Report – Opening Keynote with Lemn Sissay MBE

Posted on: Tuesday 05 July 2016 10:00pm by Tracy Warren

The keynote kicked off with changemaker Jess Thom, who had the audience in fits of laughter as she talked about the importance of inclusion and the power of media in changing perception. Lemn Sissay followed this with a powerful, challenging and thought-provoking talk that ended with a standing ovation.


  • Children’s media is a big part of influencing social change to build a more inclusive world.
  • Think openly about the potential of broader stories and connect creating richer and more dynamic programming.
  • Move your personal and professional goals closer together and see what happens.
  • Take action together and encourage diversity of thought.


Jess Thom opened the keynote session with a challenge to society to think differently about the frequently misunderstood condition of Tourettes, and increasing opportunities for those experiencing the condition to build a more inclusive society.

She decided to use her tics as a power to be creative and make change, and share humour to increase knowledge, resources and increase legislation. She cited recent research done by Scope, which found that 67% of the British public felt uncomfortable talking to disabled people – clearly a situation that has no place in our society and which highlights a gap that needs to be bridged.

Jess also said that this disconnect between the real world and what we see on TV sends out a message that if you do not see yourself reflected in programmes, you are unlikely to think this avenue is a possibility for you. Non-disabled actors are receiving praise for playing disabled roles so it is not a time to be complacent or waste talent or ability. This represents a financial and social risk and increased visibility of difference will break down assumptions.

She told delegates that the work they do is an opportunity for them to create an inclusive society – and don’t leave it to politicians and people wearing capes!


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Lemn Sissay delivered an electric keynote

Lemn Sissay gripped the audience with the stories of his life experiences. He said he was 10 years old when he first met a black person. As he peered at Floella Benjamin on TV he realised for the first time that he really mattered. A poet, playwright, broadcaster and Chancellor of Manchester University, Lemn spends time organising special days for people who grew up in care and also visiting schools to open up young minds to the world of opportunity.

In his unique style, Lemn went on to tell the audience about the value of children who are “outsiders” – the foster children. Dickens saw it  and children’s writers have seen and exploited the gap in society for their stories.  And children have extraordinary powers and resilience – young people in care use extraordinary resources to survive, not dissimilar to some of our heroes. He cited a long list of children who have been fostered or adopted in literature. Cinderella, James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Annie, Batman, Harry Potter, Supeerman to name a few. But strangely people don’t seem to connect these powerful stories with the real ives of children in the care system now.  But these superheroes  are living proof that anything is possible,and they also prove that dysfunction is part of every family.

It took Lemn from the age of 18 to 32 to find his family. Each professional and personal success he had was like a nail in his coffin. Because he had nobody to share it with, no point of reference. This is one of the many privileges of family that we take for granted.

His message to our industry was that we can create opportunities for children and young adults to relate to real characters and situations so that there is more empathy in society.

He said it is not about political correctness but about the truth – making better shows and a better society by including people of all races and abilities. The act of doing it is a celebration of migration and community.

And his final thought: there are 1,100 people at CMC who have the power to innovate  and consider what we can do for the children of Britain.

Lemn’s Keynote was challenging.  Delegates left with a lot to think about as they considered what he had presented.

He didn’t provide solutions, or even rallying cries for action. It seemed that what he asked us to do was hear his stories, appreciate why he works for young people in care, understand his anger at his past and sometimes his present experience, appreciate his joy at what might be possible when people understand – especially children. And take all that away to consider: “do we care enough”?

Some delegate reactions:

  • A poetic performance to shake things up
  • Terrifying and astonishing in equal measure…
  • He didn’t offer us glib solutions. He doesn’t see that as his role…
  • It felt like it was our job to make sense of the torrent of emotions and powerful observations…
  • I need to go somewhere quiet and think about this.

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Tracy Warren

About the author

Tracy Warren

Tracy Jayne Creative, Freelancer

Tracy spends her days photographing young people and writing children’s books.  She is currently working on a long list of tv programme ideas and collaborating with others on factual impactful programming.  She has recently discovered a love of blogging, food photography, children’s fashion photography, cinematography and editing.  She has been living in… Read more