The power of poetry: Sydenham Arts explores women’s safety

Poet Esme Allman leading the poetry writing workshop. Pic: Martha Scott. 

Coloured pens and blank pages. A small group of Lewisham residents gathered to do something which many find deeply uncomfortable: sharing how they feel.

And yet on a cold November night, that’s exactly what Sydenham Arts offered the space to do as locals were invited to partake in a poetry writing workshop with a purpose.

Falling within the UN’s 16 days of Activism to end violence against women and girls, the workshop saw attendees writing, sharing and discussing their lived experiences of gender through various poetic styles.

The event was run as part of a wider initiative called StreetSmArt, an intergenerational programme that aims to help local communities address public sexual harassment through artistic self-expression.

The workshop, held at Ignition Brewery, in Sydenham, marked just over a year of the StreetSmArt project and is one of a host of activities and campaigns taking place across ELL boroughs to signal the period of activism.

Chief Executive of the programme Sheree-Marie Abraham welcomed attendees with tea and biscuits on the evening and told Eastlondonlines: “It is unequivocal, in our eyes, that the arts, across all wonderful forms and disciplines, is the voice through which we can propel and promote change, inspiration and connectivity.

“We know good things, ideas and change happen when we come together and, as a hyper-local organisation rooted in our community, we want to provide those creative safe spaces to tell our stories, comment, challenge and investigate hugely important and relevant issues such as women’s safety.”

Beyond the evening, the StreetSmArt project has already hosted a number of artistic community events including tapestry work, a film screening of Oscar and BAFTA-nominated animated film, Persepolis, and a dedicated StreetSmART episode on the Sydenham Arts vodcast.

Previous community events included a tapestry workshop. Pic: Martha Scott

Upcoming events include a young people workshops in local Secondary schools.

These workshops will work closely with children to explore the issues around women’s safety and focus on how to navigate gender-based violence in an empowered way.

Similar topics guided the hour-and-a-half poetry session led by local poet, Roundhouse Resident Artist and facilitator Esme Allman. On the evening, written tasks centred themes of femininity, desire, injustice and childhood, and concluded with a group discussion of poems written by artists Rachel Long and Kim Moore.

During an exercise where attendees were invited to respond to the prompt “rage”, one of the women in the group wrote the following:

Adding to its programme of public events, the StreetSmArt project also launched a ward-level survey earlier this year which aims to map sexual harassment hotspots across Sydenham.

The survey mirrors a similar campaign in Ladywell ward with both initiatives winning funding from the National Community Infrastructure Levy Fund.

It is hoped responses to these surveys will help better understand the experiences of marginalised groups in the borough and redirect resources to where they are needed most.

The StreetSmArt series will conclude in March 2024 with a Women’s Safety Charter, a high-visibility public installation and a sculpture made by a local female artist which will be positioned next to the Sydenham Centre.

The project will also be working in partnership with local businesses to create emergency safety cards for those who find themselves in difficult situations.

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