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The only way is ethics: supporting vulnerable women

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a new series, we go behind the stalls to discover the positive environmental and social practices that underpin many of Borough’s traders. This month, Alice Williams, founder of social enterprise Luminary Bakery, tells us how her business is helping vulnerable women find work and renewed confidence through baking

It started off as a smart business decision. Kahaila, the charitable organisation of which Luminary is now a part, needed a bakery for its Brick Lane café. “We were buying cakes from all over the place,” Alice, the founder of Luminary Bakery, recalls. “It just made business sense to bring the baking side of things in house.” Kahaila’s mission was, and is, to support survivors of trafficking, domestic and sexual violence, women experiencing homelessness and those with criminal records. Their café is the fundraising arm for their invaluable work delivering life skills courses, mentoring and pastoral care within a woman’s prison, and providing all-female rehabilitative hostels or safe houses.

Yet when the bakery first opened, in spirit of fun, Kahaila trialled running baking workshops in their hostel. “The women loved it,” Alice remembers, smiling. “For some it was nostalgic, reminding them of childhood with, say, their grandmother; for others it was simply being creative—doing something themselves and seeing the results.”

Some women had never baked before: “They didn’t even know how to use scales—but they loved the process of baking,” Alice continues. At that time Kahaila was unaware of the therapeutic benefits of baking as an activity. But it didn’t take many workshops for the team to cotton on. “We found there was a lot of research into these benefits,” she explains. These include mindfulness, sensory satisfaction and the inestimable rewards of giving something back to people who care for you, or who you look after. “These women live in poverty. They are reliant on others. It’s so empowering for them to bring a gift to their kids or to the women sharing their hostel.”

Luminary Bakery stall

Employment and life skills
To get the women in the bakery baking bread and cakes for the cafe was the next logical step. “The whole reason we started was because we were meeting women who had been supported by charities to get out of crisis point, but needed employment and life skills to move on.” Creating a sustainable business in the form of Luminary Bakery meant they could offer both training schemes (the women can choose between an employability programme, where they learn baking skills and gain food and hygiene certificates, or an enterprise programme, teaching them about marketing, budgets and business plans) and employment, either at Luminary or at one of the many local cafes and businesses with whom they have a relationship.

“One of our previous bakers is now head baker at a bakery in Walthamstow. There are also well-known hotels welcoming women who are keen to get into hotel kitchens.” Of course, it’s rarely quite as simple as employment: abuse and violence on the level that women at Luminary have faced inevitably leaves its scars. It’s why they have a mentoring scheme, matching professional females from different industries with graduates “because we recognise that once someone graduates from training, going to work is a big life change. It can throw people,” she continues. All volunteers meet the graduates one on one and help them navigate that fragile path to social and financial independence that is more reliably long term.

Luminary is not the first social enterprise to offer those facing considerable barriers to employment with a leg up through baking, but “the significant factor in Luminary’s eligibility criteria is gendered violence: prostitution, trafficking, abuse. Our women are often more comfortable in an all-female environment,” Alice continues, “so there was a niche.” With a disproportionate number of men being homeless, the majority of organisations either appeal directly to or draw more men, making female-only spaces for vulnerable women hard to come by. “It was really important to us to have a safe place in which women could feel they weren’t being judged and could experience a sense of community.”

Customers and traders
Head to Luminary Bakery at Borough—they’re there on Thursdays—and you’ll find the stall being managed by one of their graduates. “She is brilliant. She butt-dialled me once, and I could hear how good she was, with customers and with traders,” Alice grins. “They’ve been so kind to her, and it’s a great place for other graduates to do work experience because it’s so inspiring. She’s come an amazingly long way,” Alice concludes feelingly. “We’re really proud.”