Breaking the Last Taboo

Posted by editor on September 28, 2010 under Business, training and employment

Len Grant visits a new hair and beauty salon in Ancoats catering for the transgender community.

Co-founder Lisa Breakey, left, at Transfixed with receptionist and administrator, NIcola Breakey.

Ancoats was the epicentre of the city’s innovative industrial past and so it seems fitting that Transfixed, a fledgling company at the forefront of its own business sector has set up shop here. I went along to chat to Lisa Breakey who, with co-founder Zara Prior, set up the business 18 months ago. Both have considerable experience in hair and beauty having worked in salons and the theatre for many years. They weave their new business venture in between teaching jobs at The Manchester College. But how did it all start?

“We went out to Sparkle – the transgender festival in Manchester – with some friends a couple of years back and we were both amazed at how many trans people there were with bad wigs and unflattering make-up! We thought there must be a gap in the market here and that was the beginning of it. We began by doing our research: chatting to lots of people and different organisations who support the trans community… and it went from there.”

So why did you choose to set up in Ancoats, and here at Beehive Mill?

“We wanted to be close to the city centre and also to the gay village and, at the same time, have somewhere private and discreet. People say Beehive Mill is quite a bohemian building – there are lots of musicians and artists here – so it felt right for us and comfortable for our clients. Most people who come to us are quite nervous and shy so this is perfect.”

How much did you know about the transgender community before you started Transfixed?

“Not much at all. We thought there were those people who wanted to dress up and those who wanted to a sex change. But it’s much more complicated than that. Transgender is a umbrella name for transsexuals, transvestites, cross-dressers, everyone. You have to imagine a spectrum and everyone is somewhere on that spectrum, but it’s not helpful to try and categorise people. Some are very secretive and others are very open. We’ve had men coming to the salon with their wives, and even with their children.

Lisa: "We treat people as people."

“We get a lot of satisfaction from treating people as people. Everywhere there are barriers and whispered comments – it’s the last taboo really, isn’t it? – but we try our best to instill our clients with confidence. They feel more accepted here than anywhere else and some have even said, ‘You’ve changed my life’ which is wonderful to hear.”

So there is no ‘typical’ client for you?

“There are many other ‘services’ out there for the community that are no more than a front for  the ‘seedy’ side of the business. Our clients aren’t looking for that. They want somewhere where they can get a wig professionally fitted, or have a beauty treatment, or get some make-up advice… and that’s it. We talk to our clients just like we’d talk to women clients in a conventional salon. That makes us different and unique.”

And what about the future?

“Our older clients tell us that society is a lot more accepting now than say, 15 or 20 years ago. And, as cities go, Manchester is incredibly tolerant and open. Transgender people feel comfortable here. So it can only get easier for our clients which will mean our business should develop and grow.

“Even now we stay open late on Wednesday and Saturday evenings so clients can come here, get their make-up and hair done, use our dressing rooms and set off to the village for a night out. It’s great to offer that service.”

Transfixed website

Frontline Support

Posted by editor on September 12, 2010 under Community

The Big Society – this government’s idea for communities to take on more responsibility, become more involved – is nothing new for east Manchester. Across the area dozens of community groups run by enthusiastic volunteers have been established for years. Len Grant meets Methode Nguimby from the African Francophone Integration Project.

Methode Nguimby: "Sometimes I feel like a doctor who is ill himself."

Methode leads me into the office of the African Francophone Integration Project (AFIP) in a building on Bosworth Street in Beswick previously occupied by the Manchester Settlement. They share the premises with a community cafe which this morning is busy serving a late breakfast to a handful of local residents.

Methode is keen to tell me all about the project and how it helps French-speaking asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants who live in, or have just moved to, Manchester.

“Many people arriving here are stressed and disoriented,” he says. “They don’t know the language, have often been given misleading information about what help is available and need some friendly support. The AFIP can give free advice on housing, health, education, benefits and employment as well as encouraging integration with British society, often through music and the arts.”

The emphasis is to get people off benefits and into work. If they are able to work, and currently those claiming asylum are not allowed to earn an income, then Methode and his team help find them a temporary job, maybe cleaning or packing as an introduction to the employment market.

“To begin with this ‘small job’ helps newcomers with the language and builds their confidence. Then we work together on a CV and help them apply for a permanent job with perhaps a retail company.

“For those who are more highly educated we suggest they continue their studies at college. Often qualifications gained back home are not recognised here and our clients have to retrain.”

After only a short while in Methode’s company I can see that he is a very committed individual, happy to spend his energies helping others. But what of him? I’m keen to know more about the man who started this organisation out of his bedroom seven years ago.

Back home in the Republic of Congo he was a hardworking young man who studied history at university. Being a politically active student in a volatile country was not safe and he fled to Britain in 1996 when he was just 18 with not a word of English.

Living in London, he took a number of low paid jobs whilst he learnt English at the local college. “But London was expensive,” he says, “and a friend of mine suggested I try Manchester. At the time I was working as a customer service assistant on the trains and I was easily able to keep my job but be based in a different city. So I came to Manchester.”

Knowing no-one but having saved a little money Methode was lucky. He found a privately-rented house in Salford on his second day in town. “That was 1999 and it was quite easy. Things are different now.”

Having got to know the city Methode was often the fist contact for others coming to Manchester. He would give them advice on where to get advice: an unofficial sign-posting service. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people,” he says, “I don’t like to see people suffer.”

But before long his good nature was to get him into serious trouble.

“Another man who didn’t know his way around had asked me to drive him to meet friends. He paid for the petrol and I offered to be his personal taxi service for the day. What I didn’t know was he was committing serious fraud whilst I was driving him around and he was arrested. The police thought I was implicated and I was arrested too.”

By this time Methode was married and his wife was expecting their second child.

“This man never owned up to the court that I was innocent – he wouldn’t tell them anything – and we were both jailed. I served half of an 18-month sentence.”

But even in prison Methode continued to study – one wall of this office is covered with certificates gained from numerous training courses – and to help other inmates. “I was interpreting for others,” he recalls, “they used to call on me if they needed a French speaker.”

Once released friends and family encouraged Methode to continue his support work but  to make it ‘official’. So, in 2003, the AFIP was born.

“Our first funding came from Manchester City Council,” he says, “ and that was for computers and stationery. Since then we’ve grown with more staff and, after many different premises, with this permanent office base.”

This year the project became a not-for-profit limited company. It’s supported by half a dozen or more agencies and Methode, whose work is entirely voluntary, hopes it will become a registered charity before long.

What is most bizarre about Methode’s story is that despite helping hundreds of other asylum-seekers, refugees and other migrants, Methode himself is still not legally resident in the UK.

“Despite numerous applications and many knock-backs I still don’t have permanent leave to remain,” he says. “I feel like a doctor helping the sick and yet being unwell himself. Our clients assume I’ve been accepted here but because of my criminal record the process is still not resolved. It’s nearly 14 years since I arrived in the UK and I’m still living in a state of uncertainty.”

Academy’s First Day

Posted by editor on September 8, 2010 under Education and health

After years of planning and months of construction a new secondary school opened its doors in east Manchester this week for the very first time. Len Grant spent the historic day with the teachers and pupils of the East Manchester Academy.

First day for the East Manchester Academy 'pioneers'.

The first new pupils cross the threshold before 7.30 on Monday morning to be greeted personally by their Principal, Guy Hutchence.

It’s been a long time coming. Some say a school here has been needed for a generation or two, but now 203 nervous 11-year-olds step into the spacious foyer, shake their headteacher’s hand and are ushered to the canteen to enjoy a free breakfast before assembly.

The significance of this particular start of term is not lost on the local media with TV crews and press photographers documenting Mr Hutchence’s first ever address to his new cohort while local dignitaries, sponsors and regeneration chiefs look on.

Mr Hutchence calls them the ‘pioneers’: the first ever pupils at the new school and, he reminds them, as they will always be the oldest group as the school fills, they will be setting the standard for others to follow.

It’s a big occasion and each of the new intake solemnly take in the message before being escorted to their classrooms by their form teachers.

The morning is non-stop activity: after being issued with planners and timetables each of the forms is given a tour of the school. There’s the indoor sports hall and outdoor all-weather pitches to take in; the dance and drama space; the music technology room and a ‘learning resource centre’ overflowing with Apple Mac computers. These brand new facilities, designed for a full school of 900 pupils, will be at the exclusive disposal – for one year at least – of these fortunate Year 7 students. And then there’s the new public library which shares the building and which will be open when the school is not.

Before lunch there’s a class photograph – one of the reasons I am there – a fire drill and a number of ‘getting to know you’ activities in their form groups. Any nervousness has passed for most by the time pasta and chili are served from the new kitchen. The all-weather pitch is quickly populated and the children explore their new playground.

By the afternoon the new timetable is in full swing and the eager students get their first lessons in RE, history, art, maths, science and music technology.

There’s another assembly before home time and a congratulatory message from Mr Hutchence: it’s been a good first day, the pupils have been patient when things didn’t always go quite to plan and their attitude and behaviour has been first-class.

Outside on the plaza, parents and carers wait patiently to hear about their children’s first day at ‘big school’ and, as the beaming ‘pioneers’ stream out to be re-united, there’s no doubt it’s been a great success.

Progress Report

Posted by editor on September 5, 2010 under Business, training and employment, Education and health, Housing

A few years back it felt like Manchester city centre was changing exponentially, writes Len Grant.  Certainly I’d come across parts of town that had been totally transformed since my last visit. New buildings, and sometimes whole districts, were springing up almost overnight.

Now, it seems, its the turn of east Manchester. There are neighbourhoods I haven’t visited for several weeks that are now almost unrecognisable. New public buildings are preparing to open; construction sites are crawling with yellow-vested works and dumper trucks; there’s a buzz about the place which seems at odds with economic forecasts.

For this ‘back to school’ progress report, I’ve included some highlights from a whistle-stop photographic tour of east Manchester.

This is the East Manchester Academy, whose progress East has been following for the past 18 months. On Monday it opens its doors to 203 Year 7 pupils, the first cohort of a long-awaited secondary school for the area. The Academy’s Principal, Guy Hutchence, calls them the ‘pioneers’, the ones who will set the standard for the years to come. Check out East next week where we will feature the historic first day of the Academy. Beswick Library shares the same building and opens to the public a week later on the 13th.

Over in Miles Platting this is the brand new Park View Community School which moves from its Victorian building on Nelson Street to its new home on Varley Street.

Up Oldham Road the Greater Manchester Police 240,000 sq ft Force Headquarters is nearing completion at Central Park. The steel frame in the background is the £35 million Divisional Headquarters which, when complete in 2011, will house those officers currently stationed in Beswick at Grey Mare Lane.

Across east Manchester the most visible construction activity is the laying of the Metrolink tracks that will take trams from the city centre to Droylsden. This Phase 3 extension work sees trams running along the main roads, as well as through new tunnels and across new bridges, taking in New Islington, Holt Town and Sportcity.

Here’s the beginnings of the £24 million BMX Centre, part of the National Cycling Centre. Built right alongside the Manchester Velodrome, it will eventually seat 2000 spectators and become the home of the British Cycling Federation.

Some of the biggest changes in east Manchester are currently happening in Openshaw. Morrisons will be the cornerstone in a £40 million retail development including other stores, offices, a car park for nearly 700 cars and a new piece of public art. This week hundreds of local people are being interviewed for positions at the store.

Further down Ashton Old Road, yet another housing development is progressing to fulfill the ambition of more new homes in east Manchester. This is The Key, a development of houses and apartments for sale or shared ownership. Visit www.thekeyeastmanchester.co.uk.