If you read the latest edition of Engage, you will have seen the shorter version of the interview. Read the full interview below.
Sharon Karikari (left), interviewed Sandra Skeete (right), Peabody’s Executive Director of Customer Services.
How long have you been working at Peabody?
I joined Peabody in September 2007, almost three and a half years ago.
Why did you choose to work in housing?
I’ve been working in housing for nearly 25 years. I always knew I would be working in an area where I would be providing services to people. While I was studying I got involved in housing and planning and it really whetted my appetite and I became conscious of how important housing was to people. Bad housing affects people’s health and without housing, there are so many things you can’t do: for example, it’s difficult to get a job or hold down a relationship. When I was about to leave college, I got talking to my cousin and he was telling me about his experiences trying to access housing in London as a single black man. I found it interesting and thought that there seemed to be opportunities in that area.
If you weren’t a director, what else would you have wanted to do?
I didn’t really set out to be a director. I set out to work in housing. Architecture also interested me. I was also into art. I gave up art at A level because the course wasn’t very good but I’d like to go back to it. One day I will – I won’t leave it too late.
Also, the law interests me. Working in housing often includes some aspect of the law. For instance, you have to have an idea about the housing law that sits behind tenancy agreements. Also, you need some health and safety knowledge because of our responsibilities around the maintenance of property. So, my interests in law and architecture are not a million miles away from what I’m doing now. I can dabble in things that interest me.
Who inspires you?
For me, it’s about people with a strong sense of social justice who stand up for what they believe in. It doesn’t have to be people who are well-known, just ordinary people, though I do admire the likes of Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. For me, the first inspiration has to be my parents. I respect and admire what they have been through and sacrificed to come to this country. They suffered heaps of discrimination but they stuck with it because they knew it was the best for their children, even though they could have had a reasonable life in Barbados, where my family is from. So, for me, the fact they’ve been through all of that makes me more determined to be successful and do my bit.
The other thing that inspires me is strong women who achieve, especially those with children who have to balance a lot of different responsibilities. I have two children myself, aged 15 and 16, and I take strength from seeing other women who have achieved, sometimes against the odds. Mothers are strong people who are to be admired and respected.
What do you do in your spare time?
That’s always difficult. Having two children means I spend a lot of time with them. I still provide a taxi/chauffeur service, even though they are old enough to get around by themselves (that’s down to me not them!). I spend time with friends and family. My time at work is very busy, so when I have down time I like to completely chill out. I’m not into Twitter and Facebook because I prefer to go and see my friends and family. I like to go out at the weekend and go partying and just catch up with friends. I also like to travel. It keeps your eyes open to what’s going on in the world.
I read a lot too. I tend not to read as many books as I would like but I read a lot of newspapers and I’m often on the internet finding out what’s going on. I’m interested in politics too.
What advice would you give to young people unemployed people in London?
This is difficult. I know how soul-destroying it can be to be out of work. My parents were always employed though we weren’t that well-off. Then, in the 1980s my dad lost his job and I saw how it affected his self-esteem. That was my first experience of unemployment and what it could do to people. He was always upbeat and positive but I knew he just wanted to work. He used the skills he had and made sure he stayed in the labour market.
I would say first of all, try not to lose hope and confidence because without aspirations and positivity it’s really difficult to see an opportunity in front of you. Also, keep active because it’s easier to get depressed if your mind is not active and you don’t have a routine. I know that it’s not always easy keeping active and busy when you don’t have money.
Maybe volunteer. It could potentially open doors. I’ve volunteered myself. When I left school at 16, I decided to do some volunteering with kids the summer before I went to college to do my A levels. Though I chose not to work with children as a career, I got to meet people in the world of work and seek their advice so it was helpful.
The other thing I’d say: think long and hard about turning down opportunities. I’ve taken jobs in the past that others have found less attractive – not the Peabody job, of course – but, some of the jobs I’ve done, I’ve had to make something of them.
Before I came to Peabody, for example, I was a director of Refugee Housing Association. I was appointed to that post when I was 30, the youngest director in the organisation, and the first black female director. I stayed there for nine years. That job was offered to me on a fixed-term contract for two years. My brief was to show that the organisation was viable and had a future beyond two years. At that time, the role wasn’t as attractive as the law around refugees and asylum seekers had changed; it wasn’t clear that the organisation would be financially viable and the organisation wasn’t performing well. I left nine years later and it was a very different organisation. It was very successful and had expanded. It was hard work turning the organisation around but very enjoyable.
There are other examples of me doing that in my career. Even in my first job as a housing officer, I would take on extra tasks. I didn’t get paid any extra but it was all good experience and helped to open doors.
Back to your question: it’s so important to stay active. Keep busy. Make the most of every opportunity. You don’t know who you’re going to meet. Ask people to help you. They worst that can happen is that they say no. Most people will do something to help you on your way. The worst thing is losing confidence and feeling that there’s nothing this life has to offer. Do things you enjoy. If you’re into sport, keep doing the sport. Just try and stay active.
What can Peabody do for young people?
There are a number of things. Youth clubs and events, volunteering opportunities. Training courses too to help young people to develop skills that might put people in a better position to access employment.
How would a young person get a Peabody home if they’re not currently a resident?
We don’t currently have a waiting list. It’s actually quite difficult for a young person to move into a Peabody home unless you’re referred by a council. In addition, we have a small number of supported housing hostels managed on our behalf by other organisations. We have a small quota of people we can house from those hostels over a period of time. If a young person met the criteria, they might be accommodated. Those are the only options, the two main ways into a Peabody home.
What do you do with work problems you can’t fix?
It’s really important to remember that no one is an expert in everything. Most days or weeks there will be something where you need help. The important thing is just to understand what you’re good at and know what you’re not good at and know who you should seek advice from when you’re struggling. It’s not necessarily a failure to need help. My advice is to always seek advice. Go to someone, talk through things, that’s normally the best way of coming up with solutions.
What music and designers do you like?
I like hip hop, R&B and soul but I’ve got a broad span of musical tastes. I love soca and calypso too – my family come from Barbados!
As for designers, I like Phillipe Stark – he’s an interior designer and I’m into interior design. But I don’t own many designer clothes, I can name fashion designers but I’m not really into them. I like simple, elegant clothes. As long as it’s ‘me’, I’m not into a particular look.
Sharon Karikari, 16, attends the Girls’ Club at Pembury and works on a magazine project called MindRight. She enjoys art and drama and her long-term ambition is to be a forensic psychologist.
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