Theresa Lola looks back on her time as Young People’s Laureate For London, 2019-2020

Special Feature

As Young People’s Laureate for London 2019-20, Theresa has performed and led workshops across London, as well as internationally in Singapore and Nigeria, and led online campaigns to engage young people with issues around mental health. Theresa tells us about her time as laureate: 

“My time as Young People’s Laureate for London has come to an end, and I am grateful for what has been an enlightening and nourishing role. I cannot begin without praising Spread the Word for their invaluable support. At the start of the role the aim was to focus on the use of poetry to address young people’s wellbeing and mental health. We ran two social media poetry campaigns, something I would have not had the confidence to do before. The first campaign was #MyMentalHealthJourney supported by Young Minds charity, it involved young people writing and sharing poems to enlighten others about mental health. The poems were touching and brave. The second campaign #SayYourPeace was a highlight, it was launched at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and encouraged people to share poems about the things bringing them peace. The poems reminded me of the power of poetry in responding to the world. Witnessing the change poetry brought to young people was the main highlight, whether it was through workshops, events, interviews, social media campaigns or mentoring sessions.

Through the role I got to carry out varied residencies. The residency at Bethlem Museum of the Mind, an international archive of art around mental health, involved working with young women to write poems in response to the Four Ages of Woman exhibition which explored the social view of women’s mental health. Wellbeing and its cross arts responses are an interest of mine, and I gained useful ideas from the residency which will be relevant to my post-laureateship journey. The residency at Wellcome Collection museum was the longest of the residencies and allowed for an exploration of different topics in the poetry workshops, such as identity, wellbeing, climate change, and home. Seeing the young people bond over time and continue to write was a joy to witness. The residency at Free Word Centre explored young people’s relationship to housing in London, it culminated with an event which included commissioned poems by two additional poets, and audio recordings of us in conversation accompanied by moving illustrations. The residency at St Paul’s Cathedral was a dive into the history, architecture, and art at the St Paul’s Cathedral, I received detailed historical information and resources I would not have had access to before. The residency involved working with two secondary schools to write poems about how the cathedral leads us to ponder on hope.

Taking on the role as Young People’s Laureate for London has opened my eyes to the unlimited possibilities of what it means to be a poet. The role took me around London, wider England, and internationally to places like Singapore and Nigeria. It allowed me to see the importance of finding different ways to engage young people with poetry. I recently got signed by Peter Fraser Dunlop literary agency, and I look forward to writing towards my next body of work. I am moving forward with a clearer intent in the future, but with an openness to what lies ahead.”

Reaching and engaging young people

During her tenure, Theresa led four residencies and produced four commissioned residency poems, the residencies were with:

  • St Paul’s Cathedral – exploring the theme of ‘hope’ across several sessions with classes from West London Free School, Hammersmith and Archbishop Tenison School, Croydon;

  • Free Word Centre – delivering masterclasses with emerging writers with themes of housing and home, supported by resources from Shelter;

  • Wellcome Collection – engaging a group of young people with their ‘Being Human’ exhibition in partnership with Wellcome’s RawMinds programme;

  • Bethlem Museum of the Mind – engaging young women writers with the museum’s ‘Four Ages of Woman’ exhibition and female perspectives on mental health.

Theresa also ran a month-long online poetry writing group with poet Gabriel Jones. This supported 20 emerging writers to create new work, and to together offer feedback and critical perspectives on each other’s work.

In addition, Theresa undertook a further 70 engagements across her tenure, including:

  • Taking part in an international Laureate exchange, welcoming young Laureates from the United States for a panel discussion;

  • Having her work translated into Italian and Greek;

  • Performing at events at the National Portrait Gallery, Bradford Literature Festival, Southbank Centre and BBC Radio Theatre;

  • Leading workshops for, among many others, the National Gallery, National Literacy Trust and the Poetry Society.

  • Judging the National Prison Radio poetry prize;

  • Participating in panel debates for the Tate Britain’s Steve McQueen exhibition, the Grief Network podcast and for Singapore Writers Festival;

  • Delivering workshops for Save the Children working with young girls in Nigeria;

  • Producing new writing on commission for the BBC for National Poetry Day, Tate Modern and for the BBC Young Reporters Awards.

As part of her #MyMentalHealthJourney and #SayYourPeace campaigns, Theresa also:

  • Produced a film poem alongside Caleb Femi and Momtaza Mehri for the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine programme;

  • Engaged over 1,000 vulnerable young people in Lewisham with workshops, activity packs and online resources in partnership with charity Youth First;

  • Produced 4 new poems about young people’s mental health;

  • Hosted a reading for young poets at the Royal Academy.

Over her time as laureate, Theresa reached an audience of over 6,440 people delivering face-to-face workshops to more than 1,370 young people. Her online campaigns reached over 200,000 viewers and participants online.

Media coverage

Theresa and her work have featured across the media, including: the Voice, the Guardian, the Evening Standard, the Financial Times, Positive News, PORTER magazine and Singapore’s Straits Times. She has appeared for interviews and as a guest on BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 5 Live, and BBC Radio London, as well as Times Radio, and BBC London News.

In 2019 Theresa was photographed alongside poet Malika Booker for the September issue of British Vogue, guest edited by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex. In August 2020 Theresa was selected by guest editor Bernadine Evaristo to appear in a feature ‘Here We Are’ in the Sunday Times’ Style magazine, as one of the voices shaping the culture of tomorrow.

Spread the Word would like to thank Theresa for all her hard work, her poetry and her dedication and commitment to engaging with young people and supporting young poets. Theresa has been an amazing Young People’s Laureate for London. It has been an honour working with her and we wish her all the best as she moves on to the next stage of her career.

Published 1 October 2020