Monday, 17 November 2014

Hackney Pirates

Learning can be adventurous.

It can be mythical and magical and explorative. It can take you to lost islands, across forbidden borders and down deep to sunken treasures on the ocean’s sea floor.

In the traditional sense of the word, pirates have a reputation for robbery and piracy, acting outside of the jurisdiction of nations and governments. The Hackney Pirates in East London may not be law-breakers, but they are rebels.

They have instigated an ambush to inspire young people's imaginations (and grown-ups' for that matter!) in the name of creative learning.    

With an initial funding pool of just £500, Catriona Maclay, former secondary high school teacher, along with a team of other teachers and locals in the area, decided to run with an idea that had long occupied their thoughts.

"Like many teachers, I saw that some pupils needed more support than we were able to offer them during the school day. This is where we saw an opportunity to have a big impact using time and resources outside of the classroom," she explained.

“Some students, particularly during the transition years of 5,6 and 7, were under achieving and needed extra one-to-one attention, but with more than 500 students in my classes a week, resources and time were restricted.”


In 2010, Catriona left teaching and joined Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs. While she aided men and women to birth projects, which challenged structures and systems by creatively offering another way, Catriona’s vision grew.

She researched and developed her idea. A project which helps students to learn and apply themselves with confidence outside of the classroom environment as young creative professionals, or as Catriona says, Young Pirates, with real world assignments.

These ‘Real world’ assignments include short plays published on t-shirts, a radio show about the day aliens came to town, a guide to Hackney uncovering the borough’s finest secrets, and a recipe book of the tasty treats in Dalston, to name but a few. 

All imaginative endeavors, which un-tap local resources in fun and exciting ways.

Catriona remained connected to the young people she taught and listened to their needs. “ I knew the students needed consistent support and that Hackney had the potential wealth to back such a project.”

After being introduced to the Bootstrap Company (an enterprise which supports innovative education projects), Catriona had the support she needed to launch a pilot program over the summer of 2010.

“We offered one-to-one attention to 36 young people over 453 hours with the incredible support of 70 volunteers. In the space of four weeks, the students produced four products to share with the public.”

“It was wonderfully chaotic.”

While in many ways the pilot was imperfect, it built the foundation of what Hackney Pirates is today.

“At every stage, we engaged the young people and worked to meet their specific needs. We spoke to the parents and seeked their feedback and we included the teachers. Everyone saw the value of what we were doing. It was and remains to be led by demand.”

Their approach is specific: “We work with targeted young people in small groups through a partnership with schools. Our aim is to build their literacy so they can succeed in a conventional school-based model while moving forward with confidence and perseverance. It’s about finding that in-school and out-of-school balance,” Catriona explained.

And the results?

96% of teachers report an improvement in confidence
83% of teachers think we are having a positive impact on their students
78% of teachers report an improvement in their students' engagement with writing and attitude to learning

With over 300 volunteers now offering their skills and knowledge as mentors to thousands of students after school hours with six staff members manning the organisation, Hackney Pirates has grown from strength to strength.





But not without the odd hiccup.

Three stints of homelessness have posed the greatest challenge. 

“At one stage we were operating from the Farm Shop in Dalston with chickens running around outside the window and basil climbing the walls. Then there was the summer beach shack where we stayed well over summer. Another time, a landlord fortunately gave us a space in the area and said we could do what we wanted with it so we transformed it into a den with a theatre room.”

“We definitely have embodied the idea of an unconventional learning environment,” Catriona laughs.

Then in January of this year, the council alerted the team of a property on Kingsland High Street in Dalston in the centre of the public’s eye. “The Ship of Adventures was finally born! We have space to run our workshops and deliver our learning program while hosting events and renting our rooms. We collaborate with a range of local partners and suppliers and have a cafĂ©, bookshop and gift shop for the community of Hackney to enjoy.”

The Hackney Pirates are now looking forward and planning what’s to come over the next three years.

“Workshops, an ambassadors program and more experimental learning,” Catriona says.

More hands on deck!

In the meantime though, the team are always seeking the support of more volunteers to provide mentoring to their growing community of young people. Their arrangement is flexible. You commit to a minimum of 12 sessions a year and get the incredible bonus of helping students on their learning journey. Join the crew here!

If you are seeking a space to rent for a meeting or workshop, Hackney Pirates have rooms for all purposes. Learn more here.

Their shop also has an impressive range of ethical Christmas presents on display, mostly from local creatives. Otherwise, treat yourself to delicious coffee and food while you sail the high seas in search of the next adventure.





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Leah is a passionate storyteller, a multi-skilled communications specialist and a devoted human rights activist. She writes to ignite meaningful connection, to arouse curiosity, to push boundaries, to live large, to speak up, to create change.

She is deeply fuelled by a desire to create ideas and build visions to make this world a better place. A place where we can each equally follow our dreams - regardless of the place we were born, our religious affiliations, our sexual identity, our access to education. Everything in fact to do with the status quo. After studying the causes of conflict and division in society, Leah now uses storytelling to unite people, to create community and to open opportunities for collective action.

Her website, Paper Planes Connect, is a place to celebrate our difference and to unite in our sameness.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Monsters, young people and stories

Monsters need supplies if they’re to properly scare their victims. Whether that be a bottle of ‘Escalating Panic’ to instill an increasing sensation of pure fear among a crowd. Or maybe if you’re a monster, you’re shopping for ‘Fang Floss’, to remove all common forms of fang-matter, including: brains, gore, bones, viscera, entrails, seaweed, toffee, and much more. Or possibly a bottle of ‘Salt made from Tears of Laughter’ is what you’re after. Made from a century-old craft with the freshest human tears, which are gently boiled, crystallised, then harvested by hand and finally rinsed in brine.

These are some of the supplies you can purchase in the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies store – an ordinary looking shop, which upon expectation, is actually far from ordinary, unless you are in fact a monster. Different bottles and capsules hold normal household items including salt, olive oil, lollies and jam, but it is the stories on the labels that introduce you to a whole new world of imagination and creativity.

This is where storytelling comes to life.

“Behind a secret door accessed through the shop you will find us – the Ministry of StoriesWe are a creative writing and mentoring centre for young people in east London. We use storytelling to inspire young people aged 8-18 years because it is our belief that writing unleashes their imaginations and builds confidence, self-respect and communication,” shared Lucy Macnab, the co-director.


Through workshops, publishing projects and one-to-one coaching - services which are provided by local writers, artists and teachers who volunteer their time and talent - young people are supported to express themselves through story. 

But what really sets the MoS apart is the way the treat the young people in their care.

“We see each as a young creative professional,” said Lucy.

Founded in November 2010 by Nick Hornby and co-directors Lucy Macnab and Ben Payne, the Ministry of Stories (MoS) was inspired by the writer Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari who opened a shop for pirates and a writing centre called 826Valencia in San Francisco.

“Through our conversations with teachers, students, writers and artists, we recognised that there was a great appetite for creative writing and learning in London, and especially a need for more individual attention through coaching and mentoring.”

“We also wanted to offer something quite special for the public. We collectively brainstormed ideas and among many peculiar options, it was decided that a shop for monsters would cater for both boys and girls. It is designed to challenge people’s assumptions and get stories flowing before pen hits the paper,” Lucy explained.

“It’s where we celebrate weirdness.”


All members of the team at MoS have a background in education and storytelling. Lucy has worked in participation, writer development and teaching. “My role is to help young people tell their stories, whether that be by print, performance, digitally or through collaboration.”

“Writing is everywhere. It is involved in everything we do, and it’s about helping children realise that writing exists in so many forms. From a cartoon, to a poem, to a video game, to a novel.”

“We believe that if you feel you can express your ideas, a lot of the world starts to fall into place,” Lucy shared.

Among the many projects the MoS has helped bring to life is the soap opera Dead Ends. In 2012, a team of writing mentors led eight students through the after school-school club to produce four five-minute episodes inspired by Hoxton Street. They also received the input of EastEnders lead writer, Pete Lawson to create a script. (Watch Episode 1 here!) 

The students also worked with Nick Hornby to create their own country – the Children’s Republic of Shoreditch, complete with constitution, manifesto and national anthem. During the summer of 2012, the children used a building on Hoxton Street as their Embassy, which was opened to the public each Saturday.

Nick Hornby said: “The MoS has always aimed to challenge the traditional ways that children interact with education. The Children’s Republic of Shoreditch aims to give young writers further opportunities to explore questions about their identity and locality: what’s it like to be who they are in the place that they live and what might they like to change to make their life better.”



Then last year, 56 children aged 8-13 years old worked with Communion Records to produce a music album called Share More Air featuring songs about cats on missions, friends and enemies, and loving your mum. The lyrics were written by the children, and sung by adult musicians (Learn more about the production process by watching this video here).  

The MoS is currently doing a three-year impact study with the Institute of Education to measure the effectiveness of their work. “The response we have received from parents, teachers and the students themselves has been incredibly positive. Often a student will come to us and say: ‘I’m not good at writing’ or ‘ I don’t like to write’, but by the end, they are having so much fun that they don’t even realise they are actually learning.”

“Parents have also told us that their children are more confident and engaged, and enjoy learning now.”

If you’re feeling pulled to mentor young people and want to help them find their voice, the MoS is always looking for new volunteers to join their team. Sign up here  


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Leah is a passionate storyteller, a multi-skilled communications specialist and a devoted human rights activist. She writes to ignite meaningful connection, to arouse curiosity, to push boundaries, to live large, to speak up, to create change.

She is deeply fuelled by a desire to create ideas and build visions to make this world a better place. A place where we can each equally follow our dreams - regardless of the place we were born, our religious affiliations, our sexual identity, our access to education. Everything in fact to do with the status quo. After studying the causes of conflict and division in society, Leah now uses storytelling to unite people, to create community and to open opportunities for collective action.

Her website, Paper Planes Connect, is a place to celebrate our difference and to unite in our sameness.


Friday, 31 October 2014

Made with Care

“You’d think the biggest challenge would be taking the whole family to India. I quit my job; we took the two kids out of school and enrolled them in an Indian one. We spent 36 hours on a train up to Rajasthan, 40 hours on the way back.”

Matilde Ferone is an activist, born and trained, from Hackney. She loves nothing more than travelling, collaborating and giving back to the world. She has packed up her family - her husband and two beautiful daughters Blue 8 and Maya 5 - more than once to step away from the high life of London, to really live: cultural lessons, spiritual epiphanies and grassroots connections the central focus.

“The biggest challenge instead has been finding the best way to market my project and its products. I’m a one woman show, so working out how to best manage my time, as well as maintaining self-belief in my mission definitely trumps living in India, or anywhere for that matter."


Matilde is the founder of Matik Boutique – a London based boutique and project working closely with women textile producers in India and Ghana to reframe fair trade in terms of fashion.

“I have always been interested in the role of women in development. Research and practice show that by investing in women, we can break the poverty cycle. Women tend to be more effective at saving money, they are more likely to invest in their children and they are generally more responsible,” Matilde explained.

When Matilde and her family were in India earlier this year, sourcing and connecting with women’s collectives for her project, she met Lakshmi Bai, a Quilt Maker from Rajasthan who said: “ This job has given me the opportunity to give my daughter a better future. Whatever I could not enjoy as a child, I ensure that my daughter gets. She will get the best education possible. I used to worry a lot about how I would do it but now I have courage and money. I will work more and earn more money and make her a doctor." 

“That’s why I am doing what I am doing,” Matilde added. “To empower these women to have a say in the lives they and their children live.”

Matik is a fusion of feminine thinking and drive. It’s a sisterhood of style-conscious, ethically aware women working together across continents to create a wellspring of positive change.



The scarves, throws, quilts and children’s clothes are all made with care. “And by ‘made with care’, I mean one of a kind, hand-made items, created by using traditional skills. I also mean paying a fair price to hard-working women, helping them to achieve economic security and independence.”

When travelling through Rajasthan in India with her family - after living in Patnem, a very small fisherman village in the south of Goa for three months -Matilde came across the organisation Anoothi, which assists impoverished village women in India attain economic self-sufficiency. “I loved straight away the way they work with women and could see great potential for my idea, which also opened way for connections.” The relationship to Ghana is through Matilde’s mother who is the founder of Una Chance, a charity working to raise funds for NGOs on the ground in Ghana who works to free children from slavery and provide them with education and marketable skills. “When my mum returned from one of her visits, she told me about a group of young women who had just graduated from school and were learning to be a seamstresses. At the time, Matik was mostly an idea, but it obviously fit well with what I was hoping to do, so I did my research and a few months later, I was in Ghana.”

I’ve since struck up a relationship with an American company, Global Mamma, working on similar principles to Matik and I am creating more partnerships locally in India and Ghana.”

** But let’s take a moment to rewind. Matilde’s story actually originates in Rome, Italy, where she is from. 

“I studied Economics at university because it seemed safe. Then, during my third year, I won a sponsorship to study abroad for a year. I chose to go to Toulouse in the South of France. The multicultural environment and the freedom here was very different to conventional Rome. It was a huge was an eye opener for me. I realised that the path I’d had laid out for myself wasn’t going to be enough. Simply having a job and earning money wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a life that had meaning.”

When she returned to Italy, she began studying Development Studies. “I signed up for a semester learning about micro-finance in the developing world and studied direct trade as a tool for social change. After graduating, I went to Pakistan where I worked for four months on a microcredit project.”

She proceeded to set up a social enterprise called AMP (artmusicpolitics) with her husband, which created an informal platform through music and arts for NGOs and grassroots organisations to talk about their work. “We did some really inspiring events with Friends of the Earth, War on Want, People and Planet and many others.” She then spent five years as the Events Manager and later the Development Coordinator for a campaign on palm oil at Rainforest Foundation UK, a human rights and environmental organisation working for Indigenous People’s rights in Africa and South America.  

“Then I had this idea, a culmination of my interests and professional background really. I wanted to create a project where I could help people to use the skills they already have to make products that could then be sold in the European market to reap them financial reward while educating the European community about fair trade fashion. I wanted to change the way people look at fashion.”

“When people think of fair trade, they think of food and coffee. Too little people realise fair trade applies to fashion too. I want people to become more aware of the products they buy, whether it is clothing or home ware, and start to question where they come from and who makes them, because someone did make it from somewhere, and it’s important that people consider whether they want to support the conditions under which it was made.”

“As a consumer, we have great power.”

While Matik is still a work-in-progress, Matilde says the most rewarding part is meeting the women. “Seeing them at work and learning their stories reinforces that what I am trying to do is making a massive difference, and spurs me to keep going.”

With her eyes on next steps, Matilde says she wants to collaborate with European designers and look at possibilities of bringing designers to meet the women in both India and Ghana to promote cross learning. “I’ve also got my internet shop, and I’m doing occasional markets, but I have to work out whether in the long term I want Matik to be a shop or a fashion label, but that will become clearer with time."

Come November, Matilde and her family are back on the road. “We are returning to India to live for six months where I will further develop relationships. After that, we are thinking of going to Indonesia or the Philippines for the next adventure, and of course if we do, I’ll be looking for projects to team up with there.”

To buy any of Matik's gorgeous products, visit the store here.



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Leah is a passionate storyteller, a multi-skilled communications specialist and a devoted human rights activist. She writes to ignite meaningful connection, to arouse curiosity, to push boundaries, to live large, to speak up, to create change.

She is deeply fuelled by a desire to create ideas and build visions to make this world a better place. A place where we can each equally follow our dreams - regardless of the place we were born, our religious affiliations, our sexual identity, our access to education. Everything in fact to do with the status quo. After studying the causes of conflict and division in society, Leah now uses storytelling to unite people, to create community and to open opportunities for collective action.

Her website, Paper Planes Connect, is a place to celebrate our difference and to unite in our sameness.