Kemi and Natasha Ryan are the epitome of the DIY start-up. Their organisation, Reformed, is a ground-up, first-hand mentoring service working with prison leavers, helping them to find a path back to work and a fuller life.
Reformed operates out of Toxteth, Liverpool: one of the oldest black communities in Europe, a complex community which has weathered some 300 years of exploitation and criminalisation amongst other things. The two sisters are woven into the fabric of this place inextricably; they, too, once faced the discrimination and sparse work opportunities attached to being young, black women with criminal records. They saw the paucity of the services being offered to them as people with convictions; so they made their own system. And in 2023, that is the definition of punk.
Despite their negative experiences of professional services, the sisters share an unshakeable belief in the power of getting people together, of talking across differences, and learning from each other—as long as a real, human respect is at the heart of it. In our time together, Kemi keeps unerring eye contact every time she addresses me, which comes across as a disarming mixture of confidence and vulnerability. And as they warned me a few times beforehand, they can talk at length about their work, often jumping between timeframes as they try to convey the throughlines in it all and the larger patterns at work in the journey. They let each other speak, but both sometimes punctuate the other’s speech with verbal leg-ups. They are, in short, a charismatic pair, and very easy to be around.
As we talk, I see how important the partnership has been between Reformed and the Passionists—which came about through Fr Nicholas Postlethwaite, who is present with us for the conversation. It’s this relationship which has allowed them to pivot their work to a new phase: teaching in higher education settings, with the goal of creating change within social services and criminal justice itself. All the momentum and the success comes from Kemi and Natasha themselves, but they are adamant that the moral support, as much as the financial, has been a game changer on the journey.
KEMI AND NATASHA joke that they started Reformed to protect themselves, and instead gave themselves a new heap of problems, as business owners. But their offhandedness, I think, belies just how impressive that leap of confidence was.
“I used to say ‘I can’t wait for the day people are knocking on our door for our services’—a long time before anybody was knocking!” Natasha admits. She recalls a training course where they were criticised for their idealism, for wanting to change the world—“but that same man tried to go and change the world himself,” Kemi chimes in—“in the same way we wanted to,” Natasha laughs. “I was quite inspired by that!”
After years of groundwork, Reformed’s first incarnation, in 2011, was an office (or as the sisters call it, a shopfront) in the heart of Toxteth. Eventually this moved to Crawford House: a community hub which had once been a military barracks, and then a fire station, before a community partnership had taken control. “We were bombarded,” Natasha recalls. “We were dealing with police issues, social services, removal, PIP, housing, benefits, loneliness.” They struggled to gain supporters, “financially and otherwise,” but the shopfront was a strong success on its own terms: a welcoming place, helping people, constantly busy.
Here, they cemented their person-centred, holistic approach—which perhaps shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is, as the sisters will make abundantly clear. That time of Reformed’s journey clearly still has a deep emotional resonance for them both, too. Kemi sighs to think of its closure in 2017: “We were heartbroken.” Natasha agrees: “We felt like we were letting people down. There was so much love inside there. Everyone who walked through that door felt confident to come to us with their issues. We felt quite privileged.”
“People trusted us,” starts Kemi, and Natasha finishes the thought— “with information that they didn’t trust other people with.” We get a glimpse of that dynamic still alive and at work while we’re standing on Princes Road taking photographs; the sisters wave to a woman walking past—Ruth—who crosses over and embraces them warmly, discussing a personal situation with them while I step aside. A recently published journal on Reformed’s work showed that community members associated the organisation with safety, love, community and hope.
That position of trust in their community is so valuable, and seems uniquely hard-won. They tell me “just being Kemi and Natasha” as an organisation wasn’t working, but it’s clear their indomitable personalities played a big part in Reformed’s successes. “We know people now with criminal records who want to do something positive with their lives because of us. I feel so proud of that,” says Kemi. “We know people going into various professions who are gonna hit it in their jobs with what they learned from us, and even more so because they still have our support.”
They tell me they’ve expanded their team, and work with some volunteers, but they’d sooner keep the operation small to ensure that the character of it is the same. “Reformed is a way of life,” Kemi states. “It’s a human approach. You have to have love in you. We’re small in numbers, but we don’t have a bad apple; and the love and integrity of the work is greater than having 100 people.” And at the heart of that small team is, undoubtedly, the powerful connection between the two of them: alike and unalike, united in their experiences, all the way back to their first night in prison where (to the chagrin of the guards) they pushed their two beds together to give each other comfort.
SITTING WITH Natasha and Kemi, everything they say about Reformed’s approach seems matter-of-factly obvious; you’re lit up by the undeniable fire they carry—its warmth draws you in, says you can do this too! It’s easy, in the moment, to forget how quickly that can be extinguished within an impersonal, unfeeling justice system which cares about punishment more than the person.
“How we work, and how we treat people, comes from the ways we were not treated,” Natasha explains. “A lot of people are quick to stereotype, quick to look down, quick to judge. And that shaped the way we work with people; it helped us to create a supportive, loving organisation. When you get someone who actually isn’t judging you, it’s so refreshing. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.”
“When people decide they want to change, that’s when others should come in to help them,” agrees Kemi. “That’s why we get bombarded,” Natasha continues. “It says a lot, how you treat people when they’re in their worst moment. You’ve got to respect people when they open up in the most vulnerable times in life. I’ve been challenged in that myself.”
“Sometimes the professional has the mindset of being ‘in the right’,” says Kemi thoughtfully, “and because you’re the one with the problem, you should listen to me. But how can a professional be in the position to tell someone what to do, if they’ve never experienced what that person has, and they won’t listen? It puts people off going to a service.”
Natasha joins in: “If a person comes to us and says, Natasha, I’m stressed out, I’m trying to get a job with a criminal record—well, has this person got somewhere to live? How is their mental health? You might have a conversation with a person and realise, if I just get Jenny a job, she’s not gonna have one next week—because actually, she’s not ready.”
Kemi reflects soberly on the problems that arise from a coldly procedural approach. “So many people commit suicide. So many people have mental health issues and never fully recover. A lot of people keep going back to prison for doing petty crimes, and it turns into serious crime, because when they come out they only get rejected from society.”
“It’s easier to stay in crime than it is to get out, that’s the problem,” Natasha concludes. “It should be the reverse. That, to me, is baffling.” I ask them if they think the system at large believes in rehabilitation at all. “You know what: no,” Kemi answers pointedly. Natasha adds: “It’s all ‘has she signed the paper, is she behind the door’—not about ‘Is she okay when she’s released, has she got a family?’”
That peer-to-peer compassion and understanding—not pity—sounds like the key to Reformed’s success and popularity among its service users. “Reformed doesn’t tell people what to do,” as Kemi puts it. “We want people to express themselves, build relationships, reveal their own personality. We can embrace your disadvantages. You’ve got to live with your faults and just be the best version of yourself that you can.”
Natasha implies that they adopted a ‘holistic’ approach to their service before they knew what it was called; it was just the thing that seemed obvious to them. They acknowledge that it’s not simple, even if it can be explained in a simple-sounding way; but what they’ve accomplished, through their own determination, is actually part of a pattern of peer-led services which has exploded around the world in the last ten years. Its origins lie in the disability activism of the 1990s, when the phrase Nothing About Us Without Us emerged to counteract trends of dependency and powerlessness; it has since grown into countless other arenas, where those with personal experience can best inform the processes that would benefit themselves and others. Not, I might add, that this is readily accepted or adopted by the existing systems.
THERE’S AN UNDERLYING factor in Reformed’s journey that begins to take shape as we talk. The fact that Kemi and Natasha are standard-bearers for Reformed’s success also brings up the reality that it needs to be a viable job in itself. Kemi explains that they can hardly convince people to follow their advice, and join their programs, if they themselves can’t earn a living. Natasha imagines the pitch: “Change your life around, and be broke!”
Despite the positive results they’ve seen, they’ve come up against a glaring reality: a criminal justice system, turned in on itself, uninterested in such a dynamic expression of social work; unable or unwilling to shift the paperwork to make their approach viable. On this topic, Natasha and Kemi sound like a well-rehearsed double act.
“You’ve got the criminal justice system spending billions of pounds,” Natasha says (and Kemi plays the hype woman, pointing at us in turn: “Your tax money! Yours, yours, mine…”) “They’re blaming the offenders, saying they don’t want to change… but when we go into prisons to do motivational speeches, why do we get 20 people out of 22 contacting us, saying they need help when they get out of prison? We’re this small organisation—why is it the people who are being released are now being directed to us”—she pauses dramatically—“and we’ve got no money?”
It’s a problem that stretches back to their first years out of prison, working as outreach coordinators for a well-heeled organisation. The three months that they agreed to work as volunteers stretched past a year; and by hedging the question of real employment, the organisation benefited from the sisters’ burgeoning skills and contacts twice over. In the meantime, Kemi and Natasha were struggling to eat and pay bills.
“We knew we were going through something, but we couldn’t identify the words for it,” Kemi explains. “We just wanted a job; we were going through feeling useless, unwanted. Opportunities were always going to other people.” They describe themselves, back then, as stung by the sense of time passing out of their control. “We’ve always said Reformed was born out of a lack of opportunity,” Kemi says, “as well as the disadvantages and discrimination we were facing.”
After that, those six years leading to the Crawford House shopfront were run on a shoestring, fuelled by their intense belief in the work; wanting to succeed both for their own sakes and for the love of all the people they were encountering. “Well, we know we’re broke, but we have to keep Reformed going,” as Natasha describes it. “We were running off no money, just donations and our own overtime. When you look at the lengths we’ve gone to: we’d walk to meetings; we’d never have credit!”
“We never had time to breathe; not knowing we could pay our bills, just going and going like a machine,” Kemi shakes her head. Natasha admits that this side of it was important in a sense: “We can identify with the people we’ve supported. It adds on to the richness of who we are.” But as Kemi concludes: “It reached the point we couldn’t do it any more; even apart from the finances, just for our mental health.”
There was nothing easy about the decision. When Natasha explains their own, continued vulnerability, it hits me: “If you come and take Reformed from us tomorrow, you’ve got to look at where we would be as two individuals, black with convictions,” she stresses. She imagines that they would be back at square one, unable to find work; in exactly the same boat as all the people they aim to help. It’s inconceivable on one level, but tragically believable at the same time.
“If you look at the statistics of area code, colour, everything—you would never have predicted us being where we are. You’re even lucky we’re here alive,” as Kemi puts it. “And we still see ourselves as vulnerable. Until our records are wiped—” Natasha bats away this idea disbelievingly “—we’re aware of how easily something can be given and taken away. Maybe you just make one decision, one that didn’t even settle with you but you had to move forward. It can all be taken away from you.”
HAPPILY, THE PASSIONISTS provided a wage for the two of them, just in time for the Coronavirus to hit; it provided stability, “the basis for us being able to grow and live,” as well as the invaluable feeling that someone was actually behind them, saying ‘I believe in you’. It also gave them the time to step back and reflect on the things that were unsustainable.
They’d been in their community long enough to start seeing the broader patterns and big-picture problems. Reflecting on their interaction with Ruth, Natasha stresses the responsibility and opportunity that comes with the trust they regularly received. “We can have a conversation and make people feel good, and that’s all gravy, but what do we do with that information? I’d be doing people a disservice—that they’ve brought this information, and I almost didn’t do nothing with it?” She shakes her head. “Cases are never one-offs; they represent realities that need to be addressed, changes that need to be implemented. That information can be going on to help future generations.”
On this basis, a relatively new strand to Reformed’s work has been presenting workshops to universities, teaching social workers how to interact with people with convictions and their families. “Most of the time, the professional doesn’t know that they’re causing more trauma with the way they treat their service users,” Kemi explains. “This is what’s so sad about it.” She compares it to her experiences as a service user herself, where there would always be a leaflet explaining how she was supposed to behave; but, she notes wryly, there was no equivalent telling the professional how to behave towards her.
More surprisingly (or not), she says the majority of the social workers they are now teaching come from a background where they just don’t know any black people. “I’m not saying there’s any wrong or right in that,” Kemi says graciously, “it’s just the reality of where you live. But a lot of the trainees are not comfortable with black families; they’re really not. The only way they’ve seen black people is on the TV, and usually in a negative way. We try to teach them some history; try to explain why someone might come to them already feeling negatively towards professionals.”
That’s something, again, the two of them are well-equipped to talk about: Toxteth, colloquially Liverpool 8 or L8, holds the longest-established black community in Britain. There is also a bitter and well-documented history between that community and the police, one which is by no means resolved today. “People here have experienced a lot of brutality,” Kemi puts it, “and if they haven’t, a family member has. Plenty of people came to our office with their police issues, where the police had raided their property, or other relational issues. They allowed us to be the middle person in resolving these issues, because they didn’t want to deal directly with a policeman.”
It’s a good sign, surely, that they are now being invited into University spaces to teach? “The University of Chester didn’t just want us to come in to do work,” Kemi agrees, “they wanted to help the movement. They’re actually encouraging Reformed to do more work, more publications, more research.” And with something a bit like irony, “being black and female, being rehabilitated ourselves, this is now a unique thing within our arena.”
The trust, and the responsibility, gained in that time at Crawford House, is now coming full circle. “Everything we collected in that office is what we’re moving forwards with today,” Natasha explains. “Why are people reoffending? What are the issues they’re dealing with in their communities? How does that affect the young person? We know it all, and I’m not blowing me own trumpet—just the way we work with people, we’ve gained that information naturally.”
We need Reformed. In fact, we need lots of organisations like Reformed. They address so accurately the faultlines of our modern Western societies: the empty wigs that categorise a human being “a criminal” and punish them without an end goal. The failure and suppression of community support. Even the well-meaning social workers who sign up to help but can’t comprehend the parallel universes that their charges inhabit. Kemi and Natasha have sat on the frontlines, stemming the flow of blood. They’ve been tested beyond what most of us would put up with. Now, finally, will we listen to them?
Find out more about Reformed, and help support their journey, at reformed16.com
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