Meet Board Member Olga Stanojlovic MBE, a Director of the Big Ideas Company & Chair of the Serbian Council of Great Britain

Chair of the Serbian Council of Great Britain and one of the Directors of the Big Ideas Company, Olga Stanojlovic MBE champions intercultural dialogue and was instrumental in developing our Rivers of the World project into an international model. We caught up with her to find out more.

Hi Olga, thanks for talking to us. You’ve been a member of the board since 2010. Tell us how you got involved?

I was Director of Schools in Education at the British Council, and in the early 2000's we were approached by the Thames Festival Trust who had made contact with some of our colleagues in India about trying to internationalise the Rivers of the World project. I had a little pot of money and I used that to involve India in the first instance and then China. It was when I took early retirement from the British Council, they asked me to become a Trustee and to help particularly with the education work and internationalising the work that they were doing.

Your work at the British Council earned you a MBE, tell how us about your time there?

The British Council is the UK’s organisation for international cultural and educational opportunities. I went on a course for teachers in Hungary and then after that an opportunity became available and I joined the British Council. I worked in a variety of areas over my 30 years working there, mainly based in the UK, working on higher education links with Africa, education in schools, but also on the policy side for our work in Russia, Europe, Africa and South Asia. The great thing about the Council was that every time you started a new job there it was always going to a different geography or sector, so I was always doing something new.

So, you've probably travelled far and wide as part of your work?

Yes, I was very lucky, I went to Sudan in the early 1980’s, and I went to Tanzania to manage the British Council's programme of higher education links. I also had the privilege of going to South Africa after the end of apartheid to help develop our work with the new South Africa, and of visiting Afghanistan, after the end of the war, to see how we could use educational and cultural links to help rebuild Afghanistan.

  • Rivers of the World, Lagos
  • Rivers of the World, Vietnam
  • Rivers of the World, Sri Lanka

Why do you think international collaboration is important?

We live in a global society and Britain and its role in the world is changing, and so I think international cooperation and intercultural dialogue is really important in helping us face some of the issues and challenges. Our young people, and young people across the world need to understand the world in which they are living in and international collaboration helps them experience this and prepares them for life in the 21st century

Tell us about your work with young people?

I spent my last years at the British Council working with young people in schools and education and this was all about encouraging intercultural dialogue and educating young people to become global citizens. One of the most interesting programmes we did there was something called the Prime Minister’s Global Fellowship, which was sending people to India, China and Brazil, these emerging economies to see how things were all organised there. I think preparing young people for life and the future is really important.

Why do you think community engagement and diversity in the arts is important?

I think the Big Ideas Company and Thames Festival Trust offer programmes which bring communities together, and encourage the participation of under-represented groups in these projects, and contribute to community cohesion and social inclusion. They surface hidden stories and histories which help us understand that the UK, and especially London, has always been diverse and changing and of the contribution that new arrivals have made to the UK.

  • by Ormiston Park Academy with Michelle Colford
  • Rivers of the World, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • by Chase High School with Sally Chinea
  • Rivers of the World, Taiwan
  • by UCL Academy with Shona Watt
  • Rivers of the World, London

What sort of hidden histories have you seen discovered in Thames Festival Trust projects?

I always remember one of the Rivers of the World artworks on display which had lots of Ganeshes on it. Everyone thought when they came in that it had been done by an Indian school, but it was one of the London schools, made out of objects that had been washed up on the banks of the Thames. By doing the project they had understood something about the history of London and Britain that they hadn’t thought of, and I think that’s true of a lot of the other projects we can do and the way in which the river can be used to tell that story.

Can you tell us about some of your special river moments?

I love water, the sea and rivers, walking by the river from Kew to Richmond, but it was only in preparing for this interview that I realised how much rivers have played a big part in what I’ve done. On the Thames I think it was seeing the Rivers of the World exhibition and seeing how excited the children were to see their work represented and being looked at by the general public. Especially from those children who came from quite deprived areas and schools who were made to feel so special by the work that we had done during the project. Freezing watching the Golden Jubilee River Pageant was another unforgettable experience as was the amazing Fire Garden by Carabosse at Battersea Power Station.

I went to St Petersburg for a Christening and went on the River Neretva, I was there during the White Nights and saw the bridges opening and everything which was amazing, an experience of a lifetime.

Given my Serbian heritage another important time for me was going to Bosnia and standing on the bridge on the Drina, the focus of the book of the same name by the Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andric. Then being in Amsterdam during their annual big river festival, which has boats coming, and ships, and both naval and commercial ships and that was really good.

I also think the work the Thames Festival Trust has done has been important to me because I was born in South London, and lots of people there had never crossed the river or never even seen the river, I can always remember that and I’m always amazed. When I was working at the British Council, we discovered that some of the children that we worked with in schools had never come to the Thames even though they live quite near it. It seems to me that Totally Thames is a good means of bringing London together and widening horizons.

How would you describe the River Thames?

I think it is the heart and artery of London, and has played and will continue to play a significant role in the development of London. The River Thames tells the story of London ever changing and never changing. Totally Thames tells that story to Londoners, the wider British community and internationally.

I think given Brexit and other divisions and divides in this country, let alone internationally, it's really important for London to develop its relationship with the rest of the UK. And so I am really pleased to see the way in which the Thames Festival Trust is using the expertise it has developed to connect with other cities in the UK. I think sharing what we have learnt over the years can help heal divisions that have arisen.