Platforms and paint recycling at Seagulls

This is a bespoke article written for the third edition of the printed Hoot newsletter for students in secure environments.

While listening to the BBC podcast ‘The Big Green Money Show’, I heard an interview with a co-founder of Seagulls, a social enterprise that recycles waste paint into new. When Ruksar Ajmal, an ex-offender who runs courses and mixes colours was mentioned, I knew I had to try to get an interview for this edition of The Hoot.

The image shows the store front of Seagulls Paint. Image by Seagulls Paint.After a few friendly emails back and forth with Seagulls co-founder Cat Hyde, I finally got to meet Ruksar online in early February. Ruksar appears in various marketing videos for Seagulls, and even featured in The Guardian in 2019. Seagulls too feels like an organisation on the up and hugely relevant, winning best Environmental Social Enterprise in Yorkshire & Humber 2022, and of course, being interviewed by Dragon’s Den star Deborah Meaden for her BBC podcast. Seagulls take those half-empty cans of paint we tend to have after a DIY job and blends them into new, full tins; everything from emulsion and gloss to decking and masonry paints. Diverted from landfill, through Seagulls these paints get to be painted onto someone else’s walls, skirting boards or decking. Seagulls colour match too, so if you want ‘Kermit the Frog Green’ walls, Seagulls can make it for you.

The image shows Ruksar standing on a container full of paint cans.Image by Seagulls Paint.Ruksar has been with Seagulls since 2007. Over this time he’s been involved in everything, from paint mixing and running decorating courses for the public, to mentoring and guiding new employees and young people coming to Seagulls via Youth offending teams and Social Services. He describes this variation and the opportunities he has to help people as the reason he’s lasted so long at Seagulls, “and still have that energy and enthusiasm”.

Ruksar went into prison at the age of 23, before he’d even heard of Seagulls, and having served four years of his six year sentence, was released at 27. Having never worked before, he wanted to learn a trade: “All I knew was a life of crime”, he tells me, “I thought: I need to change this when I get out”. On day release from open prison towards the end of his sentence he was able to study decorating by attending building college; “a privilege that can be given to you, and one that can be taken away”. He describes this as one of the “platforms” he was given to make the change he’d decided to make. Platforms come up regularly in my discussion with Ruksar, both as recognition for the opportunities others have given to him, while simultaneously giving himself due credit for hunting them out and making the most of them.

Ruksar tells me none of it was easy; opportunities were limited and “there was a lot of politics involved”. In open prison, he wrote over 100 letters asking for an opportunity and received just two replies, both of which kindly wished him good luck but offered no role. “As soon as they hear you’re from prison that’s it, game over”, he tells me. So he decided that if letters weren’t working, he’d have to get himself out into the world as best he could so that people could meet him, rather than just reading his words. Understandably, this wasn’t simple: “There were very few opportunities back then. I had to make my own doors. It wasn’t easy”, he says. While at college and still in open prison, he was eventually able to find a volunteering opportunity with an organisation called Canopy. Finally, Canopy introduced him to Seagulls, where he’s been ever since.

The image shows two boots covered in paint. Image by Seagulls Paint.These days, Ruksar uses his considerable communication and interpersonal skills as a means to connect with people from all backgrounds. Anyone can attend his courses or have paint mixed at Seagulls, and in the cost of living crisis they have seen more people who want to save money by learning DIY skills. I find Ruksar simultaneously inspirational, motivated, down to earth and funny, and I can quickly see how these qualities result in fun and highly effective courses. I ask whether teaching is something that has come naturally to him: “I’ve had to learn my basics, but I’ve always been a people type of person, always interested in people and talking; I can talk the arse off a donkey!”, he tells me with a grin. “It’s showing humility, being compassionate and just being a nice person. If you create a good energy around yourself, you project that energy onto others. If you’re bitter about everything, you’re going to have that aura about you”. (At this point I mention a video I’d seen of him talking about positivity, where he says: “You can’t be a sauerkraut!”. With a big laugh he says: “I like that one… It’s true!”)

Ruksar is passionate about his teaching: “I feel strongly about it and I feel I can help a lot of people”, particularly when it comes to using decorating as “a platform [that word again, but this time used for R offering others a platform] to help others”. He uses his background to his advantage, as a means to communicate with people who perhaps wouldn’t respond were it not for his own lived experiences. “Words are powerful, but with the people I come into contact with it’s more about setting a good example, especially with the young people I meet, who may have been lost for some time. They might be dabbling in drugs or are with the wrong people, and they don’t see light at the end of the tunnel. With my back story, I see that slowly I’m getting into them because I’ve been there, worn the t-shirt.”

Ruksar lives by his words and by his experience, recognising the value in the opportunities he worked so hard for, and seeing that others may also need that type of hand-up (he dislikes the word ‘handouts’). 

What seagulls did for me is they gave me a platform to grow and to mature, but they didn’t do it for me; you’ve got to make your own path. It’s giving people a chance, see the potential in people and nurturing that potential so it can grow.

The image shows a store room full of paint. Image by Seagulls Paint.

Asked if he has any advice for anyone reading his story, who may be studying or thinking of studying he tells me: “Believe in yourself and in your ability. Don’t give up. Doors will be closed in front of you. I had to fight for it. It wasn’t easy. If you believe in whatever you want to do, whether it be building or studying, go for it. Go all out.”

Find out more about Seagulls Reuse Paint and follow them on Instagram

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Tom Mitchell

Tom is a member of the Students Association staff team.


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