A CHAT WITH: RISHI JAIN, LIVERPOOL FC

Ahead of the start of this year’s Rainbow Laces campaign, we sat down for a chat with Rishi Jain, LFC’s Senior Manager for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I), to talk about the club’s plans for Rainbow Laces week, supporting the LGBT+ community and the club’s vision to make Anfield a safe and welcoming place for everyone.

Hi Rishi! You started your current role with LFC in June, but your work with the club goes back a long way, can you tell us a bit more?

I rejoined the club in June 2021 after an eight-year stint away. I actually started my career at the football club at the age of 14, as a volunteer for the LFC Foundation, so we do have a long history together. I spent a number of years working with the foundation, leading some of their programmes, until I was asked to take over on Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (ED&I), for the Club, which I did for a couple of years before moving on to work for Kick it Out, where I managed the relationship they had with 72 football league clubs for about three years.

The role there was to bring them all to the same standards and achieve the same framework. It was a challenging but really rewarding role, because you’d be working with some businesses who had five full time members of staff and some who had 300 +, but we were all working towards the same thing. After that, I went to Manchester United to head up ED&I for the Club, It was a great place to work and, from an ED&I perspective, we had the chance to talk on some of the biggest issues. We did some really positive work under the ‘All Red, All Equal’ banner and we were privileged to pick up a number of awards around that work, which is something that I’m really proud of.

So, what was it that brought you back to Liverpool and LFC?

The opportunity came up and it was great timing for me. There’s lots to build on in this role and the Club has been making great strides in this area. We’re working towards making LFC the best it can be  as an organisation, but also to use the influence that we have as a football club to work closely with our local, national and international communities and drive forward the agenda around ED&I. The fact that I am able to do that for the club that I worked with all those years ago, where I started my career, which is a great opportunity.

What does your new role entail, on a day-to-day basis?

I always explain my role in two ways. Internally, it’s about people, policies and culture: ensuring that equality, diversity and inclusion is embedded into absolutely everything that we do, across all areas of the business. As a football club, diversity has been present throughout every stage of LFC’s history, as it has in our city as well. My job is about always having our values at the forefront of our mind and ensuring that we stand by them and live them. In many ways, because of our history, that’s not a difficult task. It’s just part of what we do. But it’s my job to move us into a position where we can talk to even more topics with authenticity and credibility. Externally, it’s about shouting about the work we do and the partnerships we have, but also ensuring that we’re talking to things that are real to our employees and our supporters as well. It’s also vital that whatever we talk to externally, we activate internally.

What challenges have you faced in your new role?

This isn’t a challenge as such, but I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve inherited a lot of good work. What I’m really focused on is making sure that I wrap my arms around that legacy and do my best to continue it, to get it right. I want to make sure we know why we’re saying yes to things, why we are involved in certain things. Rather than doing 10 things, it’s about doing five things brilliantly. We do have passion and there are so many people who want to work with us, but we have to focus on what is best for the club, the people we work and partner with, and our supporters. That’s probably the biggest challenge that we’ve got – harnessing our passion and that drive to do more things. It’s making sure that instead of pulling in many different directions, we can all pull together in the same direction. And that’s how we’ll see change.

What have been the highlights of your first six months in your new role?

Firstly, it’s our employees. We’ve got passion internally and it really makes my job really easy, in a way, because I’m not selling it to people – they just want to do it. We have five networks in the business now, a super committed group of people who want to drive forward our ED&I work and are willing to take on responsibility to help do that and make sure we’re all pointing in the same direction.

Another one was when Jurgen Klopp sat down with Paul Amann from our LGBT+ supporter group, Kop Outs, to discuss the incident of homophobic chanting at Norwich City in August. It’s great to have your most visible senior leader talk to a topic, which is so delicate and for whatever reason seen as controversial. To see him talk through these issues with that level of authenticity and intelligence, that was brilliant for me. Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold did something similar for Black History Month. Their ability and willingness to sit down and just have those conversations highlights that they actually care about it, and so do our staff. Yeah, they might stumble across a word or two, but that’s fine, because that shows that it’s real.

Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign starts again this month. How will the club be supporting it?

The Rainbow Laces campaign comes under our ‘Red Together’ umbrella, which encompasses all our ED&I work. The campaign starts on 23rd November and we’re dedicating our first men’s and women’s home games to it. For the men’s first team that will be November 27th versus Southampton, and we’ll be confirming the women’s game in coming days. We’ll be showing support through LED Boards, handshake boards, referees wearing laces and our captains Jordan Henderson and Niamh Fahey will be wearing their rainbow captain’s bands again. We’re also really lucky that a number of our players will also choose to show support in other ways too, whether that’s on their own channels or by wearing laces.

We’ll also be doing work with our women’s team to showcase their support for LGBT+ people both inside and outside of football. The theme this year is ‘Lace Up and Speak Up’, which lends itself really nicely to our approach as a club. It’s not just about wearing the laces; it’s about speaking up and saying why you’re wearing them. It supports our message around allyship, making sure that everything we do is about including people and encouraging them to be their authentic selves, whether that’s on or off the pitch.

Last month, Josh Cavallo came out, making him the only out gay player in men’s professional football. What impact do you think this will have on inclusion and equality in the sport?

I think we all recognised the importance of that moment when we saw Josh come out, and you could see in his video that it was difficult to do. But the reaction that he got afterwards says everything about how far we have come. We put out messages on our channels supporting him, so did a few of our players, and you saw that across the entire league, and sponsors did the same too. It’s brilliant, and it just shows that the whole industry is a much more inclusive place than it once was. It was a really nice moment and I understand why it was a landmark moment for people to have an openly gay football in a professional league. But for me the most important thing is that we create an environment – both on and off the pitch – where people can be exactly who they want to be.

What are your big aims for 2022 and beyond, in your role?

That will be progressing and enhancing the ‘Red Together’ message and developing initiatives, like the online portal we launched to allow our supporters to report incidents of online abuse and discrimination directly to the club and to the Premier League. That’s been really successful. I’ve actually been hugely encouraged by the fact that our supporters will report incidents of discriminating behaviour and other actions that are not in line with our values. We can then take action, where possible. Our fans are also confidently using the portal to report things that they see at the ground, which shows that it works. For me, that’s exactly what we want. The more messages we can push out around the importance of challenging discrimination and showing our values through ‘Red Together’ is vital. I want to really make sure that it becomes an identity for our football club, employees and our supporters, something that people actually look at and go, I know exactly what that stands for. I know I can come out and be who I want and have the full backing of my club. More importantly I want it to become a behavioural trait rather than a campaign, so that will be a big focus over the next year or so.

LCR Pride Foundation’s theme this year “From Now On” is activism focused. What do you pledge to change “from now on?”

I suppose it’s not a new thing because it’s in the fabric of what we do, but from now on we will continue the fight against discrimination and make sure that we are able to do everything within our power, as a football club, to make people feel welcome at Anfield, whether you’re here as an employee, as a visiting supporter, or as a player. I think that that’s probably the best pledge, because that’s what we want to do.