Lumsden’s hard, long road to success
From a life of poverty to holding mayoral office in England
FOR COUNCILLOR Donna Lumsden, a Jamaican living in the United Kingdom (UK), the road to success has not been easy. As the second of her parents’ eight children, Lumsden, in an interview with The Gleaner on Monday, detailed how quickly she had to...
FOR COUNCILLOR Donna Lumsden, a Jamaican living in the United Kingdom (UK), the road to success has not been easy.
As the second of her parents’ eight children, Lumsden, in an interview with The Gleaner on Monday, detailed how quickly she had to learn, due to poverty, to adapt to a life that lacked many of the simple pleasures that other youngsters around her got to experience.
Life got increasingly difficult for the family once her mother, Daphne Mearl Richards, passed away while Lumsden was just 14 years old, because they had to live hand-to-mouth, surviving off the meagre earnings that was obtained.
The family spent much of their lives in the west Kingston community of Denham Town, but would also move about from one tenement house to the other, and then in areas such as Pembroke Hall and Waterford in Portmore, St Catherine.
At age 16, Lumsden shouldered most of the family’s responsibilities and got her first job as a domestic helper along Coleyville Avenue working with a family of five – a position she held for much of her teenage life.
“I was never a little girl, I never knew how it [felt] to ever be young,” she said, expressing that life “wasn’t a bed of roses”.
She described food – the basic necessity to life, as a “luxury” that the family would have, as the refrigerator frequently contained only water.
Nights were as difficult as the days as the one bed the family owned could not share for everyone, and so she spent her life in Jamaica sleeping on the floor of the small home in which the family lived.
When her father, Calvin Lloyd Richards, later passed away in the early 1990s, Lumsden stated that life became like a “merry go ‘roun”, as she began living the life of a squatter – a person who settles in or occupies a piece of property with no legal claim to it – as her marriage at the time did not last either.
“Struggle became part of my lifestyle,” she admitted, stating that having to ensure that her siblings were provided for resulted in her settling with whatever was left over to feed and clothe herself.
“It became so bad that it was like you were just living,” she said.
The now 64-year-old described an incident in which a friend shamed her in public for buying half a pound of the cheapest slices of meat to prepare for supper.
She also recalled that, in her most challenging moments, she would go to the market and request the ground provisions that were tossed on the ground and were not wanted by others.
“You know when you go to Coronation Market and the things them, it’s not dirty, but you can wash them and so forth? That’s me,” she said.
After growing weary of weekly housecleaning jobs, Lumsden started working as a higgler in her 20s, travelling from Jamaica to the Cayman Islands with things to sell there and would buy goods to sell back in Jamaica to make money.
She later got the opportunity to travel to the UK, where chances for a better life started to look bright.
“I tried to live a decent life,” she said, noting that she began working with the Royal Mail, the primary postal service in the UK, where she worked for over 20 years.
Her venture into other lines of work was spurred by the revenue she received from this job.
Lumsden began fostering children with disabilities and special needs after furthering her studies, and her passion for the cause grew as she understood how important it was for the community to have a voice in society, where it was otherwise lacking.
She also worked with children who were involved with illegal drug and had charges against them for possession or use. She added that some of the boys call her “mom” and that she uses her life as a means of motivating them that they can become better citizens.
Lumsden was recently promoted to serve as Mayor of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham on May 19. Gaining the mayorship, she said, has been a “surreal” moment.
Councillor Lumsden was initially reluctant in going into politics, as she did not believe in herself to be capable, or saw herself as qualified to work for the municipal council.
“People would always look down on me,” she said, given her poor upbringing, and so she never saw herself as “good enough”.
However, through consistent encouragement by Member of Parliament for Dagenham and Rainham, Jon Cruddas, she worked her way through the ranks where she served in positions like Deputy Whip of the Labour Party, which included helping to organise the political party’s contribution to parliamentary business, and deputy scrutineer for health.
Lumsden, who was on the verge of tears as she reflected on the state of her life now, struggled to find the right words to describe how relieved she has been to no longer be bounded by poverty.
She recalled the time when she was able to buy her first home in London, a three-bedroom residence as a single woman.
Because she did not know how to cope with the childhood traumas of never having enough, she would find herself wandering the house every night, sleeping in all the rooms, including the bathroom.
Lumsden said this was an emotional time for her but throughout all her experiences she always stood steadfast in Christ and her religion.
She stated that her father’s strictness, coupled with her determination, was what motivated her to hold her head up high.
“If he wasn’t that type of father, [I don’t know] what I would become,” she said.
“People never knew anything good would have come outta Mr Richie children dem and I don’t even think my own family knew something good would have come out of me.”
Lumsden advised young people from similar backgrounds as hers that “there is always hope in life”, adding that they should not rely on others for support, but to rather find the means to motivate themselves to have big dreams outside of their present circumstances.
“Not because you are who you are today, it doesn’t mean that’s who you’re gonna be tomorrow morning,” she said, noting that “nobody is better than you”.
“Reflecting back on my life, I never knew this would have happened to me. [I am] a caterpillar that becomes a butterfly.”