Community cafes: The third spaces we love and need

Do you have a friend who

  • Grew up speaking a different language? 
  • Celebrates different religious holidays? 
  • Grew up with less money than you? 
  • Was born in a different decade to you? 
  • Whose skin is a different colour? 

If you answered yes to more than two questions, your friendship circles are more diverse than the average person’s A study from 2018 suggests that when it comes to our friendships, we tend to gravitate towards people like us. Without friendships to link people from different communities, we can end up leading parallel but separate lives.

Studies have suggested when we have friends from different backgrounds, we are more creative, less anxious and less inclined to believe stereotypes of others. The less diverse our friendship groups, the less we are likely to trust strangers and the less safe we feel in our communities. So, there’s lots to be gained from being more open in our friendships. But even if you wanted to broaden your social network, how would you go about it?  

Cooking, conversation and cake

‘Third spaces’ are the places we go outside of our work and homes. These public places—community centres, cafes, parks, salons, museums, libraries, gyms — set the scene for people from all backgrounds to get know one another.  

Each week the Highgate cook along offers this important ‘third space’ for a group of local people who prepare a meal and then eat it together. The act of sharing food is an age-old practise for bonding with other people. The familiar routines of setting up and sitting around a table, passing food, and eating together creates a temporary common ground. Returning to the same space at the same time to see similar people and do similar things makes people comfortable enough to be socially brave. People get to know one another bit by bit, learning a beloved dog’s name one week, tea preferences the next and later asking after family and friends. Over time, community acquaintances can become friends.   

Steven is a Birmingham local who loves volunteering and helping out in his community. He comes to the Highgate Community Café to get inspired by new recipes and chat with new people. Remembering his own childhood shyness, he is patient with others in conversation. He says, “obviously in groups, you’re going to get some people who are more reserved. Some people take a bit longer than others to communicate. But at the same time, they’re probably learning, they’re probably taking it all in. 

Reflecting on the mix of people at the café, Steven says: 

“Some of the people who come here have disabilities or they’re disadvantaged in some way. I mean, none of us are perfect. We’ve all got our own things. It’s good to mix with people and it’s interesting to talk to them.  You can then build a better perspective on how you can relate to [each other]. I try to get on with everybody and encourage everybody, so I feel quite comfortable. I think it’s up to all of us to get on, isn’t it?”  

Rav works in the transition team at Calthorpe Academy, a special needs school in the centre of Birmingham. She accompanies students to the café each week as they learn vital life skills and connect with members of the community.  Each week, when they return to school learners share their stories and cooked creations with pride.  

 Alongside practising vital skills for independent living, the café provides a safe and supportive space for learners to socialise with others in the community.  Rav encourages them to speak to everyone. She says, “there’s different people coming every week. So especially with some of the students who are shy or non-verbal, they get to interact with people of the community. They talk and they share stories. You see, if Kyle was here today, you would have known everything about him in two hours. The learners get a lot out of it socially. “ Often when she signs with the volunteers, other group members ask her how they can sign their own names. So, the café offers a space where everyone can practise ways to communicate a little better with one another.   

Stepping out of the comfort zone 

Uncertain social encounters can feel risky. For people to bridge difference, everyone needs to feel safe and welcome. Inclusive spaces like Highgate Café are hosted with care so that everyone can feel comfortable and curious. Being friends with people who remind us of where we came from or who share our values can be an important anchor in a changing world, yet when we connect with people who are different to us, we open ourselves to moments of joy, surprise and mutual discovery. Spaces like Highgate Café show us that we can have both.  

To find your new favourite place

Bryony Lawless
Author: Bryony Lawless