Sam Cresswell (SC): We extend a special welcome to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans, as well as to all those who are heterosexual and cisgender.  Whether you are as camp as Christmas or as stealth as a spy, whether you are single, partnered or polyamorous, whether you fought for equal marriage or find the whole thing archaic, you are welcome here.

Neil Roberts (NR): In this edition of The Community Business Fix, we are in Manchester, taking up the invitation of The Proud Trust, the UK’s only purpose-build LGBT+ centre.

SC: For those of you who are fleeing homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and are seeking asylum or refugee status, we are pleased you are here and you are our neighbours.

NR: The centre is home to the Sidney Street Café where, in the entrance, a poster proclaims Proud’s welcoming philosophy.

SC: If you are hungry, you are welcome, for all you hippy vegans, meat reducers and for those who just like great, affordable, homely food, then let us feed you.

NR: For Nice, now a café worker here, the poster was the first thing they saw when coming for a job interview.

Nice Butler Walsh (NBW): I remember sitting down at a table, waiting to be interviewed and reading their poster, and then one of the people who works here came and sat down with me and chatted to me and welcomed me.  I was like, whether I get the job or not, I want to come back and volunteer here because this is a really special place to be.

NR: My name is Neil Roberts and this is The Community Business Fix, the podcast that sheds light on communities taking matters into their own hands, supported by Power to Change, the independent Trust that supports community businesses in England.

By their very nature, community businesses are inclusive and some make their presence felt at Pride parades across the country, celebrating LGBT+ rights.  But, year round, they all try to provide safe and inclusive spaces for people to be themselves, explore their identities and discover new opportunities in a supported way.

Today, we are visiting The Proud Trust, the largest LGBT+ youth organisation in England.  It was set up in 2005 to meet the needs of the young LGBT+ people of Greater Manchester and the north west.  Their Sidney Street Café is open to everybody and it is popular. It was recently featured in a Guardian top 10 list of vegan cafés.  Ali Hanbury is the centre manager.

Ali Hanbury (AH): The evidence, nationally and locally, tells us that LGBT people still experience quite a lot of discrimination, oppression, negative assumptions, and the fallout of that means that they often have breaks in education, might experience homelessness and they might be estranged from their families.  So, where that might happen or the risk that that might happen, we provide youth services, training, education resources and a place where they feel that they can be welcomed and celebrated in their identities.

NR: Initially, the support centre wasn’t open during the day, but six years ago, when The Proud Trust took over management of the space, located in the main university district of Manchester, they wanted to make it more vibrant; a hub to offer support to as many people as they could.  So, they decided to open a community café.  

AH: It would be a soft contact space where people could come in without having to make any major disclosures, without having any major issues, but could, if they wanted to, be in a space where they could access information about other services and groups that run.  So, we were very clear that the café would be used by anybody, so nobody was policed on the way in or out; it was open to the public with the understanding that it is housed in an LGBT centre and, therefore, the majority of staff volunteers would identify as LGBT.

NR: With some small grants, including one from B&Q, the team took on the decorating and construction work themselves and set about transforming what had previously been used as the staff room.

AH: It was a really good space that was under-utilised, and we could really make it a much more vibrant community space by having it open to the public in the daytime.  So, everybody needs to eat, so that is how it started, really.

So, we opened it two days a week and saw how it went, really.  Got some volunteers on board. And it was successful. People responded quite well to it.  Being a veggie/vegan café as well in this area, we have good politics and not-for-profit. It felt like a nice match for the area.

Then, slowly, over the years, we started to increase to three days a week, and then five days a week, which is currently what we are operating at now.

NR: Philosophically and as a business model, from its opening the café operated differently from the other businesses in this area of Manchester.

AH: We are about a seven- or eight-minute walk from the main LGBT ‘gay village’, if you like, and we are quite clear that we offer something quite different from the establishments up there, the businesses up there, most of which are profit-making and most of which are revolving around the night-time economy of alcohol use.  So, we are an exclusively dry venue. We have a lot of recovery groups, youth groups, faith groups. So, in order to distinguish ourselves as something slightly different, we are set slightly back from that scene, if you like.

NR: Steph Champion has managed the café for eight months, but has been involved with The Proud Trust since she first worked as a volunteer on their allotment.  She and her team, including Nice, are happy to admit that the café has to be extra enticing because it is currently not in the most inviting setting.

Steph Champion (SC): The building that we are in, it has been there for 30 years.  You walk in and it has this really warm, lovely energy, but, if you looked at it and it didn’t have that, you would be like, ‘Why is anyone in here still?’ because it is really rundown.  Our door sticks, we have got a leaky porch, when it rains it sounds like people applauding. You can’t hear yourself think.

The walls are adorned with historical artefacts and up-to-date posters advertising events and groups that use the other rooms connected to the café.  One of those rooms doubles as a meeting space and library. When we visited, the main café space was full with around 20 people enjoying lunch together, all cooked fresh by Max, Nice and the team.

SC: We prepare, freshly, the food every day, so salads, curries, chillis, and everyone gets involved in that.  We have a volunteer who sets up the front and makes the café feel and look nice. Then we open our doors at 11.  We have a rush between 12 and 2 where people come in for lunch. Our curries are always popular and our soups.

NBW: Totally vegetarian, vegan, gluten free wherever we can manage, which is most of the time.  We have classic main stays which people always come back for. We try our best to keep track of what people are buying.  It is just a nice, gentle, friendly, affordable cuisine that is kind of perfect for a lunch hour.

SC: It is that push and pull between creating a professional kitchen and making sure that we are pushing out really high-quality food and that we are supporting the volunteers with the processes and the things in their lives that they feel they would like support with.  It is people first.

NR: In the evening, the café becomes the venue for youth groups, and a couple of times a month the space for those who want to be creative.  Here is Steph and one of the regular customers and fundraisers, Despoina Filiou.

SC: It provides a soft contact space for people who are perhaps curious about what happens within the walls in an LGBT+ centre, or perhaps they are curious about their own identity, their sexual identity, their sexuality or their gender identity.  So, it provides an opportunity for people to come in, see what is going on and then make contact with us, and we then start to think about what support they might need, where they might want to get involved in other parts of the organisation.

Despoina Filiou (DF): It was very important for me, when I came out, not this space specifically, but to have a space, to have some forms where I could discuss these issues or some forms where I would meet people like myself in a non-romantic way.

NR: The importance of that safe space can’t be overexaggerated.  It is core to Proud’s philosophy and, as we have heard in previous episodes of this podcast, at the heart of many community businesses.  Here is Sam again, who we heard reading out the poster at the beginning of the show.

SC: Young people who come to our groups might also bring a friend here.  They sometimes might bring a new date here, particularly if they are worried if it might go wrong.  They feel like this is a safe space to try that out. We also find that sometimes young people just come in and do their revision.

NR: The staff are, of course, on hand to lend their support, but, as Steph explains, it is also about creating an environment in which people feel comfortable using the space.

SC: We have gender neutral toilets.  Our toilets say, ‘What about what is behind the door rather than who they are for?’ meaning that they don’t need to be asked the question about what gender they are just to go to the toilet.  There is lots of information about our groups that we run, and, when people come in, you can sort of tell whether someone has popped in for lunch, whether they have popped in to see what is going on.  And we just really make people feel welcome. We might say, ‘Is it your first time here?’ tell them a bit about our services. Our staff team and our volunteers are always really, really happy to tell people about the support that we can offer, and some of them have received that support themselves.  So, they are really, really great advocates for us.

NBW: Many of our volunteers are young people who come to our groups who maybe are struggling to get a job, who maybe find themselves unable to work at the moment because they have mental health difficulties.  They might be suffering, for example, with anxiety, which might cause them real problems in going into a new place of work, and they don’t feel able to do that. But, because they already attend the groups, they know the space, they know the people.  It can be a really safe place for them to work. In terms of LGBT inclusion, not all workplaces are LGBT inclusive and a lot of them might not realise that. So, for someone who is transgender, for example, who might really struggle with people calling them the wrong gender pronoun, they don’t have to worry about that here.  It is a really safe place. That has a knock-on effect, really, as well for the people who come to the café, because, when you are being served by LGBT staff members who are proud of that, and it is a really safe space to be LGBT, it makes it safe for them as well.

SC: It is that sense of community, that sense of knowing other people with the same or similar life experiences that provides that supportive environment.  It is just a breath of fresh air for folk, really.

NR: Bex is one of the volunteers.

Bex Tooth (BT): It has allowed me to just be myself and embrace that and embrace everything about myself.  I have witnessed that with so many other people. Whereas, in other situations, they could probably feel maybe a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit anxious, as we all can, and, to be here and be surrounded by such a positive vibe, positive people and environment, people are just able to relax and be themselves.

SC: So, we are really explicit about that we talk about, however society disables you, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your religion, whatever your period in recovery.  We make it really explicit that we do welcome everyone and that the only requirement to be in this space is that you are open-minded and are kind.

NR: Running a community business is a challenge in itself.  Making sure it is inclusive and offers its services to a diverse range of people only adds to those challenges.  Here is Edward Walden, Power to Change’s diversity and inclusion coordinator.

Edward Walden (EW): When you are running a community business, it can be difficult to think about things like diversity and inclusion, not because it isn’t important, but because people are, as usual, very busy.  At Power to Change, we know how important it is to have a diverse range of people, being given the power to become involved, because it means the community business is really connected to its people, is run by the people, with the people, based upon their needs.  And, of course, that is where community business comes from.  

One of the ways that I have heard people say Power to Change has helped, is that we have quite a broad range of funding opportunities, which it sounds dull but what that practically means is that organisations who wouldn’t necessarily have been able to ever get off the ground without Power to Change’s interesting and flexible funding patterns, they might never have existed.  So, we help more of them exist to then go on to do more interesting things. That can tend to make a big difference, because it is often the unusual or slightly quirky smaller organisations that go on to do really transformative things.

NR: Edward will be sharing places to get help and support at the end of the show.

The safe space gives those who use and work in it room for self-development and the confidence to learn new skills which they can then share.  Here is centre manager, Ali, on the current set up at Sidney Street Café.

AH: So, at the moment, we have three part-time members of paid staff.  So, we have a three-day-a-week post for a café manager, assistant manager and a café worker.  Then they support between eight and 10 active volunteers. Over the year that fluctuates. We tend to have quite an increase because of where we are located in Manchester – we are in the university district, really – so we tend to get a spike in interest September/October, when the students come back.

We are currently required to, for our funding support, about 20 over the year, and somebody like Bex has been with us for five-and-a-half years, six years.

BT: I will try and volunteer a couple of times a month.  That is all I can commit to at the minute. I did start off once a week.  So, what I will come in and do is a few hours over the busy lunch period, and my main role, really, is to serve customers.  A lot of people will come in and ask about support groups. It is about signposting and advising people.

SC: We have an induction process for new volunteers, so we train people on life skills, how to cook certain ones of our dishes.  We then ask that our volunteers complete their food hygiene certificated, so everyone gets an opportunity to do that. And I think, really, one of the main things around employment skills is about confidence and how to present yourself and how to talk about yourself.  So, lots of our volunteers were incredibly shy when they started coming to volunteer, and it is about that confidence to be who you are and talk with other people that means that people have been able to go on to different work, really. Some of the volunteers are volunteering whilst they look for other work, and having something on their CV which they are actively involved in and making a real important contribution is really helpful for them seeking work.

NR: And it is not all about volunteering.  Youth worker, Sam Creswell, explains.

SC: Not everyone wants to be a youth worker, and that is certainly not what we expect.  But, actually, young people who do want to get into youth and community work, they are already in a space with us where we can help facilitate that.  So, of course, we are going to do that, and it is something that is really important when you are looking at marginalised communities; you find that, often the people that you would ideally like to be available for a job aren’t there because of all of those marginalisation that have happened in the past.  So, they may be less likely to have a degree, they are less likely to have all of these experiences and qualifications that you need.  

So, if we can actually go into our youth groups and grow those people up, they already know exactly what we are about, how to do it, what the essence and ethos of youth and community work is, so they can help to recreate that and create new things out of that as well; really bring in some fresh perspectives too.

NR: Part of that development is also about nurturing new talent.  As we have highlighted before in other episodes, to survive community businesses have to become sustainable, both financially and in staff terms.  The leaders of the future might well be the volunteers of the present.

SC: A really important principle of community development is it has to be sustainable, really.  So, it is about passing on down skills and knowledge and taking a step back when other people are able to take on those roles for themselves, and allowing that to expand as communities do when they support and scale each other up as well.

NR: Max is a prime example of that, one of many who have benefited from Proud Trust’s support.  Here is Ali again.

AH: Max started volunteering maybe three or so years ago, maybe a bit longer, actually.  So, he came first, volunteered for a little while, and then we didn’t see Max for a bit, and then came back and changes had happened in his personal life.  He was able to volunteer a little bit more with us, and was working round the corner in a fast food place. He didn’t really enjoy that. And then we got a grant in and had a role, so he was able, then, to apply for that café worker role, and was successful.  We took him on and then the café assistant manager role was vacant, and he applied for that and was successful at that as well. So, he has kind of come up through the ranks, if you like, and has been supported in lots of elements of moving house, family relationships, thinking about his faith and his identity.

Obviously, the café is a paid-for café.  We try to keep our prices as affordable as possible.  We want to never outprice the poorest young person we work with, basically.  So, everything is always really affordable. If people really were down on their luck and weren’t able to afford something, they would be gifted free meals.

NR: So, that community philosophy, combined with great food, helps fill the tables at Sidney Street Café.  But there is another important factor behind its success, which brings us back to where we always begin with these shows: it is a place for people to come together who sometimes just need somebody to talk to.  Here, again, are Nice, Becks and, first, Ali.

AH: A lot of it is to do with people feeling less isolated, more connected, more part of a community, understanding their identity in a more positive and celebratory way rather than seeing it in a deficit way or something that could cause them harm.  A lot of people have developed connections and supportive friendships through other volunteers or accessing other groups that run here. So, Becks, for example, has volunteered here for ages, has been to lots of lovely events with us, on socials, has been to award ceremonies, has now volunteered to run a discussion group here, ran the Manchester 10k Run with us last weekend.  

So, there are all of those things that are the added benefits that you can’t always pinpoint when somebody first comes to volunteer.  Often people say, ‘Well, I want to boost my CV,’ or, ‘learn how to cook.’ Often that is not why they are here. They are here because they have just come out, or they don’t know how to come out yet, and they just want to be somewhere where they see other LGBT people in a way that isn’t apologetic or problematic.

NBW: When I worked in my previous job, it was in a town where I couldn’t really address the way I wanted.  I tried, and it led to certain awkward moments and scary moments. Having a place to come that I can truly express myself is a really special thing for me, because I have never really been able to do that and, therefore, get comfortable with it.

BT: Without sounding too cheesy, this building has literally changed my life.  I have grown so much in confidence and my people skills have grown.

NBW: Coming here and having a chance to cook food and also bring in my own ideas and my own recipes and present them and have them incorporated into our menu and see them go up is really fulfilling.  This is the best job I have ever had, in terms of finding a fulfilling role that allows me to do something I am passionate about, which is food, and do it in a way that will give back to a community I am incredibly passionate about.

NR: So, what does the future hold for those who work in that eccentric old building, where, when it rains, it sounds like a round of applause, where the roof leaks, but the food is great, where people can come together to find companionship and acceptability and safety.  The Proud Trust is not an organisation which will ever stand still. Steph says they want, literally, to shed light on the diverse possibilities of how we live today.

SC: We have raised 2.4 million for a new building.  We are tripling the size. It is going to be three-storey.  We will have a nice roof garden. The café is going to be huge.  One of the main things that we are all very excited about is that it will have windows.  So, when the building that we currently inhabit was built in the 1980s, there are windows but they are very high and very small, and it was sort of, ‘Well, if we’re going to build a gay centre, let’s make it safe for the people who use the centre and also to shield outsiders from the gay lifestyles.’  And, you think, in our lifetime, that is something that has changed and it is so brilliant to see.

NR: A grant from Power to Change will help them fit out the new bigger café.

SC: Equality is better for everyone.  Inclusive spaces are better for everyone.  So, we are really near Manchester Metropolitan University and Manchester University, and it is really helpful to have a space that people can go into which is queer.  So, not everyone feels that they fit into mainstream spaces and lots of people come to our café who are allies, who want something that is perhaps socially motivated, politically motivated, a space to be, and they want to support something that is a community venture.  It helps to demystify LGBT+ lifestyles, it helps to demystify what happens within the walls of an LGBT+ centre, and just creates a bit more transparency and a bit more openness, really.

NR: The last words there for Steph Champion.  If you are running a community business and want to be inclusive and offer your services to as diverse a group of people as possible, here is Edward Walden from Power to Change with some ideas.

EW: Start with something general that covers the basic legal facts, like the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and then seek out those specific, experienced individual organisations in particular fields, whether that is about gender reassignment or about disability or about pregnancy and maternity.  It is easier to get the best advice by focusing the topics that you are looking forward to.

NR:Thanks for those tips from Edward Walden, from Power to Change.  If you want to find out more, check out our show notes.

If this story has inspired you to set up a community business or to explore how to make your community business diverse and inclusive, delve into the rest of our shows and check out powertochange.org.uk, where you can find the latest news on events, other funding and support.

We would love to hear your thoughts and your experiences that connect with the show on Twitter @thecbfix.  And we like to get these stories to as many people as possible, so we would love it if you could share the show with at least one person you know that might benefit from hearing it.  And don’t forget to subscribe to The Community Business Fix on your favourite podcast app.

Thanks for listening to this fieldwork production, commissioned by Power to Change.  It was presented by me, Neil Roberts; with research and production by Curtis James; coproduction, sound and music by Simon James; writing and executive production by Chris Paling.