Kelly Keegan reflects on the value of drawing communities and creatives together in a shared cultural space, through The Talking Shop project.
The premise of The Talking Shop is simple, to provide a place where communities, artists, creatives, and the public come together to share cultural and democratic information, and a space where creative activities can be accessed free of charge by the general public.
The Talking Shop© is the brainchild of Yvonne Murphy, for Omidaze Productions. The trial phase started in Spring 2022 and is underway in towns across Wales to create a blueprint for how to use The Talking Shop and The Democracy Box as models for a conversation with the nation. The aim is to increase democratic participation both at and beyond the ballot box, and to outline creative approaches to democratic deliberation.
As a creative in the valleys, who worked as a host in the Merthyr iteration of the shop (from November to February), I can firmly attest that the benefits to the community have been manifold.
If I was to give you a tour of the shop, you would be offered a complimentary cup of tea upon arrival, and see that there’s an array of comfortable sofas and seats to choose from; separate areas set up to cater for different needs, like the puzzle table and the drawing station, or the foam tiles on the floor of the toy area, and the polling station to get new voters acquainted with the process; you may be able to see what’s going on in the studio space, or partitions may have been used to afford privacy to the participants that day; you would be introduced to the question of the day (offered in English and Welsh) and invited to use it as a jumping off point for conversation with the hosts and/or other people in the shop; you would have your attention drawn to the pillar, on which all events hosted in the shop that week are advertised, and on which there’s also an outline of all local events hosted that week, which you can add to. You would be told that no money is to be exchanged in the shop, that from 9:30-5:30 Monday-Saturday, the shop is a warm and welcoming space for everyone, and that we will gladly refill your cup.
What I didn’t realise, was that working at The Talking Shop would metaphorically fill my cup. I graduated with a distinction for a Masters in Travel and Nature Writing in February 2020, a few weeks later all artistic opportunities were off the table. For freelancers like me, things are still shaky, and we are often asked to offer our services for free. The Talking Shop is the first steady (and well paid) income I’ve had as a freelance writer. On a daily basis, the shop employs a host, co-host (who works a half day) and (usually) a creative practitioner for the workshops (run for full or half days). Some of the hosts are veterans of the arts, have years of experience in running their own theatre companies for example, while others, like me, are new kids on the block and testing the water.
My own highlight reel would include my nature writing workshop; a woman walked in from the street to join us, she thought she’d be there for half an hour, but stayed for two hours. It was serendipitous as she’d just come from a forest bathing session elsewhere. She was fascinated by the personal ecosystem segment that I introduced, and used a beautiful extended metaphor about fungi interaction along the forest floor to illustrate the impact nature has had in connecting her to her peers. It was quite magical to hear her share this with strangers, especially considering she was in her 60s and the other participants were significantly younger, two being teenagers. Intergenerational communication is so important, but it can be hard for us to find chances to share our lived experiences and break down barriers between social groups; the Talking Shop facilitates with ease by being open for such a large window of the week, attracting a diverse demographic.
As much as the shop benefited the general public, whether by providing a non-judgmental space where people could connect with Communities for Work on a Tuesday, or have a go at learning Welsh on Wednesday, join in with knit and natter, drop-in for half term crafts, or gain insight into, and meet members of, the Senedd; as a creative from the valleys, it was a golden networking opportunity. By working with such a wide variety of creatives, from actors and dancers and producers to musicians and illustrators, by the end of my stint, I had a comprehensive list of funding streams and organisations to approach, and, crucially, a reference.
My experience is not unique, the shop’s ethos is about inclusion above all else; customers were actively encouraged to become contributors as either volunteers or young co-creators and were offered the training to do so. In the last week, I saw, first-hand, people coming in to personally thank Omidaze for giving them these opportunities.
For customers purely visiting, they practised democratic participation by joining in with discussions about their community. For many, this was a novelty at first, and not something they were used to being invited to do, I saw how quickly it became an individual and collective passion for our regulars. They were visibly excited by the inclusion, and empowered by having a space to be heard, many of them have now taken up opportunities to contact the local council and have been connected with support groups to develop their ideas and continue voicing their opinions.
A scenario straight out of a fluffy after-school special unfolded before our eyes when it came to one particular regular, a man in his 50s, who, at first, came in purely to have some company after a weekly meeting he attended, but ended up trying his hand at poetry for the first time. This gentleman didn’t come to the shop with the expectation he would one day be reciting poems for us to record. He wouldn’t have envisaged he would join a writing group in the local area after we closed either, now eager to share his words. But, that’s what happened, because when each host is also a creative with a specialism to share, the customers can take advantage of this, they can request things… Like for you to teach them how to structure a sonnet on a wet Tuesday afternoon.
It’s going to sound too good to be true, but that same man, (who had worked in the mines as a child) recited his poem about the history of the trade unions to two non-binary teenagers who (although also from the local area) had never known anyone who worked in the mines. He had never met non-binary people before; it was a fortifying exchange for both. You couldn’t write this stuff. Although I am…
Never take one person’s word for it though, Sophie Howe, the former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales also extolled the virtue of the initiative, having said; “It’s vital that young people have an opportunity to shape their future and that politicians listen to them, and The Talking Shop is a brilliant initiative that I hope will encourage even more young people to feel comfortable using their democratic right to demand more from those running the country – for a greener and more equal Wales for now and in the future.”
Change happens one conversation at a time, and The Talking Shop is facilitating changemakers, one cup of tea at a time.
To find out more about The Democracy Box, see their linktr page, or find out more at The Talking Shop and The Democracy Box.