Trew Era Cafe, Russell Brand, London, Impolitikal

Q&A | Olly on Trew Era Café, myth-busting & working with Russell Brand

A new initiative by Russell Brand, Trew Era Café opened four months ago in Hoxton, East London and has quickly become a local hub. Everyone who works at the café is in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, and as one staff member, Olly explains to Sarah there are big plans to expand. Launched as part of Brand’s broader aim to encourage and bring about change in how the global economy operates, Trew is already having a positive impact on the surrounding community – including residents of the New Era estate whose homes the comedian and activist helped to save when he campaigned against their eviction by a private developer last year. It’s also a welcoming spot to grab a tasty, affordable bite to eat.

How did Trew Era come about?
The project was put together quite quickly. Russell has quite a hyperactive way about him, and he decided he wanted to do a new form of social enterprise. Basically to offer vocational training to people in recovery, from 12-step recovery primarily. Also there’s a further vision for the project’s expansion, which is still developing and taking place. Working in partnership with a charity called RAPt, which offers 12-step recovery to inmates in the prison systems.

How long has RAPt been running?
RAPt’s been ongoing for 20-30 years now, altogether. Russell’s quite friendly with a guy called Mike Trace that runs that charity. This project was being designed and conceived, I think at a similar time to a lot of Russell’s research for his book Revolution and film The Emperor’s New Clothes, and curiosity into smaller forms of enterprise, that would serve the local community. Trying to represent forms of localised economic structures.

Starting stuff within the system as it currently is?
Well, actually the idea is – within 12-step recovery there’s 12 traditions. Russell illustrated those traditions as a philosophy in Revolution. The idea is to have a social enterprise hub, with a load of businesses that utilise the 12 traditions and operate with autonomy, so they exist alongside one another but interact organically. Russell had ambitions that there could be some trading going on with cryptocurrency between them. Demonstrating economic resilience, or an ability to step off the grid so to speak. Just as a form of rebellion against the current system. But, more so the 12 traditions of NA, or AA or CA, or any 12-step fellowship, means that every group – every single meeting place – should be self-supporting, self-reliant, have complete autonomy to exist as it will and to represent itself. And then all groups exist in unity, a unity of purpose. That unity is the first tradition. There’s kind of an equality that runs across everything. It’s like a functional vision of Marxism, if you will. I think in Time, at the turn of the millennium, [AA founders] Bill Wilson and Dr Bob were voted the social architects of the 21st century, and I think what Russell wanted to represent was a business structure that utilised their traditions.

An actual workable model.
Yeah. I met with someone from the Greenwich food co-operative and they were saying that, as a form of social enterprise the most effective form for [Trew Era] would be to operate as a co-operative. We haven’t modelled it as such as yet, but these were examples that were thrown into the mix of ways in which we could employ a load of people from recovery. They could take their own roles and responsibilities, and eventually the business could be self-running through their contributions to its day-to-day procedure. That’s how a co-operative is, all the power goes to the workers. It’s quite a socialist ideology, and I guess this tiny little café was meant to be the seed, or the beginnings of these kinds of ideas taking root. As for success, we’re operational as a business within our first six months, which is great. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

But it’s been going well so far?
Yeah. Russell obviously helped to save the New Era estate from the hands of private investors. So one of my key things in the design of the space was that we didn’t just set up another hipster café, especially if [that might inadvertently] be representational of social cleansing. Hopefully we’ve kept the food costs down quite a bit, and therefore we’re able to serve the surrounding community. Obviously we get young creatives and hipsters passing through our doors, but also we have people off the estates. There’s currently a load of workers in the council estate, and they’re in here every morning for their espressos and stuff. We pride ourselves on that – social integration rather than separation is one of the purposes that we try to serve. Gentrification spearheads a lot of social separation issues.

Everyone operating as silos, rather than working together.
Yeah. I’m in recovery, I brought a lot of the workers into this space, and I’m here to coordinate and manage their personal involvement with the space. My thing is about myth-busting: what is an addict in recovery? When I work with RAPt, one of my intentions is to help prisoners develop some sole trader occupations. Say doing juice delivery, or roadside baristas, or stuff like this potentially. What we could do is set them up with stalls somewhere like Canary Wharf, so they can turn up and sell juices to the bankers or whatever. Therein I’m serving the social purpose of myth-busting: what it is to be an ex-offender. Stuff like that really, really intrigues me. Stuff like that is why I got involved in this project and what I’m looking to continue as a philosophy and ideology.

How many people work at Trew Era?
There’s about 10 of us altogether.

Did you all know each other before opening?
No. I knew a small number. Russell wanted this project put together in like a month. So we had the builders come in, builders from the fellowship.

Was there a reason he wanted it done so quickly?
The space was made available and then he wanted to grab the opportunity, seize the day and maximise the potential. We did work with people outside of recovery at first. The design of the space was done by Studio Raw, from Deptford. A girl called Rebecca worked on a lot of the interior design aspects. Someone else from recovery did all the gardens. Then also the Greenwich food co-operative and Claire Pritchard. We don’t get our food directly from them but we source a lot of our produce locally. We get the bread from a Hackney baker, and we try and use locally sourced products. But Claire is a woman who’s done great charitable initiatives surrounding food. She advised us on menu costing, and how to keep it a socially integrating project, rather than socially cleansing. So we did work with people outside of recovery. But the end objective is that these businesses should just be employing, and run by people in recovery. It’s there that we become autonomous, and that we demonstrate our own resilience. That we can have some form of independence. That also goes back into my modality of myth-busting. I think the majority of our regulars would say that their ideas of what someone in recovery from a history of drink and drug addiction looks like in their mind’s eye has been challenged. These are functioning members of society now.

Typically is that quite difficult? Would you normally avoid telling people you’re in recovery?
I’ve always disclosed, but the nature of 12-step recovery is – the 12th tradition is complete anonymity. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all the traditions. I would never disclose my friends’ recovery or addiction problems. The idea is that we can go on to become fully functional, responsible members of society. It’s only if we blow our own cover that someone would know about our history. We offer this space for 12-step groups to come and have meetings and we kind of pride ourselves on being a recovery based café, but we cannot officially associate ourselves with 12-step recovery. Same as you have 12-step treatment centres that can’t say they’re associated to NA, AA [etc.], because those fellowships are protected by their traditions, that stop them doing that.

So I guess everyone who works here has to be cool with the fact that assumptions might be made.
Well, because of positive discrimination and stuff like that we only employ people from abstinence-based recovery, but we cannot stipulate that they must be in 12-step recovery. We do have people here that aren’t in 12-step recovery as well. We’ve now got a sister organisation which has been longer running, but is going to meet with us – another social enterprise down by Shoreditch Church called Paper & Cup. Currently we’re working on another few positive partnerships with other social enterprises that operate similar infrastructures.

What does it mean to you personally to be able to do something like this?
Historically I’m an art student, I studied sound technology and stuff like that. As I’ve developed in my recovery, I carried on being an event organiser, and a promoter and a DJ. But I became relatively socially aware when I was working at a radio station called Resonance FM, which is quite left wing, unapologetically. I started to think more and more about active citizenship. I think in times of political crisis and in times of economic meltdown, people – especially the creative community – should be more socially aware in how they utilise their creative energy. A lot of my friends are DJs, a lot of my friends like to make art and whatnot. Personally I wouldn’t feel justified in that expression of creativity. I see that politics is failing, society is kind of struggling and that more and more people need to take the reigns of active citizenship. Russell’s spoken quite candidly about this as well. I think he’s a great public face for activism, but I think there’s also a lot of other people off the radar doing a lot of really, really deep and meaningful stuff. I think for me it’s about social conscience, it’s about a sense of responsibility. Like I said, a lot of the people that work here are my brothers and sisters from recovery, and I know that by designing this enterprise with a celebrity we’ve managed to create an environment that offers opportunities to a good handful of people I know from the rooms. Most of which are pretty new to recovery, quite raw young souls finding their way. It’s exhilarating to believe that you’re providing an environment that offers them a foundation to develop and grow a bit.

Are you from this area?
Yeah, I used and boozed all around here. I’ve been here for 15 years, maybe longer, maybe 16. I’m originally from Hampshire, I came to London to study sound engineering, music technology and arts and stuff, and then sex, drugs and rock n roll took over and I kind of lost myself to the road for a while. Then came into recovery just short of a decade ago. Met Russell through the rooms – we’ve both got a ridiculous vernacular, we’ve both got kind of a stupid way with words and an odd attitude on living life clean. We just kind of gelled, probably about seven, six years ago. Then [Trew] came into discussion about a year ago, and happened over the space of a month. I think it’s coming up to four months we’ve been in operation now. One of the properties either side is going to be this other hub, which will be providing business planning workshops, meditation classes, stuff like that. It’s going to be more of what we call a recovery hub, where we will be forging positive partnerships with charities such as RAPt.

It sounds like there’s a lot of plans to grow.
Yeah, absolutely. But for me [Trew] is about assisting people from the recovery community. When we start working with RAPt it’ll be working with ex-offenders with a history of drug addiction. Then helping them to find their feet in society, and to develop sole trader businesses, or other forms of limited companies. Because a lot of their problems will be surrounding disclosure of a history of crime or whatever, and trying to support these people as they reintegrate into society.

Which will be a nuanced thing for each person.
Absolutely. So what we’re hoping to develop in the hub will be quite generalist activities – like the meditation workshops will be a foundation thing, but then we’re also going to be promoting the practicalities of business planning. Lots of free education, and also free computer space, access to the internet and stuff like that.

Olly is on staff at Trew Era Café in Hoxton, East London, and is involved in a number of other social enterprises.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.