Welcome to our series BRN GRL WIN. Every Friday, we introduce you to movers and shakers who are KILLING the game. These are women of color we admire and are inspired by, and we want you to be too! (If you know someone who would be great for BRN GRL WIN, let us know!)
POET and activist
"Staying still is one of the hardest things mankind can do," Ramya Ramana says in her popular poem "Miss America", a response to the backlash after Nina Davuluri became the first Indian American to win the pageant in 2013.
The first-generation American poet and activist has proven that sentiment to be true. She found success at an early age when she was awarded the title of Youth Poet Laureate of New York City in 2014 and she hasn't stopped moving since then. Shortly after, she went on to perform at high-profile events like the inauguration ceremony for NYC mayor Bill De Blasio and published her first book Don't Drown Her in the Baptism.
Ramya's energy is what led us to invite her to be the featured performer at our most recent BRN GRL SPK event This is My Home (Too). She captured the room's attention for twenty minutes as she recited poems about being a woman, loving others too much, not loving yourself enough, and navigating life while figuring it all out.
But Ramya will be the first to tell you that she doesn't have it figured out, and that when one finds success so soon, it can be easy to get overwhelmed or worry about living up to the reputation you've created for yourself.
We sat down with Ramya last week and she told us how her faith has kept her grounded through everything and why "God is love" has become one of the central messages in her work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let's start from the beginning. How did you get into poetry and learn to use your words for art?
I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always written poetry. The way that I got involved in the poetry community and the arts world in New York City is by joining this organization called Urban Word NYC. They have free after school creative writing workshops and they also host a number of [poetry] slams, including the slam for Youth Poet Laureate. That's really how I started to write and got involved in the poetry world.
What does your art mean to you? Everyone writes for different reasons. Why do you write?
You know what’s interesting? When I was younger, I wrote as a necessity. It’s what I needed to survive. I was a first generation American and we moved to Long Island post-9/11. I was just one of the very few brown girls or women of color in a predominately white space. [Writing] was how I navigated. It was always a coping mechanism for me. I never thought I was going to do something with this. It was what I did. It was how I existed.
For me now, it changes when it’s first a passion and then becomes a career. There’s all this pressure. You start overhinking it. You start doubting it. So now I feel like I put that on myself. But I've always just written because I needed to.
At what point did you realize this was something you could make a career?
I originally performed at my church. That was my first performance. It was the summer after 10th grade and I performed and did my poem and people were really impacted. That was a really new experience for me. So that's when I joined Urban Word. I found them on YouTube and I was like, I've got to join.
Everything happened so fast and so young for me. It kind of had to happen for me to make it a reality. I was 18 when I became the Youth Poet Laureate and I didn't expect that. I didn't imagine that my year - all glory to God - would have been the year that it was.
I always thought all the other poets were so much greater. It wasn't really until people really affirmed me that I was like, okay, what are you doing God? Maybe I can do something with this.
And what kind of message do you try to send with your writing?
Most of my work is definitely about race and gender and my experience being a woman of color and being a person of faith. That’s always what I talk about. I definitely am trying to open up my narrative because as I’ve grown, I’ve had more experiences. But I’d really like people to understand God’s love. That’s the most important thing, you know? We think love is just this romantic thing but it’s so much more. What does love look like economically, socially, or politically? It encompasses all things, but I do want people to recognize God's love, not only in my work but in me as a person.
Speaking of economically, socially, and politically, where does your work come into play in today's climate? Things are obviously not at their best --
It's the apocalypse! (LAUGHS)
Right? I was trying to think of a nice way to put it. We could do better as a country to say the least. Where do you see your place in that? Your work and what you bring to the table, in all of that?
I haven't created or put out new work in a while so in that aspect, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I feel like I should be doing something, but I don’t know what I should be putting out. I would say the work that I've already put out, and the work of other poets and other artists - even if it was put out four or five years ago - the message of it is still relevant today.
My goal right now is to empower people of color. And also, I’ve been in the church for about nine years now and when I was in Long Island, my church was predominately white, upper middle class, and a lot of them did vote for Trump. So for me, it's confronting them and confronting people of faith who have the audacity to not listen to the voices of marginalized people.
I would hope those are the conversations my work could spark now. What does being a person of faith look like in this time? What does it look like to be involved?
A lot of people who do your kind of work - and honestly, just anyone who's aware of what's going on around them - can get exhausted quickly. You say you want to enlighten and challenge the people around you, but how do you do that and take care of yourself?
It’s a battle for sure. A few years back, I was really swamped with being a full time student and doing all these shows. And a lot of the times the spaces I was in were filled with politicians or people who haven't necessarily opened their ears to work that's similar to mine, and I was put in this space where they have to listen to me anyway.
Sometimes that can be really exhausting. It’s just nice to be able to perform your poems in front of people that actually receive it. When people don’t receive it or when people are skeptical or when people are uncomfortable, it feels like so much more work. It feels like, is this working or effective?
So I just took two years off. I worked at a restaurant as a host and I met some of the best people in my life there. I made really strong bonds with people there. To me, that was really powerful. Having that sense of community, having people you can love and love you back for who they are. For me, that's self care. I really value the people that are in my life. I have my circle. I'm very loyal to them. Hold the ones you love close. That's what keeps you sane.
Besides poetry, what other things inspire you? What other things are you passionate about or keep you going?
I’m a teacher right now. That’s my day job. I enjoy it because it’s so interesting to hear the students and the things they’re gifted with. There are always so many treasures in every single student.
I also absolutely love The Office. I love to come home and watch The Office. It just really gets me through (LAUGHS).
Definitely my relationship with God, but that's not something I do. I feel like that's a part of me. No matter where I go, no matter what I do, God is with me.
Other than that, I love listening to good music. I love hanging out with my friends, the people I'm close with. I appreciate little things. I’m sure you know, most people that live in New York, that have to work and hustle, it's just being able to hang out with a friend. Sometimes it's so hard to do because everyone's schedule is so different, so I appreciate moments like that a lot.
What would you say are some of the important things you've learned in life?
That’s a good question. First of all, I would say that God is real and God is loving. That’s the most important thing.
The second is you’ve gotta dream. The same dream you had when you were 13 and just entering high school? It’s in you for a reason. Just because you’re in your twenties now and you feel like you should be there already ... you should have that same fire you had when you were 13.
Sometimes you get caught up in the work of it and you get caught up in the busyness of life. People get caught up in the "If I'm not here by 21..." or "If I'm not here by 25..." or "If I'm not here by 30..." What does that mean about me as a person? What does that say about my value, my worth to the world?
The dream that’s in you is in you. Sometimes we try to plan it in our timeline and that’s not always how it works. But when it does happen, you'll recognize why it happened then. Don’t stop dreaming.
If you could speak to your younger self, if you could speak to the other BRN GRLs out there, what message would you share?
We aren’t a monolith. There’s so many different ways of expressing and being. You’re free to be that. You’re free to find that. Wherever you go. Wherever you are. Even if it’s not the best place for yourself, there’s no shame in that. Keep trying, don’t give up. If you haven’t found your voice yet, if you haven’t found who you are yet, keep trying, because you will. There’s no shame in figuring it out.
What does BRN GRL WIN mean to you?
It could mean several things. There’s the material way of winning, the physical steps: graduating college, getting your dream job. All those things are really great especially when there's so many more obstacles our way.
But then there's the internal win. I’ve seen people - and it’s really sad - they achieve everything they want to do but they go home and they’re still so sad and so lonely. I would hope that win is also liberating inside as it is manifesting on the outside.
For me, when I hear that, I want to see BRN GRL WIN all around. Internally, externally, however that manifests into the world and in your relationship with yourself.