Brighton beyond the postcards

A year on from announcing our Resilient Communities programme in South Wales Valleys, Dundee, Stoke and Brighton, we're returning to Brighton & Hove to learn, discuss and celebrate the work of social entrepreneurs in this seaside city. Six months on from our last visit, momentum has grown even further, with social entrepreneurs working together on issues such as homelessness, sustainability, addiction, health and social care, social isolation, and closing the employment gap.

Our Resilient Communities programme, funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, focuses on 28 areas in need of the most support across the UK to allow uplifting change to be led by people with lived experience in the community.

Common first thoughts of Brighton & Hove involve weekends spent in the sunshine, but where there’s extreme affluence, there’s also extreme neglect. The purpose of our learning journey to Brighton was to highlight this and show social entrepreneurs from all over the UK “the Brighton you don’t see on postcards”, said Brighton & Hove Award Manager, Rebecca Luff.

We arrive to sunshine, but the crisp Autumn air quickly reminds us that there is so much more to Brighton than summer at the beach. We head to the warmth of The Bevy – the UK’s only community-owned pub on an Estate - and enjoy a warming pub lunch that uses ‘rescued food’. As we ate, Lynda McFarlane, Founder of Vegan Vybes, Birmingham, set the tone for the next two days, commenting that “it’s about doing that small little thing, to make a big difference”.

With full bellies, we visited the pub’s edible garden, before discussing how The Bevy’s commitment to being for and by local residents has created sustainable needs-driven impact – 70% of the people on The Bevy’s committee must live on the estate to ensure the most-affected voices are heard.

As we sit and talk, we see the local elderly lunch club board The Bevy Bus to be dropped off home, before watching the early evening crowd slowly arrive – labourers enjoying dinner after work, families spending quality time together and dogs curling up under barstools to complete the image of a classic British pub.

“This pub is for everybody”, says Community Project Manager Iain Chambers. “The beauty of a pub is that people from different backgrounds who see each other regularly will have conversations. I’ve learned a lot from being here - I’m from a white, middle-class background and live in a wealthier part of Brighton, and for me it’s very much opened my eyes to this grassroots-based approach being better”

One of the key discussion points of the afternoon was collaboration, and how key it has been to making Brighton & Hove a thriving hub for social entrepreneurs to flourish in.

Annie Murray of Horizon, Chris De Banks of We Are Not Saints and Kate McCoy of Small Performance Adventures have been working to support each other’s ventures in Brighton, but also supporting each other through their social entrepreneurship journeys. The trio regularly work together on projects like music videos for We Are Not Saints artists, or stage productions with Small Performance Adventures, and know that they can call each other any time they need.

This point resonated heavily with the group, all agreeing on how useful it was for both their mental health and businesses to be able to lean on somebody who understood their situation and challenges. Regardless of where the entrepreneurs were from, they all agreed on the importance of a support network.

The following day we boarded The Big Lemon bus to The Crew Club, learning about how founder and CEO Tom Druitt started The Big Lemon in response to serious community need for a reliable, sustainable, affordable bus service. Now, they operate six local bus services offering passengers a pleasant public transport experience, and alternative routes to the local commercial operators.

The buses have an environmental ethos at their core, with the original fleet running on recycled waste cooking oil, and are now converting to solar-powered electric. The familiar yellow buses brighten up the locals’ days, but Tom knows that ‘transport’ means more than getting from A to B, especially when bus journeys are the only chance some passengers get to break their social isolation. “Buses are the elderly’s passport”, said Tom.

Once at The Crew Club, Founder Darren Snow shared why he started the project 20 years ago, and the help it offers issues such as physical and mental health, safety, nutrition, education and more.

“We wanted to provide a space for local kids to come to and get off the streets", he said. “We had 15 kids, a hut and a dartboard".

He echoed sentiments Iain had made at The Bevy, saying that corporate attempts to ‘do community’ often tried to piggyback on existing work and goodwill: “You’re using us to justify your project, but not actually investing in our project”.

People from Brighton sitting at cafe style tables around a room with high ceilings

Ricky Perrin, of Rolling Sports Pathway, then told how “playing sport and being part of a team changed my life”. His project engages health professionals in the area to play wheelchair basketball so they can advocate the benefits, like improved mental health, social support and physical activity, to patients from their personal experiences.

Brighton Cauldron CIC’s Sayanti Banerjee, joined the conversation, discussing the catering project that empowers women in Brighton from minority ethnic backgrounds, alongside their vision to “unlock the potential in these women through food”. Alongside increasing employment, they work to support women with training to start their own businesses as well.

Keith Turner of Touchwise Massage and Denise Millar of Sage Holistic talk next, and while they’re from opposite sides of Brighton, they connected through UnLtd with the common goal of making holistic therapies accessible by offering a “low-cost clinic that everybody in the community can afford to come to, regularly”, said Denise.

Closing the discussion is Fledglings Outdoor Play Founder Maddy Alexander, who is dedicated to “encouraging kids to connect with nature, take risks and take charge of their play”, while building a community of families who like to spend time together in the great outdoors. Regular sessions involve allowing the kids to build fires to cook on, play with mud, or using acorns and feathers to make inks and writing quills.

Every social entrepreneur we’d been fortunate to hear from were at different points in their journeys, but all emphasised how diverse and full of opportunity Brighton & Hove is.

With more entrepreneurs to learn from, we boarded The Big Lemon Bus again, heading from East Brighton to Portslade to visit Emmaus Brighton & Hove’s chapel turned clothing store refurbished by Making It Out - another example of the collaboration that ties Brighton’s social entrepreneurs together.

"I could've found a traditional shopfitter, but why would I do that when it doesn't align with our values and vision?" said Emmaus Brighton & Hove Business Manager Joel Lewis. "It's that network of connecting ideas to keep this circular economy working for good with our shared values"

Making It Out support ex-prisoners and people at risk of going to prison by offering them a chance to find their creativity and produce something beautiful. After their first shopfitting job with Emmaus, they became the go-to Brighton & Hove retail fitters.

Sean Donoher, one of the programme’s graduates and now an employee of Making It Out, shared that while he understands the effects of crime, disrupting the path to jail is crucial to minimise reoffending, and creative outlets offer structure and focus that influences the changes individuals can make to successfully return to society.

“The arts create a window of opportunity where people can change, it’s not the only answer, but it can be part of the answer”, he said. “Governments have to have the mindset that not everything is auditable… you can keep locking people away, but really, they’ve just got to find a way out of that path to jail”.

Bureaucratic red tape, whether from local councils, funders, the NHS, or other institutional bodies were further recurring theme along this learning journey, resonating strongly with both the group and the speakers.

We continued the conversations at the Manifesto for the Social Economy Showcase, an evening organised by Kate McCoy and Chris De Banks with support from Enterprise with Meaning, to bring together a range of the social entrepreneurs in Brighton and showcase their services and offering. Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council Nancy Platts opened the night, sharing her vision for Brighton & Hove to become a place where social entrepreneurship can thrive:

“We want an economy that works for all of us, that puts the people and the community value ahead of soaring profits and shareholder wealth. An economy that is sustainable and helps us become carbon neutral, that is aligned with the values of our tolerant and diverse city, and that is community-facing and fit for purpose. An economy that is fit for Brighton & Hove…I view social entrepreneurs as key actors that will help us change the way our economy works locally, and benefit the most vulnerable people”

Small Performance Adventures then invited us to join them in thought-provoking ‘participatory theatre’, and while a second of fear flashed into the audiences’ faces, Kate reassured us nobody would need to perform, just contribute their thoughts. For the warm-up, her theatre company’s cast members – people who have been distant from artistic life due to addiction, mental health, or criminal justice systems – held up either a mug, a plate, or a spoon, while asking the audience which object they thought best represented social entrepreneurship.

A range of answers were thrown out - some metaphorical, some literal, but all relevant insights into the perspectives and lived experiences in the room. The next act saw the actors portray social entrepreneurs pitching to a panel made up of the entire audience. 

A fourth actor joined, representing different kinds of stakeholders entrepreneurs could encounter: a financial backer, an industry mentor, a business support training programme, or a corporate mentor. The audience were invited to throw out their matchmaking suggestions and reasoning, with consideration for each entrepreneur’s individual situations and needs. Some obstacles included fighting imposter syndrome, feeling ethnically marginalised, being overly passionate and not operational enough, or being too details-focused and missing the impact.

After the incredibly thought-provoking performance, Ricky Perrin summed up the group’s thoughts quite succinctly, saying: “at different times I’ve been all the people up there – you can relate to each one”.

That sentiment aptly closed the two days of learning – we know that there are social entrepreneurs in Brighton & Hove and it’s clear that as much as there’s salt in the seaside air, there’s determination and passion too, driving them all along each stage of their journey. While some have been operating for 20 years and others only a few months, they all share the same challenges. It’s this sharing of the hardships, the learning, and the celebratory moments that keeps them going.

It is of critical urgency to support social entrepreneurship in the UK right now, and Brighton & Hove exemplifies how ambitious, driven, and passionate individuals can uplift society to ensure everybody can both survive and thrive.


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