Ryan, speaking at a fireside chat (PHOTO: THE CATALYST COLLECTIVE)
In this edition of Groundup Features: we speak to Ryan, founder of The Catalyst Collective – a groundup initiative which aims to utilise the power of narratives to inspire hope. Through the events they host and the activities they offer, they serve to complement existing mental health initiatives. They engage relatable, youth speakers to showcase not just the successes, but also the arduous journeys.
Editor’s Note: The following article includes mentions of depression, anxiety and mental health. Reader discretion is advised.
Hi everyone, I’m Ryan and I am currently on an internship programme with Pan Pacific Hotels Group. I am also the founder of The Catalyst Collective! We are a youth-led groundup that hopes to build a collaborative ecosystem which can empower our youth to become active change makers within the Mental Health landscape.
Back in 2011, I was bullied badly in secondary school, to the extent where I developed depression and anxiety. Many other bad things happened to me — the lack of support, mental health stigma, gaslighting etc. When I tried to seek help and said that I was struggling, my voice was always taken away from me. I also did badly on my GCE O-Level Examinations, since I did not attend school most of the time.
When I went to Polytechnic (Poly), amidst difficulty, I started doing well. I remember my lecturer saying how I sounded different from typical students. She told me, “Let me give you a chance. I am making you the class chairperson.” Of course, the action itself did not immediately inspire me to become the best student overnight. However, at the end of the semester, when I received my first GPA result — a 4.0, I cried tears of joy. There was this sudden realisation that I had the power to rewrite my narrative.
My past is still an obstacle, but that does not mean it determines my future. I started working hard and I slowly became one of the more prominent student leaders in my faculty. There was this desire in me to focus on education equity, empowerment, and mental health.
With all these experiences under my belt, I joined MOE’s ‘What’s Your Take – Youth Edition’ (WYT-YE) engagement series in 2020. This was how the vision of The Catalyst Collective was created, and how I decided to utilise the concept of rewriting narratives which came from my experiences (more on this shortly!)
Participants at the launch of The Catalyst’s Adventurers Guild: Party Quest (PHOTO: THE CATALYST COLLECTIVE)
We have two initiatives that we are working on, to support us with this vision.
The first initiative is called #RewritingNarratives. This is a seasonal project that we are currently working on and refining, but we intend to continue this in the future. Our thought process was, “How can we use the power of narratives to inspire hope amongst youth?” It is similar to the TED Talk Series concept, but with a focus on youth sharing about their mental health journey instead.
If I were to put a CEO as a speaker, and he were to say, “I struggled when I was younger but look where I am now!” — this isn’t something that is very relatable. Especially for someone like me, who has struggled with mental health issues before, it feels very disconnected. What people who are struggling truly need, is for others to support, understand and empathise with them. We want to showcase a journey that focuses not just on the success, but also the struggles — especially the current ones. Having youths like myself to share our stories is a lot more powerful.
Participants enjoying a round of card games (PHOTO: THE CATALYST COLLECTIVE)
The next initiative is called The Catalyst’s Adventurers Guild — our community building initiative. We want to inspire youths to build a community from the ground up and create a space where outliers and students who are struggling, can have a beacon of hope. Essentially: a home to return to; a home away from home. They can meet new people away from the usual environments they are put in, and play board games. Basically, quirky initiatives that hope to complement existing mental wellness initiatives that are run by other partners and organisations.
We recently partnered with The Mind Cafe and launched Party Quest, an event that uses the power of board games to bring youths together. We want youths to interact with strangers to play board games. Although it is a very simple concept, it is a very powerful one. We are hoping to run Party Quest every quarter!
The second part to this initiative is the Guild Lounge — a smaller scale version of Party Quest. The Guild Lounge is also not exclusive to The Mind Cafe. The biggest difference apart from being able to host this in schools and community centres, is that we are combining it with Dungeons & Dragons.
If you have never heard of Dungeons & Dragons before, it is a tabletop role-playing game (RPG). Instead of a computer RPG or traditional board game, it is heavily reliant on storytelling. There is a Dungeon Master who will set the narrative. You, as the player would go along with it, make decisions, engage in combat, so on and so forth.
Once again, it falls back to the concept of utilising and refining narratives to attract and empower youths, build up community initiatives, and to create a mental health narrative as a whole.
The first encouraging moment was our #RewritingNarratives event, where people cried. Okay, I know that sounded weird but let me clarify! When I shared my story, some members of the audience started crying and this shocked me. It made me realise the power of narratives. When done in the right way and within the right space, it can lead to a profound effect where it can really inspire hope and change.
I have a few principles: People usually say how the world is evil, the world is realistic, and therefore you should not be honest. My answer is this: Why can’t we be better? Why can’t we be good? Why can’t we exceed our limits? I don’t mean this in a bad way. Just because society dictates something as such, does not mean we cannot break out of the boundaries.
The second principle is to inspire hope. I might not be able to change the whole world, but I can change the lives of a few people. These said people would then go ahead to change the lives of many others, creating a chain effect. The “crying” actually made me feel quite human. Funnily enough, lots of people think that I’m a robot at this point of time, since I’m doing a lot – with my groundup and other commitments.
The second encouraging moment is how we got volunteers to join us. One of them is our artist-in-residence, who resonated greatly with our vision and wanted to support the cause. Not just her, but our photographer-in-residence as well, who was really inspired by us. We also had an emcee who decided to continue volunteering with us, after joining us at our Party Quest. There is a powerful idea of how the power of vision and the power of narratives can help reel people in.
Ryan, second from right, together with other panel speakers from the Mental Health ecosystem (PHOTO: THE CATALYST COLLECTIVE)
Firstly, getting people to buy into the vision that everyone can flourish, without having to hide behind the various stigmas of society — proved to be a challenge. Because of my own mental health journey, I am coming from the perspective of someone who has lived through it, and thus understands it. I can understand the painful issues of the target audience, despite not being a trained psychologist/psychiatrist. A lot of things I say can come across as conflicting, compared to the stance professional stakeholders may take.
It is difficult to get people to resonate with the vision, to understand some of the youth, especially myself, and the things we say. We want our narrative to be acknowledged for us to truly move forward, and it’s so hard to obtain the resources needed to enable that ecosystem to be created.
This brings me to my second challenge: Aligning our efforts with other partners, to enhance mental wellness for all! We try to promote better collaboration but it is rather difficult to integrate the different partners, because of their independent goals. To solve this, we are looking to expand our partnerships outside of the mental health landscape, with banks and corporate organisations. We hope to diversify the support in the ecosystem instead of merely relying on mental health stakeholders.
Firstly, I guess you need to be a little bit of a hustler. You have to be thick-skinned, although I find myself rather shy. I may appear as jovial and bubbly, but I still struggle with a lot of anxiety. You have to be able to approach people, even though you know you might be rejected. Still, reach out to them — reach out to different people, and network with them! Be open to criticism in terms of refining your ideas continuously. Don’t be stubborn and hold onto a high ego. Think of how to make your vision into reality, while also understanding the current climate. For certain things that you can’t do, put it on an inspiration board. Also, be open to being mentored!
Secondly, always look out for opportunities. I didn’t know about Groundup Central’s existence until I accidentally stumbled upon it whilst googling. I thought “Ooh, okay, this seems to align with our vision!”. I contacted your team, the magic happened, and here I am! So, keep a lookout for opportunities. Even if you are afraid, take them up. Although having said that, understand your schedule as well. Avoid getting burnt out. Assuming your opportunities are plenty, choose them wisely.
Last but not least, find the right people for your team. This is very difficult, and it was a lesson I learnt as well. The pioneer team of The Catalyst Collective didn’t gel well because of differing visions. It caused friction, as there were disagreements on the type of initiatives The Catalyst Collective should be creating. If you find the right people, you form a team that has an open dynamic where you understand each other well. Of course there will be conflicts and you can argue with each other, but eventually everyone comes to a compromise and moves on. In my experience, the pioneer team was dissolved mutually and we onboarded new core team members.
A volunteer kicking off The Catalyst’s Adventurers Guild: Party Quest with an introduction (PHOTO: THE CATALYST COLLECTIVE)
Our instagram is @thecatalyst.sg and our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We are currently looking for U.I. and U.X. designers, social media managers, and a secretary for Ryan! We also wish to launch our YouTube channel, though it is still in the works! In conclusion, if our work resonates with you — support us on Instagram, and join us for our events.
We are also trying to launch the second Party Quest with The Mind Cafe, either in late July or early August. Do take note that there will be a small entry fee! Guild Lounge might also happen sooner than we expect. The beauty of Guild Launch is that we can host it in different locations. If you want the Guild Launch to be hosted in your school, scream it on Instagram, scream it to your school, and we’ll follow up with your school! After a long day, you can come down, chill with your friends and play some board games. You can follow me on Linkedin as well – Ryan Ong, if you want to know more about the Catalyst Collective, or if you see any room for collaboration.
It comes back to my vision — empowering youths through rewriting narratives. We wish for every youth to not struggle in the darkness, where they can flourish and pursue their own dreams. We want to lay the foundations for our future generations, where everyone can obtain the support and safe environment they need, to pursue their dreams. We call it, “Pay it Forward”, to contribute back to the grander ecosystem and help others as well. We want to get our youths to be happier, obtain a safe environment, and hopefully through our actions, be inspired to do the same for their peers.
Ryan, in white, engaging youth participants through card games (PHOTO: THE CATALYST COLLECTIVE)
During my free time, I’m always thinking of the Catalyst Collective. Even though the Catalyst Collective counts as work; because it is my passion, it rejuvenates me a lot. I enjoy the work I’m doing, I enjoy meeting people. All of these are thus unexpected little pockets of joy. I have social anxiety, and I fear people, but I enjoy connecting with them and learning new things, understanding the world, and how to be better.
Also, the team and I love board games a lot and it has helped to strengthen our friendship. We wanted to spread that joy around, and that’s why Party Quest exists! My right-hand woman, Glenda; we play board games at her house. I met some of her friends for the first time, and we were playing this game called Munchkins. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know them, but I was already forming alliances with them so that we could win! All these spontaneous interactions that hinge on competitiveness are really fun and chaotic. I love this chaos, I love the strategy, and I love making new friends from this.
* This feature has been edited for clarity
About the authors:
Nicole is currently an undergraduate, and intern at Groundup Central. She longs to see a world where there is no longer any conflict or suffering.
Jannelle is Content Producer at Groundup Central. Armed with her camera, she looks forward to meeting & documenting the everyday heroes of our lives.
Join our mailing list to get updated on the latest groundup happenings!
National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre
Copyright © 2023 Groundup Central. All rights reserved.