“It was like, Shock! Horror! Is it real? What’s going off?! We’re in Derby – I’ve lived here all of my life. I know these people! I know the families. That’s when you remember what you’d seen in the paper about the shootings and other incidences and you think – Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Why’s it come this far?”
It was 11th November 2008, and for Rachael, in one evening, her life just went into turmoil….
In the 1970’s Normanton was a very different place, for Rachael and her identical twin sister. They were part of a big family living in a large house on Empress Road. They were brought up in a strict but safe environment.
Rachael’s father had moved to Derby in the mid-50s for work and to accumulate some money with the intention of moving back to the West Indies. As he became more established in the UK, and the family grew, and his roots were laid down, that option faded, and they consolidated themselves in the City.
Rachael spent a lot of time with her siblings supporting the house , being with family and playing in their large garden. They didn’t need to play on the streets but it wasn’t actually allowed. Venturing to Normanton Road was a rare occasion, and the visits to the Salvation Army church in town were a Sunday routine. For Rachael this lifestyle was normal; it was about respecting their parents. They were very close, and being with each other was important.
When they were 16, Rachael and her twin signed up to go to Buxton college for a Health and Social Care course. With a mother who was a nurse, and an older sister who had made good progress in the caring profession, it seemed like a natural step. The programme was residential and it was their first time away from home. They struggled with being separated from their family, and decided to leave and go back to Derby.
Rachael started her work life in the Derbyshire County Council at Matlock on various administrative tasks, and then later went to Derby City Council. She moved into Education, and supported the personal clothing grant activity. She then went onto the “Education for All” programme that ensured that everyone, especially those from the BME community, had the best opportunity to obtain good schooling. She progressed into the Education Welfare team as a Truant officer working with young people and families to address the underlying causes of their truancy. This could be anything from sorting out appropriate school uniforms through to traumatic family breakdowns which needed lengthy and complex intervention. It was during this role that Rachael started to develop her understanding of the value of working with young people, families and schools.
In 1989 Rachael became pregnant with her daughter, just at the time that her career was developing. As a single parent, she needed to return to work as soon as possible after the birth as finances were tight.
When her son arrived in 2002, the position was more secure, and she gave up work to look after him. She wanted to make sure that her son had the best life chances and to bring him up in line with the principles that she enjoyed as a child. She was very aware of the problems that young people can experience in the modern world and the distractions that can lead them in the wrong direction. Although toy guns were always popular with boys – Rachael just did not allow them.
When her son started school , Rachael needed to find a new vocation and re-trained in Counselling as well as gaining some basic IT skills – technology had moved on in the few years that she was away from work. She also undertook a teaching qualification as well as embarking on volunteering work. Jobs were difficult to come by, but her inclination was always to be involved in activities that helped others.
And then it was the 11th November 2008…
Rachael’s nephew, the son of her twin sister, was only 15 years old. He had become involved in the gang culture in the Sunnyhill area. Arguments and disagreements escalated – and he was shot and killed. Rachael and the family were completely knocked sideways, the shock, the horror, the disbelief and the realisation that something had been happening in their locality of which they were completely unaware. The emotion was profound.
“Unless it actually happens to you, in your family, you’re not going to understand it – unless you’re living it – you’re not going to get it”
The community was in turmoil for nearly 6 months. People were asking questions, trying to come to terms with the events and how such a young person could have been killed in these circumstances – who knew what was going on? The belief was that the Police, Council, and community organisations were aware of the underlying situation:
“They were the ones who knew the extent to which they were capable of. We didn’t! If we were honest, we didn’t really know. I’m sure if people knew, and the parent’s knew what their children were getting into, they would have done something to try and prevent it”
Rachael was contacted by a local pastor, John Augustine, who felt that it was important that there was some form of response to this tragedy to make sure that it never happened again. Even in those early days it felt natural for Rachael to be involved, her determination to do something to make sure it could never happen again emerged from her own personal grief and tragedy.
After many meetings with people including the Police and the Community Safety Partnership, Derby City Gangs Advisory Group (DCGAG) was born. It was a committee of 16 people, from across the community who were there to help, and to try and address the social conditions and behaviours that led people to be involved in gangs and, most critically, to ensure that no other young person got killed.
For Rachael, part of it, was to ensure that young people thought about the reality of handling a gun:
“It’s the education and raising awareness of, and the consequences of, and the dangers of, ….it’s a real gun, it’ll kill you, you won’t get up!”
Her previous experience of working with young people, families and schools provided a guiding template for how the message could be communicated. But with the target group she was now focussed on, it had to be about developing a trust, respect, and an environment in which young people felt that they were being listened to, and engaged not in a “parental” sense, but more as a “mentor”.
The scope and nature of the organisation evolved, and the notion of “gangs” in the title of the organisation was becoming off-putting for schools, so in 2012 it changed its name to “Impact Derby”.
Life for young people was becoming more challenging and especially for those who were vulnerable and susceptible to outside influence.
“Young people can get into so much stuff these days and not really be aware of where it will take them and its just giving them the information, the tools and the guidance and support. It’s about ensuring that they have that understanding
Young people are brilliant, they can become so much with the correct support, the correct guidance, the correct leadership
Life’s hard for parents, life’s hard for young people – so many of them think they have to conform to the latest things – there is pressure on them all of the time”
Rachael has built up a healthy capacity of 100 volunteers that she can draw on at any time. She is well supported by young people from the University of Derby to help with project work, and mentoring. She is now taking the lead on a City wide forum for Ending Gangs; this includes representation from the Pakistani / Indian / Roma communities, the Police, multi-agency advisory groups, Enthusiasm, Derby City Council and Derby Homes. It is continuing the strategy of partnership working which recognises that the reasons why people slip into gang culture is complex, and varied, and can be observed from many different perspectives.
Rachael is unrelenting in her resolve to help young people; she believes in her cause, simply because she was affected in ways that few can understand or contemplate. It comes from her inner core – but it is still hard for her. It feels like a never-ending pursuit to ensure that no other family experiences what she did.
But she carries on – determined, beyond determination.
Rachael doesn’t do her work for praise, but occasionally it helps. This year, on March 7th Rachael received recognition at the Derby and Derbyshire Inspirational Women Awards founded by Vox Feminarum : Women’s Voices for her work in the voluntary sector. But it goes beyond that – she has forged a position in the community through her own personal strength launched out of adversity, regardless of skin colour and gender. Such is the power of her credibility, and the respect that she receives.
The ultimate success for Rachael is that nothing has happened; that no other young person has been shot and killed. There are no headlines. But the risk is that it might happen tomorrow – that’s why it’s hard. There is no end point, no final, conclusive, target which once achieved will signal victory – there is no cup to hold up. She can work 24/7 with young people but if someone is killed then she will see it as failure.
That’s why it is hard, and that’s why she is so respected.