Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Written By Nicholas Postlethwaite
Kemi Ryan and her sister Natasha are two remarkable women. I am privileged to claim them as dear friends. While serving a long prison sentence together, they determined to turn their lives around in a new direction – Bonhoeffer was not the first, nor the last to discover that prison can sometimes uncover and set free the Spirit!
Seventeen years later, Kemi and Natasha remain true today to their decision. Unsurprisingly, their selfless commitment to what I think of as ‘action poetry’ spills over and effects the lives of many others too. Today they are the trusted mentors of countless young people in the city of Liverpool’s Black community.
Young people who are frequently suspicious of adults – wary of betrayal – recognise someone who is genuine and who feels and shares their own struggles. They respond to understanding and respect from friends walking in solidarity alongside them to help guide through systems that all too often seem ready to penalise rather than support them. Kemi and Natasha have set up a project and drop-in centre – which they appropriately call “Reformed”. This offers a focus and security for young friends who are warmly welcomed with understanding and conversation over a cup of coffee – and occasional cake.
Reformed creates oases for young people within otherwise hostile environments – creating a ‘poetry in action’ with echoes from deriving directly from a line from another Poet – ‘give us this day our daily bread….’
While preparing these notes I was interrupted by my telephone. It was Kemi, who shared through tears news of two young friends: one, only fourteen, had stabbed and killed the other. Both come from neighbouring families, both have been part of Kemi and Natasha’s Reformed community.
Her tears sprang from sadness about the death of one friend and the consequent bleak consequences for the other. Listening, I had a sense of a deep lake of sorrows that feed these tears – tears for the many similar such tragic events experienced by this community – and so many other similar families and communities for whom today’s tragedy is but a reminder of the many others preceding it.
As well as grief, Kemi’s tears express her rage at the systems that fail to protect and support vulnerable young friends – as well as their families – and who find themselves increasingly trapped in spirals of seemingly endless violence. One life lost – another’s future now blighted – each symbolic of racism abroad in our world yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
“I am glad about current world-wide protests condemning Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who publicly executed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes till the last breath from his lungs,” Kemi continued. “But Minneapolis USA seems a long way from us here in Liverpool.
I pray for George and for his children and family, as I do for two friends here today – the circumstances may differ, but underlying causes come back to one poisonous root cause – that of racism. Why isn’t the entire world standing in unceasing protest to condemn blatant racism everywhere and refusing to allow it to remain in our midst?”
Kemi’s rhetorical question cries to the heavens for responses. Black Lives Matter today is rightly generating anger and energy. But a background fear continues to lurk. Given short attention spans, will current calls for change bring only very limited and cosmetic outcomes? Once the “storm” passes and waves of frustration subside will the issue sink once more beneath apparently calm surface waters of what complacently is described as “normality”?
Those experiencing racism at first hand fear they will be left coping as best they can with the continuing “status quo”. A small number will hopefully have become aware and go on to work for change. Some small changes may occur in social systems – penal, health, housing and education. A few racially contaminated statues will have been unceremoniously removed. All to the good! But the fear remains as a lurking presence so long as there is no significant systemic shift in regard to racism.
To presume there is a single silver bullet capable of instant eradication of racism would be naïve in the extreme. What is needed is the support for many and multiple actions like Reformed, that collectively combine to challenge the deep virus that is racism.
Is this overly pessimistic? Kemi’s tears indicate sadly it is not. As an organisation, Reformed remains as a positive sign both for those who experience racism first-hand and for those of us ready to stand alongside so we work together for systemic changes. But is this enough?
To presume there is a single silver bullet capable of instant eradication of racism would be naïve in the extreme. What is needed is the support for many and multiple actions like Reformed, that collectively combine to challenge the deep virus that is racism. As a small contribution towards this dynamic, I borrow a philosophical insight – recommend a recent TV documentary – and record my own deep personal gratitude for the Black friends who continue to educate me and help me examine all that I need to change in my own attitudes.