After only a few minutes talking with Magda Lezama, I start to imagine that her life story would make a great film.
Even in 2017, engineering is a profession that struggles to attract enough women, but Magda bucked that trend way back in the ’80s. Not only that, she gained her first engineering degree from the University of the West Indies – cue some lovely location shots – beaches, palm trees, blue sea.
Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, as one of nine children, how she came to work for Leeds City Council seems like a tale of complete chance, but also of opportunity grabbed with both hands.
From the Caribbean to the Humber, via London
“In 1989 I came on holiday to visit my brother in London and while I was there applied for a job at Leeds City Council. I wanted to be a chartered engineer and to become a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers you needed to work with a recognised employer, which Leeds council was.
“I was with my son Rhett, who was one at the time – it was a brave move, especially as I had never been to Leeds and didn’t even know where it was, but sometimes ignorance is bliss! I got the job.”
After sorting out work permits and visas, Magda headed to Leeds on the train. “I arrived with my suitcase – which I left at the station – to start work in April 1990. Someone in human resources knew someone who was moving to a job in London and arranged for me to get her place on the day I started work. I was lucky.”
“To become a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers you have to work in different aspects of engineering – highways, road design etc… I eventually settled on drainage. While I was working I got my masters degree from Sheffield Hallam. I’ve been a senior engineer at Leeds City Council for 26 years – for the past 24 years working in flood risk management in the highways department.”
Magda took the challenges she faced in her stride. Working on site is “tough” she says, but it seems she can give as good as she gets.
“There are quite a few women engineers at Leeds City Council now, but years ago I was the only one. It’s a tough world, but whether it’s by luck or good fortune I have always been well supported, even on site. When they see that you know what you are doing the guys show you some respect.”
Encouraging Black activists
It didn’t take long at the council for Magda to find out about the union, which in those days was NALGO. “On day one at work, the NALGO union rep signed me up,” she says.
“The rep always encouraged me when he passed by. I used to hand out leaflets and go on marches. I then went on a women’s course where I met lots of other women who were speaking out. And that’s why I got more involved.
“After a few years the rep encouraged me to become a steward and I became part of the Black members group. We didn’t meet very often to start, but slowly and with a very supportive branch, we grew.”
In 2016 Magda became the chair of UNISON’s regional Black members’ group. Her mission, she explains, is to get more Black members involved at branch level, to make their opinions known and be heard by the union.
“I want to encourage all UNISON branches to have a Black members’ group that can act as a springboard to get people involved in mainstream union activities.
“A starting point, so Black members feel comfortable and nurtured and encouraged – a union for all of us – to be able to raise and deal with matters throughout the different layers and structures of the union.”
Engineering a route home
Magda’s enthusiasm and commitment to UNISON and engineering is clear and, as a single woman, she also relishes an active social life.
“I have been in a wine group for many years that travels around Europe visiting wineries. I also enjoy living in the centre of Leeds and I’m part of a walking group. Yorkshire is such a lovely part of the country to explore.”
Magda’s son Rhett has clearly inherited his mother’s drive. “Rhett has a first class honours degree from Hull University in computer games design. He works in London now as a games designer and I am very proud of him.”
Looking to the future Magda says: “I want to go back to the Caribbean at some point. But I want to make sure that I know as much as I can professionally. There are always new things coming up and I want to stay as up to date as possible in my profession.
“I am at a time in my life where I enjoy a good work/life balance. I still have real enthusiasm to enjoy the job and the people I work with.”
Magda has kept up her professional membership in the Caribbean and last year, after a rigorous interview and testing, she was made a Fellow of the Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad and Tobago.
“I went home to get the award and my brother and family all came to the ceremony – it was a proud moment.”
This article was first published in UNISON Active magazine, which is produced by the Yorkshire and Humberside region of the union.
October is Black History Month. If you’re a UNISON member and would like to get involved with your local Black members’ group, contact your branch.