Cultivating Community: Kiran Chahal
Over the period of the pandemic, Made Up Kitchen in partnership with RISE 365 established the Kingsmead Community Shop. This Community Shop based in Hackney, East London rightly gained national attention. I had the opportunity to spend a morning at the shop and speak with co-founder, Kiran Chahal.
Interview by Ikesha Avo
Published 3 April 2022
Kiran Chahal is the founder of Made Up Collective CIC. Made Up Kitchen is one of the Collective’s main projects. I first meet Kiran outside the Kingsmead Community Shop on an early Saturday morning; she is pacing towards Joyclen and I with a bright smile and some stuff in her hands for the shop – she seems already half way through a productive morning to me.
After playing her part in turning cogs of community for the morning, Kiran and I finally take a seat to have a conversation about the work of the shop. I learn quickly in our conversation that Kiran has an intrinsic way of valuing people and space. She is refreshingly honest and sensitively speaks about the work of Made Up Kitchen and RISE 365 as we meander through conversations about the value of community, resisting the contemporary forms of racism, and what it takes to make real change.
Kiran Chahal: I've spent the last 20 years building projects that connect, nourish and empower others, using creative ways to build community led spaces. My background is in Public Design, Public Art. For me, creativity has always been an amazing healing tool, a way to transform negative energy, and from an early age I’ve found ways to share these tools of transformation with others.
Ikesha Avo: I watched a clip of the video that was posted online and I remember you mentioned clearly that it's not about vulnerability, it's not about disadvantage. And I think that's a big, easy message that people kind of tag onto. Speak about those ways of sharing, what’s birthed, what fruits come of it?
KC: This started off as a proactive way to respond to a pandemic, and knowing that some people are great in challenging times. You’ll find that a lot of grassroots community leaders have lived experiences that came from crisis.
Kiran Chahal. Photo by Andrew Leo Photography
Initially Joyclen (founder of RISE 365) and I knew it was vital that we set up a project where neighbours support each other, a community to serve itself and that the young people are involved on an equal footing to adult volunteers.
When we initially started,
nobody wanted any food because everybody's proud
If somebody knocked on my Dad's door and said, ‘Do you want some food?’, he'd say no. If it was somebody from a similar background who said, 'Uncle, do you want some ‘sabzi’ (vegetable curry)?' Then, he'd be like, ‘Well, what is it you're cooking?’
Lola (a Made Up Kitchen volunteer) started making Jollof - and that's it, word spread. Initially, for 6 months we made 1300 culturally appropriate dishes a week, with young people delivering food packs to their neighbours. Around October 2020 we decided to transform into a Social Supermarket, because though cooked food has a nourishment to it, it's a disempowering model.
IA: OK, in what way?
KC: If I deliver you cooked food, I'm going to help you out a little bit. If you come and pick up ingredients of weekly shopping for you to cook food, not only do you turn up and start being able to build a connection with other people in the community, but from that so many other things can develop. People can talk to neighbours, share recipes, which can grow into other conversations, etc.
More people can be involved in the creation of this part of the project. Cooking food is a specialism and that's one thing. But actually running a shop or running a space means suddenly more young people have way more power in what they're doing. And once you set up things in place, it starts flowing and more people can volunteer their time and skills.
Asking people to pay money is an empowering model because it enables everyone to play a part in the process. It also allows us to slowly get to a point where we are self-sustaining because that's what you want. You want to be able to use the energy of something to keep itself going. We don’t want to be seen as providing ‘aid’ we want to create ‘change’.
Made Up Kitchen volunteer. Photo by Andrew Leo Photography
If you live in the UK, you are likely to have come across the term ‘Diversity & Inclusion’. The demand for diversity and inclusion ‘experts’ sky rocketed within companies as they came under pressures instigated by the social uprisings of 2020. Companies suddenly found it about time to address their structural issues to put it lightly. Meanwhile, for many communities, diversity and inclusion just is and has long been. It has never been a buzz term or fad to perform with. It is rather their comprised identity and greatest strength.
The Kingsmead Community Shop sits in Hackney which is home to residents of different backgrounds. Kiran, as she states proudly, is an Indian woman. She explained to me the significance of her identity in the position she is in.
KC: There's something really important in coming from a diverse background
The things that I have come from,
my lived experiences, is not a case study,
not a story for somebody, but it is
a power that I have
There's something about starting to step into our power, and also enabling young people to step into their power and to be seen positively. The visibility is really important. At a time when the narrative that we're constantly given – the narrative we’re pummelled with about Young Black people isn’t just disempowering, it’s always negative, always limited, a form of systemic racism that’s just more nuanced now.
The currently persistent racism and oppression experienced by black and brown people is unfortunately a familiar experience within the UK. This continued silent assault can of course feed hopelessness with those who are affected. However, as a community Kiran describes their resilience by instead finding their ‘own ways to show majesty in humble moments.’
The community is not only diverse and inclusive along ethnic lines but also generationally.
KC: RISE 365 brings young people, Made Up Kitchen are the elders, and we have elders of different ages. People share their time, skills and wisdom, and it flows. Also, for the adults it’s a time to see young people and appreciate them.
We don't run a space where there's a hierarchy of wisdom just because of your age. Each of us have different things to bring to the space and different things to share with it. If you want to create any change, you need to build a movement that's going to be resilient enough to take on board the mess that is happening around us. And the young people genuinely are the future.
Kiran has valuable knowledge and vision for building community infrastructure through her work. Made Up Kitchen is part of Made Up Collective. She shares her plan for change with me in the form of a few fundamental questions she asked herself.
KC: Can you build something that can sustain itself without you? Can I co-create projects that I can leave? Because real change comes from setting up structures and providing tools and skills. In my mind I see myself as a bridge. It's like how can I bridge as many different things so all of the resources are easier to access and then can I do that somewhere else and somewhere else...
Felix Project volunteer delivering food for the Kingsmead Community Shop. Photo by Andrew Leo Photography
IA: Do you see the way Kingsmead Community Shop operates being a permanent project? I am aware the food is from surplus?
KC: Yes, some of its surplus. So that's the Felix Project that's coming now. It’s really a van full of surplus. It’s really high end surplus. People pay £8 and that goes towards loads of stuff that we buy. At the moment we run on our crowd funder. We spend, I think about seven hundred pound from our crowd funder a week that goes onto fruit and veg - it's very much about providing as much nourishment as possible. In terms of sustainability, as we continue we’re getting closer and closer to becoming self sustaining. Build with a sense of trying to make something sustainable.
Build in a way that as many people
as possible are empowered in your space,
and that knowledge is shared
And in that building there is a transparency. That transparency is sometimes really lacking in bigger organisations. How much money comes in? Who's getting paid? Who's volunteering? Why are we changing this? What do you think we should do? We’re able to be responsive, to change to needs.
Something that we try to do is just see the skill sets of people and go, “Oh, your skill is this” or “You really enjoy this, do this” - Joyclen's amazing at it. She's just stunning at it, she’s just sort of like, “Tristan’s great at Maths, he can do Maths tutoring”. It's just that sort of understanding.
IA: I saw someone started cooking on a Sunday because that was a day that was missing. I know you mentioned about cooking sometimes being disempowering, but I'm sure that at other times its also quite a nice thing to have meals together?
KC: Yes. So, we used to run something called the People's Kitchen. We’d take surplus food and anybody could come and cook and anybody could come and eat. Usually we’d have 25 people to cook, 60-90 people to eat. You can easily connect and create together, you just need good guardians.
If somebody came in and they came to the spices straight away and go “oh my gosh Star Anise”, I'm like “you know how to cook”. If somebody else came in and just did that look of like, “what do I do now?”- I’m like, “cool! I'm going to just connect you with the Star Anis person. And then you can chop and you can figure out together”.
Made Up Kitchen volunteers. Photo by Andrew Leo Photography
To me fundamentally we are all leaders, teachers and students.
For me, cooking - we cook everyday. You eat everyday whether you want to or not. So it's a really known environment. It can easily be a nourishing and nurturing space.
IA: I saw a boy with his headphones on, he was just getting on. There were some women having a conversation. It was safe for everyone. No one had to be a particular way. It's a nice energy, very, very safe, very precious.
KC: That's really important, that bit - the idea that we create a safe environment. Whatever parts of your character are, if you're really quiet, if you're feeling delicate, if you love socialising, what we do is make sure to support and instigate possibilities for people to flourish.
The power is giving people spaces to be heard, seen and appreciated.
I could do a million creative projects, drumming or dancing, but they can be intimidating for people to come in at stage one. But taking part in food projects isn’t as intimidating. And so, once you get people cooking or food shopping, then asking them to walk together, or to join in on other community activities is easier.
IA: It's quite nice talking about what it kind of takes, so to speak. So where do you hope for young people to be in the next couple of years?
KC: I would hope that, at the very least, the young people taking part, can see that it’s possible to create change. That change isn't just something that happens to you, you also have the power (if you’re given the opportunities) to positively impact the world around.
Young black people face a huge amount of discrimination in society and in the media, there’s a daily disparity trying to force you into a level of disempowerment that you have to fight. We want to counter that, to say: Actually, you are powerful and your spirit is powerful. Your vision and how you operate in this world is powerful. Each young person is completely different, with different skills and potential. It would be great to provide even more tools and opportunities to grow.
I mean the young people were supporting their community and gifting their Saturdays for a year before one photo went viral. You can see how rare it is to be shown positive representations of young black men in the mainstream media when one photo of RISE.365 Youth Leaders carrying shopping to their community gets championed on social media. Why aren’t we allowed to see a positive narrative?
Photo of RISE 365 volunteers that went viral Photography by Rosie Hallam
So, with the young people being positively visible it’s amazing, people watching what's happening on social media and sort of seeing, “Oh, wow, this is how you build”. This is how you build in a way that's caring, that's supporting and empowering young people.
It’s a win-win dynamic.
Everybody's winning from this: our neighbours, the young people win. The adults see the part they’re playing. And wider, if you are an observer, hopefully you get a sense that good things can happen.
If I wanted to say any more it would be why do people do what they do and what support could be provided. To me, I think sometimes people say to me, “gosh, it's really amazing what you do”. It's an othering thing - like “you” do.
Things like the Kingsmead Community Shop should exist a lot, and we live in a society where it's really hard if you're black or brown with a particular lived experience to even conceive of setting up something because there's a lack of support.
What we lack usually is generational wealth and the privilege of having people around us that have done anything similar to support or show how it’s done. They say you can’t be what you can’t see. So everybody is just being a pioneer and it's easy to burn out. It’s easy to take on too much because you just don't know boundaries. You don't know what's not yours to worry about any more. Or actually that if you worried less, somebody else will step up and fill that space and fill that flow, which is really important. I think what we lack is a support system.
IA: Do you think particularly in England? London?
KC: My context is being anybody, whether you’re in the creative industry or third sector, and you’re black or brown. The system that you’re in, from applying for a grant or doing organisational stuff, its usually run by very well-meaning middle class white people who have no lived experience to what you're responding to.
Inadvertently they are playing out their own narrative of what ‘solutions’ they think should be happening, and that narrative is really limited. It wants you to say that the people you’re serving are 'vulnerable', 'disadvantaged', 'marginalised'. It doesn't actually appreciate that the lack of equity is due to issues in society that are far more complex than labeling the individual.
We are the people we serve, and labelling our neighbours in disempowering terms just to get funding is the opposite of what we’re about.
We need the grants application process to be updated. …words are really powerful. You can't make me negatively label people to gain a little bit of funding that we should just have anyway - its public funds
Authenticity and integrity in the process of advancing change is what I hear. Knowing a community's united value and worth and remaining determined to see that honoured is not necessarily an easy journey. This is also a business which requires capital to advance. The authenticity and integrity however is no surprise as the message of empowerment has been consistent from Kiran – and within the space of the shop.
I finally ask Kiran what the future for the space could be – along with the premises being a permanent Community Centre, and creating more opportunities, such as fitness sessions, intergenerational projects, family cooking clubs, over 50’s Social Clubs, etc she added this bigger aspiration:
KC: Our vision is sustainability, self governance, creative community solutions and to do this have our own buildings. We do endless work with little financial resources and no capital to grow from.
With our own buildings we can generate our own revenue streams for our community projects. In the act of generating income we will create training, employment, seeding entrepreneurship opportunities and leadership roles for those we serve.
We believe in harnessing the potential in our communities and understanding the power of the collective. In turn our community programmes will be truly holistically a wrap around provision, with food at the heart, but also mental and physical well being projects. An ecosystem to truly create change through a model of community empowerment.
Made Up Kitchen volunteers (left to right)
Solomon, Lola, Wendy, William, Vanessa, Patsy, Frankie, Roy, Kiran, Chantal, Nnenna, Jennie, Amira, Shirley, Charlotte
Photography by Rosie Hallam's
Today, Made Up Kitchen within the Kingsmead Community Shop, continue to beautifully serve their neighbours. Their work is cultivating community, reinforcing what community can do for itself and what its collective power is. You may invest in the work of this community by donating to their crowd funder.