Selina Graham: natural step from High Sheriff to community champion

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Written byClaire Hunte

Selina Graham has just finished her stint as High Sheriff in Shropshire. As she posted on Instagram, the uniform has been out 92 times and among the highlights of 432 official engagements were the 53 Outstanding young citizens awards, the 23 High Sheriff’s Awards for people going above and beyond in the community and just over £170K raised for charity.  It’s been a great run. She talked to LGL about the historical role, the opportunity to learn how much our community groups are filling vital social gaps and where it leads her after she steps down.

Introduce us to the role of High Sheriff and, also, what motivated you?

It’s an incredibly ancient institution – the oldest continuous office under the crown in the country.  The original “Shire Reeves” were Royal officials appointed to enforce the King’s interests in a County, in particular the collection of revenues and the enforcement of law and order, which didn’t always make them that popular.  The Sheriff of Nottingham was a notable PR disaster!  

Gradually those powers have eroded, and sadly the only thing we are still allowed to be paid for is attendance at public executions! But we do still have responsibility for law and order.  Much of my work this year has been connected to the criminal justice system in some way or another.  I’ve been to prisons and rehabilitation centres, sat with high court judges, crown court judges and magistrates. I’ve visited the probation service, the coroner, and spent many hours with the police.  We’re in the wonderful position to be able to look from the outside in on all sorts of things, and then great to be able to share the knowledge learnt. But mainly it’s about supporting and thanking.  It has been a steep learning curve,

Essentially, it’s the ability to make a difference.  Being High Sheriff gives you access to people and places that you would never have met or been to as simply Selina Graham.  Almost everyone answers the phone to the High Sheriff, people have been incredibly patient, welcoming and friendly this year and by learning what people do, thanking them, listening to concerns and challenges, connecting them to others it enhances the impact of those who are already trying to do so much good in the County.

How do you feel as the role comes to an end? Are you frustrated that you can’t continue what you’ve started?

Mixed feelings – definitely exhausted, so to that extent relieved, but it has been an extraordinary privilege, and I have loved meeting people, admiring what they do, and helping where possible.  One of the major things that a High Sheriff can bring to the role is energy – and that runs out if it is not for a pretty finite period, and it is time for somebody else’s energy to be injected into the County. 

Selena in Ludlow with Friends of Whitcliffe Common Photo: Selena Graham

Mandy [ed. Mandy Thorne is the new High Sheriff for Shropshire 2023-2024] will do a wonderful job. Among the things I will take away are the contacts I’ve made this year—all the connections and ideas and initiatives started will not just stop.  The velvet jacket and ostrich feathered hat will join my wedding dress at the top of the cupboard, but I’m still going to keep in touch with lots of new friends and acquaintances and follow through with the ideas we came up with.

And because you have historical ties to Shropshire, has it been added value getting to roam around Shropshire? Is there anything that you have discovered that you may not have known?

There is so much that I have learned!  There have been places I didn’t even know existed, like the village of Ryton where I met Shropshire Child Contact Centres, which has a village hall with the most stunning views across Shropshire.  It’s impossible to single out one place, driving to Clun and Bishop’s Castle you want the journey to never end, walking around Ellesmere, visiting the canal there, or being shown the highlights of Wellington by the Love Wellington team … I spent an afternoon in Ludlow with the Friends of Whitcliffe Common and that was a real treat, it was a beautiful blue sky afternoon, just looking down across Ludlow. It is such a gem, volunteers have looked after the common since the 1800s – and you can see why they might like to!

My theme for the year has been volunteering but actually I don’t think the word conjures up the right feeling, it doesn’t excite young people or really sell itself.  So I have come up with a new word “opportuneering”!!

I suppose the two things that really were driven home to me, were firstly that Shropshire is not one place – it is comprised of lots of incredibly individual, totally different towns and communities, staunchly proud of their individuality.  Not one place defines Shropshire — Shifnal is Shifnal, Wem is Wem, and Much Wenlock is Much Wenlock.  Secondly, we are so lucky that most towns and villages have got wonderful architecture, interesting history, lovely views.  We’re a beautiful county, but the beating heart is the people behind them. The fun was meeting the people who make the communities tick. And I met amazing people doing extraordinary things and feeling that sense of community.  Meeting mayors and town councillors, community groups, and sometimes businesses and seeing the place they love through their eyes has been an incredible privilege this year.

We know you are passionate about voluntary causes and have taken it on as your theme. What’s the drive behind this?

I’ve volunteered in various guises throughout my life.  I feel like we’ve got one shot at life; whatever religion you believe in, you are only going to be here in this life in 2023 once, and you can either make the most of it or not.  Engaging with the community, helping others, making a difference is so fulfilling, and I think volunteering helps you to make the most of life.  Not only are ninety percent of the charities and organisations I have met this year crying out for volunteers, but for the person volunteering it is a positive mental experience.

We have so many issues with anxiety and stress, and particularly for young people coming out of Covid and the soft skills they have lost, like communication, and teamwork, you get all of that from volunteering, and you feel purposeful and fulfilled because you’ve made someone else’s life better.  There is something for everyone – new friendships to be made, new skills to learn, contacts and connections to make, so many opportunities.  My theme for the year has been volunteering but actually I don’t think the word conjures up the right feeling, it doesn’t excite young people or really sell itself.  So I have come up with a new word “opportuneering”!!  Hopefully it will take off…  I genuinely believe it is the answer to half of society’s problems – we should all do it.  Seizing opportunities to make other people’s lives better and the opportunities that are opened up in return, by that giving – High Sheriff’s are a good example of “opportuneers”!

So what’s next for you, Selina?

I am going to throw myself into developing and growing the new Shropshire Community Foundation.  Up until last year Shropshire did not have it’s own Community Foundation – there are 48 counties and 47 Community Foundations and we are definitely missing out.  It is all about place based funding – building funds within the county that are for our charitable sector so we can look after our own – eventually maybe even be self-sustaining. 

Most High Sheriffs work very closely with the Community Foundation in their county – it is very obvious when you don’t have one, that we should have one.  Other counties now have tens of millions in endowment funds, so it will take some time to be at that level, but you have to start somewhere.  We will be a philanthropic partner to businesses, individuals and public sector bodies, helping to ensure that the money that is given to charities in Shropshire reaches the right ones with the greatest impact.  It is really exciting to be involved in something so important – “connecting people who care with causes that matter”.  Using many of the connections made this year, and continuing to make new connections which is what I have so enjoyed.

Learn more about The High Sheriff of Shropshire and follow them on Instagram