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Meet the Londoners making our city a better place

We asked readers and friends of Time Out to nominate off-the-radar heroes we should all know about

By Isabelle Aron
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From crowdfunding campaigns to grassroots community events, Londoners are brilliant at coming together to make things happen. That’s why, for our very own end-of-year honours list, we asked readers and friends of Time Out to nominate the Londoners who are doing amazing things to make our city a better place. We wanted to hear about the unsung heroes who are having an impact on London’s cultural and going-out scenes – from making theatre more accessible to finding creative ways to produce food more sustainably.

Andy Parsons

Nadine Artois, Pxssy Palace co-founder

Inclusive club night Pxssy Palace has just celebrated its third birthday – and it all started with a house party. Founders and best pals Nadine Artois and Syke Barr were frustrated with clubbing. ‘We were always having to sacrifice something for a night out,’ says Artois. ‘So we partied at home where we felt safe, in control, could choose the music and dress in whatever.’

The parties got so popular that the pair started putting on club nights, but taking the party out of the safety of their house proved tricky. ‘We didn’t know how to keep the same control we had in the house,’ says Artois. ‘I was harassed at Pxssy Palace’s second party. That’s when we started envisioning what we wanted the party to be.’ Over the last three years the night has evolved, and this year it started offering free cabs for trans-feminine people of colour, to make sure they got home safely after a night out. Money is raised through donations, fundraisers and cloakroom proceeds: it’s been so successful that they’ve opened it up to help more people.

Pxssy Palace has helped Artois feel good about her own identity too. ‘I felt a lot of shame attached to being brown and queer,’ she says. ‘Through Pxssy Palace I found a community that helped me feel proud of who I am.’

It’s proof that Pxssy Palace is way more than a club night. ‘Our community should be able to explore their gender and sexuality in a loving environment,’ says Artois. ‘There’s no reason why the dancefloor can’t be educational.’

Nominated by: Cassie Leon of Cocoa Butter Club
‘Nadine doesn’t just throw a great party, she tackles the unjust treatment of QTIPOC [queer, transgender and intersex people of colour] and makes their voices heard.’

Andy Parsons

Paul Hyman, Active360 founder

Everyone knows that plastic is bad news for the environment. But way before London venues started banning straws, Paul Hyman was tackling plastic pollution in the city’s waterways. A keen watersports enthusiast, he launched Active360 in 2011 with his friend and co-founder Sambit Mohapatra. ‘The idea was to set up a sports company that looked at every aspect: from coaching to the sport’s relationship with the water and its protection,’ says Hyman.

They decided to focus on SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) and in the company’s first year they organised canal clean-ups at Brentford Lock using canoes, SUP boards and kayaks. This has evolved into regular Paddle & Pick events where attendees pluck rubbish out of London’s waterways while paddling around. ‘Clean-ups are good because they bring people face-to-face with the problem and get them interested,’ says Hyman.

However, he noticed that the plastic pollution kept returning. That’s what his latest initiative, In the Drink, is all about. ‘We realised that the only way forward was to tackle plastic pollution at source, so we established a project to help rid the Thames of single-use plastic cups being discarded by riverside bars and boats.’

Hyman hopes it will be the driving force to encourage London venues to shift towards reusable cups: ‘The Thames is one of the most iconic rivers in the world. We can’t afford to let it be ruined.’

Nominated by: Dhruv Boruah, Time Out reader
‘Paul works tirelessly to reduce the amount of plastic in the River Thames and other waterways. He’s leading the charge and supporting others to reduce plastic pollution.’

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Andy Parsons

Tobi Kyeremateng, Black Ticket Project founder

When theatre producer Tobi Kyeremateng went to see ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ at the National Theatre in 2017, she was disappointed to see very few black people in the audience. She bought 30 tickets for the play and took to Twitter to offer them to young black men. ‘The response was incredible, but I didn’t have enough money to buy more tickets,’ she says. It was the start of Black Ticket Project, an initiative to make the city’s theatre scene more accessible to young, black, working-class Londoners. ‘London harbours a lot of culture curated by brilliant artists,’ says Kyeremateng, ‘but there are a lot of people who can’t access it.’

Black Ticket Project works with venues and organisations to arrange discounted and free tickets. There’s just one stipulation: they have to be good seats. BTP recently ran a crowdfunding campaign to buy 50 tickets for ‘Nine Night’; it ended up raising enough money for 250. Kyeremateng was blown away by the response to the campaign. ‘The amount of support it received – from artistic directors to publishers to my mates – was a huge shock,’ she says. ‘It was a beautiful moment.’

Nominated by: Paula Akpan, co-founder of Black Girl Fest
‘The work Tobi is doing is so needed. I know that she’s barely begun and I’m so excited to see what she does next.’

Brenda Puech Parking Bay
Brenda Puech Parking Bay
Andy Parsons

Brenda Puech, People Parking Bay creator

When Brenda Puech transformed a parking spot outside her house into a mini garden, she didn’t expect to go head-to-head with Hackney Council. Frustrated by the amount of space devoted to parking on London’s streets, in 2017 she set up a People Parking Bay with fake grass, a bench and flowers. ‘I wanted to show that a parking space could be used for something different. People loved it,’ says Puech. ‘Mums used it for feeding their babies, locals watered the plants. One couple had their first date there.’ There was even a visitors’ book and a mini-library.

Unfortunately, it came to an end when Hackney Council shut it down a few weeks later. Puech tried relocating it but it was again shut down, despite 900 people signing a petition to save it. But the council did take note of how popular it was and this year launched a programme of residential ‘parklets’. Which means anyone in Hackney can apply to transform a parking space. ‘It’s an amazing result,’ says Puech.

She is now working with charity Living Streets to roll out the parklet scheme across London with an online toolkit to help people apply for parklets through their local council. ‘Replacing even some of these spaces with tiny gardens will enhance community spirit and reduce pollution. My vision is to see a parklet on every street.’

Nominated by: Laura Morgan, Time Out reader
‘Brenda fought for the People Parking Bays to encourage people to spend more time outdoors. She is an advocate of sustainable and healthy modes of transport. She’s an inspiration.’

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Rob Greig

Chris Sim, FoodCycle volunteer

South Indian dosa, blueberry pavlova and handmade Chinese noodles are the kinds of dishes that wouldn’t look out of place on a London restaurant menu. In fact, they’re all plates that Chris Sim has served up at FoodCycle, a charity using food that would go to waste to create three-course meals for those in need.

Sim started volunteering with the charity in 2017 and is now a volunteer project leader at FoodCycle’s Finsbury Park branch. He oversees a team of volunteers to create a vegetarian feast every Saturday for guests who are homeless, lonely or suffering from
mental-health issues.

‘A meal is about more than just filling stomachs,’ says Sim. ‘We believe our guests should be treated to fine dining, with meals created and presented with love and passion.’

For him, the best part is seeing the guests enjoy their food. ‘They really appreciate the hard work the volunteers put in – that’s what motivates me.’

Nominated by: Arianne Antonucci, Time Out reader
‘Chris took a project that was already great to an amazing level. Guests have a unique experience and feel loved and cared for.’

Jessie Maryon Davies, Co-founder of Girls Rock London

The idea for Girls Rock London (GRL) came about at the Southbank Centre in 2015. Jessie Maryon Davies, musical director of feminist choir Lips, had been dreaming up a music camp for women with Lips producer Geraldine Smith. At the Women of the World festival they met musicians Linda Buratto and Vicky O’Neon. ‘We shared a vision to encourage more girls to make music and end inequality in the music industry,’ says Davies.

GRL now runs two yearly camps in London for women, girls and non-binary people – one for 11- to 16-year-olds and one for those over 18. All levels of experience are welcome and participants learn an instrument, form a band, write a song and perform it at a gig. There are also workshops on body confidence and the idea of taking up space. Half the youth camp places are reserved for locals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

GRL also works on making the industry more inclusive through fundraisers and talks. It’s recently piloted a year-round programme to help people from its camps continue to progress. ‘Music boosts self-esteem,’ says Davies. ‘I’ve witnessed the power of a space in which women can express themselves and support each other.’

Nominated by: Domino Pateman, head of programmes for WOW festival
‘Music changes lives – and Girls Rock London has transformed so many girls’ lives.’

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Rebekah Kennington

Laura Macartney and Charlotte Whittaker, InCommon founders

Laura Macartney and Charlotte Whittaker met in 2017 on a year-long social innovation course called Year Here, which tasked people with creating solutions to society’s problems. That’s when they came up with the idea for InCommon, which brings together groups of school children with the elderly in their communities. Having both worked in care, they’d witnessed how health and mobility issues could prevent older people from interacting with the community. The solution? Bring the community to them by pairing primary schools with nearby retirement homes.

‘It’s beneficial for both age groups,’ says Macartney. ‘Children’s natural ability to play is infectious, and the older people really help with the children’s learning.’

Their hope is that the project can tackle loneliness in London and help form bonds between different groups of people. ‘It’s been amazing to see the friendships grow between different generations,’ says Macartney.

There’s one friendship that stands out, between Tash, an eight-year-old with autism, and 86-year-old George. ‘They bonded over a love of animals, with George telling her about his collection of elephant statues and Tash growing in confidence and sharing facts about her favourite animals.’

Nominated by: Daisy Jacobs, Time Out reader
‘Laura and Charlotte work hard to bring joy, social connection and learning experiences to the lives of young and old people.’

Andy Parsons

Richard Ballard, Growing Underground co-founder

A disused WWII bunker deep under the ground in Clapham might sound an unlikely spot to cultivate veg, but Growing Underground does just that. Co-founder Richard Ballard was inspired to set up this subterranean farm in 2012, after learning about vertical farming. This is his first foray into agriculture. ‘The first thing I ever grew was in a tunnel,’ he laughs.

This isn’t gardening as you know it. New technology means plants don’t need natural light. They don’t even need soil. The farm uses LED lights and hydroponics, a method of growing plants that carries nutrients through water rather than earth.

It’s all to help Londoners eat more sustainably. The farm grows leafy greens, micro greens and herbs which can arrive from the farm to your kitchen in four hours. That speediness is key, says Ballard. ‘In the next 20 years there will be an extra 2 billion people on the planet. We have to produce food more sustainably.’

Nominated by Dhruv Boruah, Time Out reader
‘Richard is pushing the boundaries of food, technology and sustainability, and changing how London eats.’

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Dan Glass, Queer Tours of London founder

Queer Tours of London started with a conversation in the smoking area of The Joiners Arms. The LGBT+ pub in Hackney sadly lost its fight against developers in 2015, which Dan Glass says was his inspiration for launching the tours. ‘Lots of queer spaces were being shut down.,’ he says. ‘We were sick of firefighting. We wanted to do something empowering.’ It officially launched in 2016 and now runs tours all over the city. As well as looking at the LGBT+ history of specific areas, they have themes such as LGBT+ migrants and fetish history. There’s even a boat tour of the Thames’s queer history in the works.

One of Glass’s favourites is ‘cottaging versus cruising’. He feels it’s important to turn stigma on its head. At one point on the tour, he stands in a carrier bag. ‘That was how they got around the police: one person would stand in a plastic bag, so when police looked under the [toilet] door they just saw one person,’ explains Glass. ‘It’s genius – Sainsbury’s bags were key to our liberation.’

These tours celebrate the LGBT+ community when many venues are at risk or have closed down. ‘We still need to do a lot with our physical space,’ says Glass, ‘but London is an incredible hub for people seeking sanctuary. Queer people from Russia and Tanzania come on the tours and it’s beautiful to be able to say that London has been a place for freedom for people across the world.’  ν

Nominated by: Hayley Joyes, Time Out reader
‘Dan set up Queer Tours of London to show a different side to our city – from the grisly and grim to the fabulous and fantastic.’

Stephen Candy

Laura Goulden Handprint Theatre, co-founder

London’s not short of brilliant theatre, but for some people going to a show isn’t as straightforward as simply booking a ticket. Having specialised in theatre, education and deaf studies at university, Laura Goulden wanted to make theatre more accessible for deaf people. With fellow students Marian Hoddy and Jacob Casselden, in 2009 she set up Handprint Theatre, which puts on accessible productions for deaf and hearing audiences. ‘We wanted to create work we could all enjoy together rather than relying on an interpreter or captions,’ says Goulden.

The company hosts workshops in schools as well as putting on productions. ‘Theatre for young people is not valued enough,’ says Goulden. ‘Our shows play with storytelling, physical theatre and British Sign Language to empower young audiences.’

The workshops can have a lasting impact. ‘It’s amazing when we meet young artists who tell us that we taught them in a drama workshop at school,’ says Goulden.

She thinks these experiences are particularly important in the capital. ‘London has so many people living their own journey, we don’t often come together. For us, stories are people, communities and cultures. We can learn to celebrate each other in a city that can often be isolating.’

Nominated by: Floraine Arbey, Time Out reader
‘Laura is really humble about her work, but the deaf community is often left aside and she devotes so much time and effort to such an important cause.’

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Hannah White and Keiron Marshall, The Sound Lounge founders

Keiron Marshall was thinking of shutting down his recording studio in Colliers Wood when his wife and fellow musician Hannah White suggested creating a performance space. ‘We installed a tiny bar, built a little stage and invited artists to perform,’ says White. ‘It was magical from the start.’

The venue was a success, but as it could only hold 30 people, they realised they needed somewhere bigger. After raising £15,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, they opened The Sound Lounge in Tooting in 2015. ‘We transformed a derelict site into a 250-capacity grassroots music venue. People fell in love with the space, the music and the inclusive atmosphere,’ says White.

It wasn’t just about live music, explains White. ‘We ran workshops for young people, hosted socials with free hot drinks for anyone suffering from social isolation and offered sound-engineering training for vulnerable groups.’

Sadly, the venue closed in 2017 when developers bought the site. ‘It was traumatic,’ says White, ‘but the amazing thing that came out of it was all the support from locals and the music community. It demonstrated how much impact
a space like this has.’

Since The Sound Lounge closed down, White and Marshall have been hosting pop-up events and they hope to reopen with a permanent site. As White says: ‘We are so much more than a stage.’

Nominated by: Dianne Hawthorne, Time Out reader
‘The Sound Lounge was a cosy place to enjoy gigs and encourage new artists, and a place for locals to meet. It’s good to see that they are on the lookout for other venues to grow the independent music scene.’

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