at nine o’clock at night, it does not mean you have to respond to me. And so there’s no pressure. But I think looking after both your physical and mental health is really important. Walking is also great. That’s why I like going to Alexandra Park. I love that place.
Vic T – Host: 21:57 I’ve actually never been. I’ve lived here for 15 years.
Sharmila Kar: 22:02 You’ve never been to Alexandra Park? You haven’t lived!
Vic T – Host: 22:05 I know, I need to go!
Sharmila Kar: 22:08 It’s a real community space. It’s lovely. It’s one of my favourite parks.
Vic T – Host: 22:12 So you were saying that there’s been good times and there’s been dips and there’s been, there’s been low times. How do you pick yourself back up? Is there anything that you do now that you’ve learned from in the past?
Sharmila Kar: 22:21 Talking to people helps. It really does. Sounding people out, getting some advice. I have been to counselling before, which has helped and I’m not ashamed to talk about it cause I think the more people talk about it, the easier it is. So sometimes you need that additional kind of help to pick yourself up. So I try all sorts of things and at the end of the day only you can change some of that stuff.
Vic T – Host: 22:42 Have you ever been held back because of your gender? I think it’s a related issue. I think I’ve been held back because remember you asked me you need were you quite a confident kid and I think yes, but I also have a lot of self doubt and I think that’s held me back quite a bit actually.
Vic T – Host: 23:00
There are times when I just think I’m not good enough. I can’t believe I’m not being found out. The whole impostor syndrome, and I know people are talking about it and I think that is gendered. I think women experience it more than men do. So I can’t pinpoint say, ‘that’s held me back because I’m a woman’. But I do know that there are spaces where you’re acutely aware you’re a woman and you have to really assert yourself to be heard more so in the workplace and then you get labelled as being aggressive and all those, you have to be twice as good. I was talking to my partner about this and it’s almost like you carry that weight on your shoulders because you don’t want to let the side down, so therefore you, you want to be twice as good. Whether you’re a woman, you’re gay woman, you’re a BME woman, it’s all those layers and then because the minute you’re not, people will say, ‘oh, she’s not good enough’.
Sharmila Kar: 23:54
And I think women get it a hell of a lot more than men do. I think you have to be twice as good because you’d get judged very quickly whether you like it or not. When you get into kind of positions where you have the ability to influence, then I think with that comes responsibility and it’s when people say, people in the public world said, well ‘I don’t want to be a role model’. I say, it’s not a question whether you want to or you don’t want to, by virtue of the fact that you’re in the public eye, you are seen as a role model and therefore you have to carry that with you. And I’m not saying I’m in that league, but I do feel a responsibility to almost be able to fly the flag and be able to open doors and it’s a responsibility and sometimes it’s exhausting. I do wonder whether, had I been a man, what more could I have achieved? But the self doubt, I think that has, that has held me back at times.
Vic T – Host: 24:51 I’m sure you’re listening to this and thinking, oh my God, me too. So many of us are riddled with self doubt and so many of us suffer from impostor syndrome. It’s almost refreshing to hear other people talk about it, isn’t it? And it’s not just in our heads. When nearing to the close of the interview and from the negativity of self doubt, I want to turn things onto a positive and look to celebration and find out what Sharmila thinks her biggest achievement is. And it actually takes Sharmila a while to think of an answer for this question.
Vic T – Host: 25:33 Tell me about the biggest achievement…
Vic T – Host: 25:39 Is it hard to answer because you don’t know or that there’s lots?
Sharmila Kar: 25:39 Well it depends how you class achievement, isn’t it? I think one of the proudest things I’ve been very proud of myself, is when I got appointed to the board of Amnesty International UK. It was competitive. I was incredibly honoured to be asked to sit on the board. I was actually quite shocked that they’d asked me and I’d been selected. It’s such an incredible organisation and talk about who inspires you. That’s a movement that inspires me, because it is a movement of like minded people. It’s a worldwide movement of volunteers fighting for justice and human rights.
Vic T – Host: 26:23 That’s huge isn’t it? No wonder you were so chuffed.
Sharmila Kar: 26:23 I was really chuffed. When you walk into their headquarters in London, you just feel it.
Vic T – Host: 26:33 Wow.
Vic T – Host: 26:34 Thank you so much.
Sharmila Kar: 26:41 Thank-you.
Vic T – Host: 26:44 This podcast is inspired by the annual strong Manchester women campaign. The campaign celebrates the achievements and impacts of a bunch of incredible women doing brilliant things. The 14 women profiled in this series were selected for the 2019 campaign. To find out more about all of the women featured in this podcast and the campaign go to Pankhurst Trust dot org. There’s also full transcript of this episode available for you to read at Mic media dot co dot uk forward slash strong Manchester Women podcast and you’ll find loads more information about the podcast and the campaign on there too. We’d also love to hear what you think about stories that we’ve shared with you. Who are your strong Manchester Women? Anything, connect with us on Twitter using the Hashtag Strong MCR Women. Big thanks to Manchester City Council and the Pankhurst Trust for supporting this podcast series. And a big thanks to Sharmila. The podcast is made possible through the Centenary City’s Legacy Fund. The Strong Manchester Women podcast is a MIC media production, and is presented, purchased and edited by me, Vic Elizabeth Turnbull. For more information, visit MIC media dot co dot UK.
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