For our next #MeetTheMember blog, we spoke to Samantha Graham, Chief Operating Officer at Clean Sheet, an organisation which helps people with convictions into employment. Samantha discusses the difficulties people with convictions can face in securing work, how Clean Sheet helps, and how the organisation is responding to COVID-19.
What is your background?
I studied English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford, which was amazing. I finished university not really knowing what I wanted to do, but knowing that I needed a job really quickly! I worked in retail for a year, and then finally landed in sales, business development and marketing at a leadership development consultancy, which was a fantastic job — I learned a lot about coaching, getting the best out of people and how to influence.
After six or seven years, I finally knew it was time to move on, and I ended up in criminal justice, working for the Langley House Trust. I started as a Business Development Manager before becoming Head of Communications. Then, when Clean Sheet became part of the Langley House Trust Group, there was an opportunity to be Chief Operating Officer, and here I am.
What drew you to working in the criminal justice/voluntary sector?
I’ve always had a big heart and wanted to help people. After becoming a Christian in my twenties, I wanted to work for a Christian charity that was doing some good. I left the leadership development consultancy at the height of a recession, when there were not many jobs available, but thankfully, I came across the Langley House opportunity which ticked all the boxes for me. Within four weeks of verbally resigning from the leadership development consultancy, I had attended the interview at Langley and was offered the job!
What does your role involve?
I’m responsible for leading the organisation and making sure that we’re delivering on our mission, which is helping members (people with convictions) to find work. I’m also responsible for making sure that Clean Sheet is financially sustainable. I have a broad role – it’s everything from governance and making sure Clean Sheet runs really well to keeping the vision and mission burning bright in everything we do. Another key part of my role is building new partnerships with employers, prisons, and community partners, and engaging policy makers to bring to light some of the issues our members face.
Can you describe your organisation in a few sentences?
Clean Sheet creates social change and a safer society by helping people with convictions find work. People with convictions are often followed around by their sentences, an additional barrier to entering the world of work. This ‘hidden sentence’ can really hamper life. We aim to remove these barriers and help people find employment.
Our Employment Team Advisors connect with members, find out about their job aspirations and their skills, point them towards relevant training, and inform them of employment opportunities. We also have an Employers Directory, which features more than 100 employers who have committed to assess someone based on their merit and skill, rather than their conviction.
We call our service users ‘members’ because it invites them to be part of the Clean Sheet family and its vision. It gives people a status.
What do you love most about working at your organisation?
I love working with my team, and I love seeing the help that we provide to our members. It is so uplifting when someone we work with gets a job, because the road to employment can be very bumpy. One of our members at our annual celebration at the House of Lords last year said he applied for over 350 jobs before he was finally employed.
What are your organisation’s biggest focuses right now?
Our two big focuses are to make Clean Sheet financially sustainable and to grow the number of our members finding work. As part of this, we are looking at how we can provide more value to the employers we work with, and we are developing our relationships with prisons and community partners.
How is your organisation responding to the challenges of COVID-19?
The Clean Sheet team were already set up to work from home, so when COVID-19 hit we were able to continue supporting our members. This has been really invaluable to many of them. We’ve ramped up communications to our members around the jobs and support that’s available to cope and manage with lockdown. Some of our members have fed back that the Clean Sheet staff member is one of the only people they’ve spoken to during lockdown.
Looking after staff is just as important. We’ve introduced a team coffee and chat twice a week on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, which has helped us remain connected. The Langley House Trust Group has also started a COVID-19 Task Force which I sit on, and one of the key points of focus is staff health and wellbeing. We’ve also passed on information to teams on staying mentally healthy during lockdown.
The employment market is going to change massively due to COVID-19, with unemployment rising and increased competition for jobs. We’ve already seen some employers stop recruitment. There has been an increase in some jobs during this period, for example in supermarkets, but this has its downsides; many of the jobs are on zero-hour contracts or a first-come first-served basis, and don’t provide the stability of employment we want for our members. In response, we’re focusing on engaging and building relationships with employers and we’re linking in with other employment projects for people with convictions.
Do you have any routines or habits that help you succeed?
Prayer is very important to me. We have team prayer sessions that any staff member can come along to – this is the lifeblood of our organisation and helps us to keep focused.
I also try to remember to be thankful, and grateful for the people around me.
Do you have any hobbies?
I really like walking, and I’m finding that I’m becoming an amateur gardener!
I also love cooking.
Outside of the Bible, Saturday, by Ian McEwan. It tells the story of one day in the life of a family, and it describes life beautifully.
My favourite song at the moment is Darkness into Light, by Lovkn.
Big Hero 6, which is about a boy’s experience of growing up. It deals with rage, grief, care and the healing power of love and sacrifice.
What advice would you give to someone else in your role?
Be humble and know that you can’t do it all yourself.
What do you like most about being a member of the Criminal Justice Alliance?
I love the quality of communications and information. It’s solid, ‘meaty’ and really informative. I also love the passion, the focus and the drive that is evident in the CJA.