A liberal, socialist-leaning childhood set Jess Steele on a path guiding communities through the red tape and obstacles thrown up by bureaucracy, helping to achieve a fairer society.
Jess, the daughter of a “liberal journalist” dad and “socialist teacher” mum, was brought up in Eltham, South-East London, the borough where black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993. She remembers the area as “very racist and conformist”, but says in contrast her education in New Cross six miles away was “diverse and very tolerant, encouraging everyone to feel what they did could make a difference in society”.
Jess is proud that she inherited a social conscience from her parents. After school she set off for university in York, to start a degree in biology, intending to take up a career as a marine biologist. However, after just a week on the course, she switched to history, which she loved, but which left her with no clear idea of what she wanted to do when she graduated.
“My dad had produced a photo-book of historic Deptford and while I was still at university he suggested I should write a proper history of the area. We set up a publishing company to publish it and then started working in schools, to help children produce their own books.”
The children were encouraged to take part in every step of the publishing process, even visiting book shops to negotiate sales deals. Deptford Forum Publishing has published more than 20 books in total.
Life changed in 2002 when Jess left Deptford to set up home in Yorkshire with her baby daughter and her present partner – a musician in a London-based band. They loved living in the countryside, but felt the distance from the capital and its full cultural life, so moved back south, ending up in Hastings in 2004.
For the next three years, Jess commuted to London to work for an organisation specialising in national and local regeneration projects, before getting a similar job which she could do from home, giving her time to get involved in the rescue of Hastings Pier.
In 2013, she decided to go her own way and set up Jericho Road Solutions, a name inspired by Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech, which included the words: “On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed, so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”
Jess remembers being moved by King’s passionate view of helping the needy, with his words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” She explains: “I felt passionately that individuals can make a difference in their neighbourhood, that they can change life for the better and the benefit of the community”. The ethos of Jericho Road is to support community-based businesses – helping them through the maze of funding and set-up processes.
Jess sees herself as “a pollinator”, supporting people with ideas and “spreading good practice”. She says it’s her “sustained impatience” that keeps her focused and motivated.
One of Jericho Road’s roles is to support those left behind by the housing market. It seeks out neglected buildings and enables partnerships to buy them for regeneration. An example is the Observer Building in Hastings, a 1920s property near the seafront, once a newspaper office and print works. Jess sealed the deal on the property on Valentine’s Day 2019 and work is now underway to create 16 affordable flats, with rents linked to average earnings in the area, capped forever so they go up only with inflation.
“The housing market is pretty much broken, we need to look again at how we can provide quality homes for people who will never get on the ownership ladder,” said Jess.
The derelict Observer Building is a huge challenge for the Jericho Road team. The company is the 14th owner since the offices closed in 1985, but Jess is determined to make it work. Surveyors identified issues with the concrete which have cost more than £250,000 to repair, before anything could be done. A grant from East Sussex County Council helped, but the rest has to be raised by funding packages and good financial practice.
Jess is proud to relate: “We are not dependant on grants, we aim to stand alone, where possible. We try to be good landlords, inclusive and fair.”
Next to the Observer Building is the nine-storey Rock House, which Jericho Road and partners bought in 2014 and has successfully converted into homes, workspace and a community kitchen. Phased over five years, the project is still growing organically and gives a good track record for the much bigger challenge next door.
Jess, who has been with her partner for 18 years, is immensely proud of her 20-year-old daughter’s determination to become a psychologist and her ambition to set up a women’s respite centre – continuing her family’s caring attitude to those in need.
With what little spare time Jess has away from her social commitment, she enjoys walking her dog Scuffle and relaxing with family and friends.