Be where the people are by Jemilea Wisdom-Baako

Degna Stone Graft, Library

Brightly coloured dynamic illustration of tower blocks with vines and hearts growing between them

I step into boardrooms unsure of myself, the lanyard around my neck has a cute photo I took at the reception desk with my name; and title – Founder of Writerz and Scribez CIC. What does it mean to create something, to take it out of your mind and imagination and turn it into a living, breathing thing? My arts company was birthed out of a desire to rebel against people that couldn’t see what I saw, who didn’t believe in the power of a poem – to connect with a young person arrested for knife crime in a tiny interview room in Hackney. That hour we spent, writing, and sharing let me know that I wanted to create spaces for people to express themselves in ways they normally wouldn’t have access to. It cemented the desire to work within these systems, but not be part of them. I needed room to breathe, to have my own ideas and let them ferment, to discover and play.

Over a cheeky Nandos in 2013 I convinced other poets I met on the spoken word scene that we could create a lyrical playground for young people to engage with. We were young, enthusiastic and inexperienced, but we made it happen. Six-weeks in a youth club at the bottom of an estate; we took a subject kids objected to  (poetry? That’s dead man)  – and made it relatable. We did more than their English teachers could in their structured lessons; we gave them belief in their own stories, and the ability to tell it in their own voice. 

Repeating the anthem of Ariel in a little mermaid, I wanted us to ‘be where the people are’ and this mindset took us from the youth club to women’s refuges, hostels, homeless shelters, elder’s homes, parks and prisons. Creating havens for people in intense situations; our sessions have been described as the safest place I have ever felt as an adult. No experience required. What is art if not an opportunity to recreate realities, to respond through a vehicle other people can travel in. And so we commission artists to make art in barbershops, we mark-make, we freestyle lyrics at the bottom of the stairwell in the youth hostel, we plaster outdoor spaces with the words of people impacted by homelessness, we archive the stories of elders, and create animations out of historical buildings. We crouch around a broken radio; a group of women who have experienced imprisonment reconnecting over memories of music, of the sounds we have made homes out of.

This inclusivity and accessibility is central to our mission. It is the catalyst for the decisions we make, for how we grow as a company. From the very beginning, Writerz and Scribez has been about partnership and collaboration. We work closely with community organisations to bring about change, improve wellbeing and develop creative voices with their beneficiaries. We have gone from reaching 100 people a year to over 6,000 people both locally and internationally. As we expand we have included corporate partnerships into our sustainability model. Regardless of who we are working with, our aims are the same; to bring change through art. We are working with corporate partners to improve their inclusion and equity strategies, we have been commissioned for projects that involve dismantling institutional racism in company practices and empowering Black and racialised staff to have their experiences heard. All throughout this work we use a creative approach, and apply all of our pedagogy to spur actual and measurable change.

It’s so strange to me to realise that I am an inspiration to others; I often still feel like I haven’t figured it all out, I’m still trying to make it work. I watch it grow and develop it the same way I watch my children; often in awe of their personalities, in disbelief that they are a part of me. I stumbled into leadership in a similar way to motherhood, given a role without knowing how to fill its associated responsibilities. Posting the adorable pictures on Instagram and not the tear-filled nights of self-doubt and exhaustion. I know what it is to be up all night cluster-feeding, and be on the HMRC website at 3am trying to fix my company accounts. As a mum I try to instill values, and teach my children how to navigate the world; as a business owner I try to create a company culture and train my staff to adopt our approach in the various settings they are sent. Through it all, I am learning, and evolving, adapting to the different stages of growth.

Jemilea Wisdom-Baako: A young Black woman with long, straight black hair, spectacles, and a happy, friendly smile
Jemilea Wisdom-Baako

Jemilea Wisdom-Baako is a British-Jamaican poet. A London Writers Award recipient she was shortlisted for the Rebecca Swift Women’s Poetry Prize and The Bridport Poetry Prize. A graduate of the Advanced Faber Poetry Course, her work appears in Magma, Poetry London, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Good Journal, and elsewhere. She runs the arts company Writerz and Scribez CIC and is currently working on her first pamphlet.