Spend just three minutes with Sandra Means and you will be infected by her boundless enthusiasm and positivity for Rochester, her family and the future. As she marks 50 years as a Rochester resident, the excitement she evokes when she speaks about her history here is the same that she exudes as she talks about her vision for the community.
“I have just been so fortunate, so blessed, and I am grateful,” Sandra states as she sums up her life in Rochester. “Living in Rochester has been the best experience—I have had wonderful neighbors, including a farmer’s daughter, a physician and one neighbor from Mississippi.” And although her family had no African American neighbors when they first got settled in Rochester, “Those were my colleagues, and we had a great time.”
Initially, Sandra was not sure if this would be the case. “I didn’t know anything about Rochester, other than it was a small town.” Originally from a West Virginia coal-mining town, Sandra’s father moved her family to Detroit, Michigan. “I grew up in a totally integrated environment in Detroit, and I was always used to being in a multicultural environment.”
Sandra’s husband, Lewellyn, settled into the community shortly before she and their three children arrived. He was hired as a manager at IBM, where “he did very well,” Sandra proudly states. Within a few years, a neighbor who worked at IBM encouraged Sandra to consider a short-term opportunity at the company. That opportunity grew into a full-time role at IBM. Sandra summarizes her time at IBM as a “series of great experiences and opportunities. IBM was good to me.”
No story about Sandra can be complete without “the love of her life,” her husband, Lewellyn. Sandra and Lew married September 5, 1964. “We have a sincere love for one another,” Sandra shares. She says that Lew is the perfect partner for her. “We both give each other room to move.” Lew is a golfer and a bowler. He is her number-one fan and has always been supportive of her endeavors. Sandra is as proud of Lew as he is of her; she mentions his service as president of the First Tee program, a nonprofit organization that teaches children life skills through participation in golf.
Then there are the Means children, who now live across the country with families of their own. Sandra says that Krishina, Lewellyn Donald and Lawrence all had typical growing-up years with the usual highs and lows. But, she says, “They never gave up, and even though they were not always accepted, they had a passion to pursue excellence.” Clearly that paid off as all three children are now excelling in their personal and professional lives.
As the years went by, Sandra’s slate of varied and impactful professional and personal experiences grew. Although her community service and volunteer activities were numerous, Sandra calls out her work with the Rochester Chamber as one of her fondest memories. “At that time, I was the only person of color working with them,” she shares. She felt support from the staff, members and board as she worked with the Chamber for many years.
“I have had great experiences in Rochester and great support from the people in Rochester,” Sandra states. This became particularly important as she took on the challenging role of human rights advisor for Rochester Public Schools, City of Rochester and Olmsted County. “I was very busy, but the work was important,” she shares. In her work, she investigated complaints of human rights violations and in turn wrote recommendations to her employers.
Sandra recounts the story of a student in the school district who had called Somali girls “diaper heads.” She talked with the student about the Somali people and their culture and, with support from the teacher, requested that the student write a paper about Somali people. “I don’t know if that assignment changed the student, but I do know that the assignment changed me and reminded me how we have to call out this bias whenever we hear or see it,” she says.
Sandra’s had a bellwether view of the impact of growing diversity in the workplace. She was a pioneer in efforts to advance inclusion and equity. “Early on, employers struggled with inclusion; employees were often left out of activities because of race and ethnicity, and they were often not invited to social activities at work,” she says. Sandra tells the story of an intern who chose not to stay in Rochester as she simply did not feel welcomed or that she belonged. “And she was so talented,” she laments.
“We need strong leadership that believes in the importance of inclusion. Employees should be supported by their employers and have no question that they are cared for and needed,” Sandra notes. “People want to feel a sense of belonging, work in welcoming environments and expect honesty and, most of all, support; in return, employers will get employees who are willing to contribute at their highest levels and who are positive in their engagement with their companies.”
When asked if she sees herself as a “legacy,” Sandra says that she thinks of a legacy as someone who cares about the community, who wants to continue to learn and who is honest, responsive, encouraging and caring. Her portfolio of achievements and recognitions provides evidence that her service has been appreciated across the community and the state. She is already viewed by many as a legacy. “There are some things that I am really, really proud of,” she states, “But I hope that I have presented myself in a way that I will long be appreciated for my service, and that is really what I have always wanted.”
Sandra’s legacy will be dominated by her 13 and a half years of service representing Ward 6 on the Rochester City Council. When asked why she chose to run, she says the idea was not initially her own. Her volunteerism provided her with a solid base of encouragement and support. “I met a lot of wonderful people while in office—the work can be challenging, but the rewards of serving your constituents far outweighs the tough decisions and negative feedback you might receive,” she says.
One of her proudest accomplishments while in the school district was a partnership with Dr. Maudie Williams to start the Teachers of Color program. The program had limited funding, but she and Dr. Williams were able to secure enough funding to provide training for paraprofessionals to transition teaching.
Another achievement that Sandra is proud of is her work on a “Somali Handbook.” The handbook provided community services available in Rochester. It was published in Somali and in English. The project benefitted from collaboration with the school district, the County, Mayo Clinic, IMAA and others. Subsequently, an edition was also printed in Spanish.
Sandra has not stopped thinking “positively” about Rochester. She expresses her pride in young local leaders such as Bud Whitehorn and Pastor Andre Crockett. She sees them as beacons of hope for a cohesive, supportive and welcoming Rochester. She has all the zest for living in Rochester today as she did 50 years ago. Her legacy of leadership and service will long endure.
Sandra’s Leadership Lessons
- Participate “positively” in the community.
- Take time to nurture and encourage our young people so that we can see positive change in their world into the future.
- Be prepared to accept opportunities.
- Be engaged, share your voice, share your talent, help move the ball forward.
- Move outside of your circle of comfort. Take a step forward and serve.
- To be successful you have to become engaged—you cannot do things on your own in a new town or even one in which you have lived.