Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Geetha Rabindrakumar of Communities & Impact at The Reader Is…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Geetha Rabindrakumar of Communities & Impact at The Reader Is Helping To Change Our World

It’s fine if you don’t have a career plan with a clear straight line. I started my career in charity finance and have now worked across finance, external engagement, services, evaluation and partnerships. For me, having had experience across different specialisms and in charities working for different causes helps me to draw connections, and collaborate better across teams internally and other organizations externally.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Geetha Rabindrakumar.

Geetha Rabindrakumar has volunteered in and worked for the UK charity and social enterprise sector since the age of 18, for different causes including homelessness, disability and international development, and has worked in director roles since 2009. She became a volunteer Trustee at The Reader in 2018, as she had a love of books and an interest in the charity’s work, though Board member she found herself a step removed from the work. So, she took advantage of a role within the charity that became available within its leadership team.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

During COVID, The Reader suspended its in-person Shared Reading groups — small, weekly groups that bring people together to talk, laugh and share literature — and adapted its offer to reading online and over the phone. Through the digital offer, I would often access The Reader’s Facebook Live recordings and the new podcast after long days of work and home schooling, and I felt a stronger personal connection to the work and the power of literature to offer solace and meaning during times of trouble.

After doing volunteer night shifts in a hotel housing former rough sleepers during COVID, I started a collaborative project with The Reader, Cardboard Citizens (a theatre company working with people experiencing homelessness) and St Mungos (a homelessness charity), to provide Shared Reading over the phone, and books and creative engagement remotely to hotel guests. Through this experience, I saw first-hand the impact of a space for creativity, reading and connection on the mental health of people in isolation.

A year later, when an opportunity came up to work at The Reader and focus all my work energy in support of its mission, I was glad to join the leadership team.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of our values is “We Read to Lead”. Most of our staff are trained in Shared Reading practice so that we can all incorporate it and the type of attention and care that it cultivates into our day-to-day roles. Last year, one of our volunteers invited me to visit their Shared Reading group which supports the wellbeing of over 55s at a local partner organisation in South London (Croydon BME Forum), and I was also asked to lead the Shared Reading session that day.

I took an extract from “The Lonely Londoners” by Sam Selvon, set in the 1950s and telling stories connected to the Windrush generation. I was a bit uncertain about whether this text would be difficult to discuss in this group (which is mainly attended by people from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities), but it was a truly wonderful session.

The writing drew the group in quickly and opened up a great conversation where individuals shared memories and experiences of their own journeys to London, from St Vincent, Kenya, Jamaica, Yorkshire and West Sussex. For me, the session felt like a vibrant social history lesson — with the group immediately connecting to the writing and talking vividly about many details of their own lives in London during the 1950s and 1960s. The conversation highlighted experiences that might be familiar to any stranger in London but also of alienation coming from different parts of the British Empire as well as the support for many new arrivals from communities who had already settled in London.

One group member, Claudette, kindly spoke to me later about that session, and how it brought back memories of coming to London as a 9 year-old, and meeting her mother for what felt like the first time, effectively as a stranger. She felt it was cathartic to be able to talk about difficult experiences that often lie beneath the surface, in a supportive space and told me: “Poetry is colourless, raceless, it’s an individual thing for everyone. If you’re looking for empathy and understanding, you’ll find it here. You might come to the group feeling burdensome, but you will leave feeling light.”

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The Reader is a national charity using the power of literature and reading aloud to transform lives. Every week, our volunteers and partners bring people together in small groups to read great poems and stories aloud, creating power moments of connection. This is Shared Reading, and you’ll find it in prisons, hospitals, libraries, schools, with children in care, community centres, in care homes and dementia services, in mental health services and in wider wellbeing services run by many local charities for people who need support. In a world that feels increasingly divided, and with increased pressures on our mental health, Shared Reading offers us time and space to have conversations that matter. The Reader’s work helps improve mental health, reduces loneliness and helps us find new meaning in our lives.

Recently we heard from a Shared Reading group run by Doncaster Mind in South Yorkshire (part of the Mind national mental charity network) which supports people with mental health needs, and we asked them what difference Shared Reading made to them. Some of the benefits of Shared Reading are difficult to get across to people before they’ve experienced it for themselves, and interestingly this group told us they were getting so much more than just reading and were not sure if they were ‘meant’ to!

Amongst other things, they decided the benefits they’ve found have stretched far beyond reading and said it was understanding mindfulness of their own situation, opening their mind to others’ views (some found themselves now far more patient and compassionate of others outside the group), learning, gaining confidence, and connecting. They practise listening and not talking for the chatty (or vice-versa for those with social anxiety as they braved reading aloud or tentatively sharing their thoughts). Most said they found themselves experiencing new trains of thought during the week in between sessions, noticing so much more, having gratitude and waking up their passion to get involved in something new. They’ve also found that they go away and share the text and insights with others, which they felt spread more of a mental boost to others who weren’t even there.

Many of them said it was impossible to put the unexpected benefits into one sentence, and they didn’t know they’d signed up for any of that! Yet they knew they valued it as one of their favourite times of the week — that even if they were having a hard time in other areas of their lives, they knew this was a safe space to just be valued as themselves, without any pressure to be anything other than they are. They were able to turn off and tune in to something else using literature as a base, just for that time.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

With over 400 groups happening every week, there are many people who value Shared Reading as an important time of their week and see the benefits for their mental health. For some people, the impact is life-changing. For example, Helen is a patient at the Chronic Pain clinic at Broadgreen Hospital in Liverpool, where a group has been running for some time. She had been feeling isolated following cancer treatment, and was referred to the Shared Reading group.

Helen talked to us last year about the impact of reading the poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost — “it just spoke to me because it was everything I had been through and it was showing me that I could rebuild again and that I would have the strength to take another path. At that time, I had felt that all I was was a tumour and that being Helen came second to that but through being part of the group I started to feel like Helen again”.

Helen’s experience shows that the conversations that happen in a Shared Reading group may not happen in other parts of your life — “It’s through the literature that we talk about how it relates to our lives and I find it easier to open up that way”.

Despite Helen’s chronic pain condition, Shared Reading has changed her life. She says “Through reading with others as part of my group I have been able to see a way ahead and it has given me the confidence to start to live my life again. I owe my life to that group and Shared Reading.”

Helen kept the group going online through COVID, and is now a trained Reader Leader volunteer and leads the group herself — we love seeing group members go on to lead groups!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We recently launched polling research on reading habits and mental health in the UK, which prompted a UK government response, on planned investment in mental health services in 2023/24. We believe Shared Reading provides a tool for wellbeing, that can help us survive and thrive, and it’s needed now more than ever as people are growing numbers of people are impacted by the cost of living crisis. It was also striking to see this year, Dr Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General called for more to be done in the US to improve social connection (we have similar issues in the UK) “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight — one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled and more productive lives.”

Reflecting on this, there are 3 things that would be helpful:

  • For government — Whilst UK government plans to expand access to NHS talking therapies for adults with mental health conditions are clearly welcome, with the scale of the mental health crisis, combined with rising demand and continued financial pressures for so many people, this will not be enough. More support for non clinical and community based solutions is urgently needed together with NHS services to address the challenges we face today: tackling the isolation so many people are experiencing, and preventing poor mental health from escalating to acute need.
  • For society — We’d love to see recognition that literature and access to reading (including through Shared Reading) isn’t a “nice to have”, but is an essential tool for wellbeing, perhaps more so now than ever. People can help themselves and others in their community by joining or running a Shared Reading group, and can continue to read aloud with their children, beyond the early years. We were interested to see that our polling showed that nearly two-fifths (38%) people agree that they can relate to literature about people in adverse times more now during a cost-of-living crisis compared to previous years and over 32% recognise that there are wellbeing benefits of reading aloud with other people, so we believe there is an opportunity to build on existing public understanding and bring Shared Reading to more people.
  • For leaders of health services and local community services: we would love the opportunity to work creatively and collaboratively to embed Shared Reading into mental health services and wider social infrastructure in local communities. Shared Reading can’t solve the underlying social determinants of health, but we can bring Shared Reading to places and people likely to be at greater risk of poor mental health.

How do you define “Leadership” in the sector? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me, leadership in the sector is about both sharing a vision for how the world can be better, modelling that vision wherever possible and being able to shape your organisation’s work to the reality as it is now, while demonstrably moving towards that vision. We want to build a world where everyone can experience the power of literature to help us survive and live well! That’s a big vision, and we hold it in our minds whilst we look at what the priorities and issues are in the world today, and how we can best connect to this. We’re starting work to grow Shared Reading within mental health services, and this is the area we’ll be focusing on over the next 3 years.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • It’s fine if you don’t have a career plan with a clear straight line. I started my career in charity finance and have now worked across finance, external engagement, services, evaluation and partnerships. For me, having had experience across different specialisms and in charities working for different causes helps me to draw connections, and collaborate better across teams internally and other organisations externally.
  • Find your own way to lead — you don’t have to imitate other people. I think this is particularly true if you don’t see yourself reflected in the leaders ahead of you, and you’re from a minority background, as was the case for me early in my career.
  • Spending time with people external to your organisation (and team) is an investment, for your work both short and longer term. I spent 6 years working in social impact investment for Big Society Capital, the world’s first social investment wholesaler, in an external engagement role building relationships with the charity and social enterprise sector. Previously, I’d seen networking as a luxury on top of the day job — when it became my day job, my perspectives on social issues broadened and deepened, and I’ve had the privilege of connecting with and being inspired by many, many leaders doing wonderful work over the years, and it’s been brilliant to continue to collaborate with some of them in new ways since then.
  • Difficult experiences are where you will learn the most and where innovation happens. This feels true both at individual level and for organisations — we saw in COVID how the charity and social enterprise sector adapted their work, and how learning around digital was accelerated — many of those adaptations are permanent improvements now.
  • Enjoy the milestone moments and take time to look back at progress and how far things have come. We can do this for our teams, organisations and in the fields we work in. Shared Reading started off over 20 years ago with a few staff and groups on the Wirral near Liverpool. Now in the UK we have over 430 Shared Reading groups for adults and over 560 volunteers and partners who are running groups, and we have inspired an international movement of Shared Reading which is happening in at least 17 countries across the world.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would inspire a movement that could make our quality of our connections with other people and the attention, care and understanding we experience in our day to day and ups and downs of life feel like what exists inside a Shared Reading group.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In March 2020 when lockdown started, and The Reader had to suspend its face-to-face work, our founder Jane Davis shared a video message for staff, volunteers and supporters, talking of the tough times and uncertainty ahead. As so often, she read out some literature, in this instance a line from Shakespeare’s play A Winter’s Tale: “It is required. You do awake your faith”. This spoke to me so strongly, and I held onto this line in the midst of the overwhelm of the beginning of COVID and its impact on home, work and school. To me, this line speaks to the responsibility I feel we have to hold on to a belief that better and different things are possible and will happen in future, and to work towards making them a reality.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to invite great thinkers and activists to join a Shared Reading session and bring them to a different type of conversation! I would love to see what people we are inspired by make of the wisdom, support, joy, humour, tears, personal challenge, emotional connection and companionship you find in Shared Reading groups. For starters, I’d love to invite Claudia Rankine from the US to a Shared Reading group. Her great work Just Us: An American Conversation inspired us during our organisational project to use Shared Reading of black literature to have more nuanced and meaningful conversations about race and racism, as part of our Equity Diversity and Inclusion work.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find out more about our work online:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Geetha Rabindrakumar of Communities & Impact at The Reader Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.