Sandra Samuel’s journey has been a tough one but the home maker, mother of four, foster parent and award-winning diversity manager has overcome all hurdles and is on a mission to ‘change mindsets, empower and motivate’.
I was born in Jamaica, the second eldest out of eight – five brothers and one birth sister, as well as an unofficial adopted sister. We grew up in a little village and always had extended family coming over to visit.
My grandmother would welcome everyone into our home; some stayed long term, others short term. So it is not a surprise I’m in the field of fostering - it’s like a trait in the family, looking after and nurturing other people’s children. My current husband and I have fostered probably ten or 11 children long term, 15 when you include respite care.
I left Jamaica when I was 17 and came to England with my first husband. I was quite young but I thought I had the love of my life. We were childhood sweethearts. We then started a family and had my first daughter at 18, then my second daughter at 20.
It was tough leaving home at such a young age, but when you are in love nothing else matters. It was also tough and terrifying moving to a different country where the weather was nothing like I had ever experienced in all my life. To show my naivety, I remember when I came here I had flat shoes on with no tights, so I was really cold.
We were given a three-bedroomed property in Hackney where we stayed with my two sister-in-laws. It was so hard for us. We could not afford to buy individual beds so we bought a double bed and shared it. I remember me and my ex-husband sleeping on the bed base and my two sister-in-laws sleeping on the mattress. At one point it was so cold I used the hairdryer to warm up underneath the blanket.
With two young children we had to juggle child care so my ex-husband worked in the day and I worked at McDonald’s in the evening. There were times when I really wanted to go home because I missed my family. My ex-husband had lots of family here but I still felt out of place and isolated.
But I am a homemaker and try to keep families together, so I would have people coming over, his family coming over. We would have barbecues. That’s me! Bringing people and communities together even when I don’t realise it!
Things got even tougher for me though. I fell pregnant with my third daughter (whom I gave the second name of Bridget, meaning ‘strong’) but I lived with the threat of miscarriage throughout and was bed ridden for much of it. This was after having a hysterectomy following the birth of my second daughter and being told I would never get pregnant again.
After giving birth my relationship was still rocky so I got a really good contract to work as a manager for McDonald’s. I then decided to take the children back home to Jamaica so that I could get support from my family.
We spend one year in Jamaica but my second daughter hated it, hated Jamaica – the upbringing is stricter over there, here they had more freedom. She rebelled and told her dad she wanted to come back. I gave up my job in Jamaica. I decided, well, I’m not living without my children so I’ll go home to the UK. I considered it my home by then as I had built the foundation.
When I came back I decided I was going to college so I did a foundation course. I remember this woman saying I wasn’t university material. I never challenged her – I wasn’t that confident to challenge – but, looking back – what is ‘university material’? Straight away she was putting me down and, you know, you tell me something I can’t do and I’ll show you I can do it.
So I got into university and graduated with a degree in social work studies and during that time I had walked out on my husband, taken my children and ended up on a blow up bed in a one bedroom flat. Then I got my second flat and met my second husband.
I liked the fact my Diploma of Higher Education covered youth and community work because I love people and supporting young people. Social work has a lot of red tape, informal education has no red tape – so you learn through play, through conversation, through challenge – I got into it and loved it – so I worked for the youth service at Hackney, worked at YMCA and then I came down to Wiltshire to visit my cousin.
My future husband and I wanted a change out of London. It was a massive change. We only looked at one property and it was nice and big enough for the family so we decided we were going to buy it.
I applied for a job as a youth participation worker at Bristol City Council then went for a job at Wiltshire Council. I went for a job three times to be youth work manager, and on the third time they recognised my face – they looked at me and said ‘oh you’ve applied for a few jobs’ and I said ‘yeah, and if I don’t get this one I’m going to come back again and again and again’. During my time there I revamped a youth centre and we went from having about 12 people go to around 100 or so attending.
Later I went for the role of positive action officer at Wiltshire Police. One of my doubts was we were very anti-police – in the first two months in Wiltshire we were racially profiled. My current husband was a door supervisor. There was an altercation where he worked, he was the only black man and so he was racially profiled because of his background and history during the ‘sus’ laws.
We live in a middle class community and 11 police officers came and searched our house. They questioned us about how we were able to afford to buy our home and told us that the car we were driving was not good enough for us and we should consider selling it.
People often ask me why I am working for the police – my response is that I accepted the role in policing because I wanted to change the mindset for my children and my grandchildren. I don’t want them to go through the things my husband and I experienced.
I felt I can make a difference and if we all take a step we will make that difference but when we shy away and say ‘policing is racist’ then we have to ask what are we going to do about it? We were always on the outside looking in so how about getting inside and making the change on the inside.
When certain things happen, like child Q, it has a massive impact. I’m not just dealing with protected characteristics I’m thinking of myself as a black woman – those things knock you for six.
I think things are progressing – it’s a very slow pace but we are progressing.
You look at our figures in Gloucestershire and we do have more people from diverse backgrounds applying. We are making a difference even though sometimes it’s hard to see.
My biggest frustration right now is trying to get people to recognise and apply ‘diversity and inclusion first aid’. It’s like checking someone’s blood pressure, breathing. When you apply those principles to mental health you may find out when our diverse workforce is feeling deflated and why that is. We’re on this hamster wheel all the time and we’re getting worn out. It’s good supportive leadership and it’s about keeping people in the organisation. It’s also about progression because if you’re checking in you’ll find out where people are and where they want to get to in their career.
Reverse mentoring is my one of proudest achievements, which is something we delivered in Wiltshire Police and has now been embraced here. This is the reversal of the traditional mentoring model where the more senior individual takes on the mentee role to gain fresh insight. Those from under-represented groups share their journey – that might mean explaining what it is to be a Muslim for instance, how that impacts someone’s life, how they do their job. The mentee gets to understand what that person has been through, developing empathy and changing their attitude but then influencing change in the organisation. The mentees are in a position to change policy and make sure the workforce understands difference.
I enjoy what I do. I love people and once we get into this mindset of treating people with humanity then I think we’re in a better world.