Q&A with Poetic Unity founder Ryan J. Matthews-Robinson

As part of Mental Health Awareness week, we sat down with Poetic Unity’s founder and Visionary Honours 2022 nominee, Ryan J. Matthews-Robinson for a Q&A. Ryan was nominated in the Community Person of the Year category at this year’s Visionary Honours for his fantastic work with young people in community.

Poetic Unity use poetry as a tool for positive social change by providing marginalised young people with a voice. Since it’s inception, 1000’s of young people have taken part in programmes which have helped improve their confidence, self-esteem and overall mental well-being.

What inspired you to start Poetic Unity?
Growing up being marginalised, receiving racism from teachers, and not being supported at school installed a passion and drive in me to ensure other young people didn’t have to go through the same issues I faced. My Grandparents also had a big impact on my life, seeing my grandma suffering with Alzheimer’s changed my mentality to start thinking about WE instead of just I.

Who is Poetic Unity aimed at and why?
We support young people from all backgrounds aged 10-30 years old. We particularly focus on supporting young Black/Black Mixed people who are marginalised. Although our work is focused on young people, we also provide services that allow for intergenerational connections that support the entire community.

How effective is poetry (and the arts in general) in sparking positive change in society and supporting mental health?
Poetry is therapy. It allows people to express themselves authentically and get issues off their chest which they may find difficult to speak about. Poetry brings people together, its sparks debate and is an effective tool for learning.

How do you think we can overcome misconceptions and stigma around mental health?
Understanding that mental health affects us all. If we were to hold more dialogue around this, I think it would help massively. We hold this dialogue regularly through poetry but there are many ways and routes these conversations can be held.

Do you have any advice for anyone struggling with their mental health?
Write down how you feel. Sometimes sharing or speaking about how you feel can be difficult but if you put down how you feel in the form of a poem, letter or even journaling it can take a big weight off your shoulders. I also think it’s important to have at least one or two people in your life you can speak to about anything when times are low, this could be a friend, family, member of the community or therapist.

How important is lived experience when conveying your message and supporting young people?
It’s integral. The fact my team and I have faced some of the same issues our beneficiaries have, come from similar backgrounds and are still young ourselves allows us to create a real connection with our young people. There’s a familiarity straight away which helps to build trust and understanding.

What is the hardest/worst thing about your work?
Learning of the traumas some young people have gone through which can be triggering and particularly difficult if it is something that is ongoing. Thankfully having over 10 years’ experience in this kind of work and a great team allows me to navigate some really challenging situations.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I love people and my job allows me to support people every day. I’ve always been a people person and being able to support and connect with people is one of my most important skills, without the people Poetic Unity wouldn’t exist!

Of all your projects, which has been your favourite so far?
The Poets Corner is my favourite event. It’s the first regular event we started way back in May 2015 and has been running every week since in person and then online due to the pandemic. The only weekly poetry event in South London it has always had a special atmosphere and was the foundation of the services we provide now.

How did it feel to be nominated for a Visionary Honour award?
Great! Always nice to be recognised for the work I do but to be honest I was more excited to meet the legend Trevor McDonald at the awards! I’ve never been one to place too much importance on awards but whatever helps spread the work we do at Poetic Unity I’m here for it.

Outside of Poetic Unity and serving the community, what else do you enjoy doing and what else inspires you?
I love films, music, and football. A lot of films have inspired my own poetry and I’m a bit of a film critic myself, posting regular reviews on my social media. My main inspirations growing up was my dad and Grandad. Generally, I’m not one to look up too many celebrities but people like Cristiano Ronaldo, Denzel Washington and Christopher Nolan have inspired me in my own work.

What’s next for Poetic Unity?
We will continue to provide support and services for young people from Brixton to the world! We have some very exciting projects and opportunities coming up soon.

How can we find out more about Poetic Unity and how can people support the work you do?
Follow us on social media to keep up to date with our services @PoeticUnity on Instagram, @Poetic_Unity on Twitter. Go to our website to find out more about what we do www.PoeticUnity.org.uk or you can join our donation membership to support our work here

You can see Poetic Unity in action below:

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