Sabrina Cohen-Hatton makes hit appearance in front of thousands at Downs Fest

The Big Issue vendor-turned-firefighter and author took to the stage in Bristol to talk social mobility and escaping poverty

Big Issue ambassador Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton proved one of the highlights of this year’s Downs Festival in Bristol after making a powerful speech about giving a hand up to those in need.

It was the second year the festival has teamed up with The Big Issue to create a special festival programme and edition of the magazine, and former cover star Cohen-Hatton was invited to share her story with the crowd ahead of IDLES’ set – appearing on the same stage that hosted Ms Lauryn Hill, Grace Jones and Madness over the weekend.

She was rough sleeping when she sold the magazine at the age of 15 in Cardiff, but after a remarkable transformation she became one of the UK’s most senior firefighters – leading responses to both the Westminster and Finsbury Park attacks in 2017 – as well as an academic and published author.

“It was one of the most difficult but most important things I’ve ever done,” the 36-year-old told The Big Issue afterwards.

“To stand up and be so open in front of so many people made me feel quite vulnerable but empowered.

“I told them that having struggled is nothing to be ashamed of, that everybody deserves a chance. I’m really lucky to be able to turn up the volume for those people who need it. We should all challenge ourselves and the way we judge people, it’s easy to underestimate the impact we have on others.”

Two vendors, Josh and Mike, were invited back to sell the magazine to festival punters – but this year they were offered behind-the-scenes work, too, doing half-day shifts with security and the accessibility team respectively, which was a huge success.

The Big Issue ambassador, whose story made waves around the UK when she shared her story in the magazine earlier this year, left the festival with one undeniable highlight: the punch and energy of Bristol band IDLES.

“They were just amazing. I felt real synergy with everything they were talking about – Joe Talbot, the frontman, touched on a lot of important issues.

“Even my nine-year-old daughter loved their performance.”

Michael Hall Downs
Vendor-Michael-Hall-Downs
Big Issue vendor Mike Hall got the chance to experience working with the festival's accessibility team

The Downs is one of the major players in The Big Issue’s ‘Festivals For Good’ ethos, celebrating festivals that put a social echo at their heart.

Cohen-Hatton also spoke to the crowd about social mobility and how important she thinks it is that there is a safety net for everyone in society.

“It meant a lot to say that in front of all those people. And in some ways, I was speaking directly to the vendors who were there.”