Changemakers: How Sue Epps is turning the tables on loneliness

How the Table Talk scheme in Brighton is connecting the community

Brighton is on track to be the UK’s first ‘talking city’. That’s thanks to Sue Epps, the force behind Table Talk – a project spreading the restorative powers of a good conversation.She has recruited 40 cafes and counting across the city to host their own Table Talks, where tables are marked as the place to sit if you’re happy to talk to other customers. It’s a scheme so simple it took off through word of mouth and with no resources, and it all started after a chat with a Big Issue vendor.

Epps is a retired teacher who likes coffee and mountain biking. A long-time Big Issue reader, it was after chatting to vendor Graham Churchill, who worked his way out of rough sleeping and bought his dream camper van, in 2016 that she started thinking about what a difference it made to be able to talk to the people in your community.

It requires a change of attitude

“Around the same time there was research released showing that people were going for days and weeks without talking to anybody,” Epps recalls. “I was horrified by that.

“After I left Graham I thought, gosh, he can speak to these people, but if I stood here people wouldn’t come up and talk to me. It would be considered strange.”

With the council’s backing she set up a ‘talking post’ in a Brighton park, but the large sign she had forked out for was stolen after 24 hours.

At the same time she was volunteering with an initiative that trained young people to be coffee baristas. This – along with her love of people-watching, coffee in hand – inspired her to give the talking project another go, this time in a cafe.

“It requires a change of attitude and I realised that’s not easy,” she points out. “But that’s what I’m determined to try and change. To make table sharing and talking to people, if they want to talk, more acceptable. Encouraged, even.”

Epps linked up with Team Domenica, a social enterprise cafe that trains young people with learning difficulties. “I reckoned they were trying to make the world a better place so I thought I might as well start there.”

And it grew. More and more cafes signed up, each given a branded table stand to place in the area where strangers are welcome to congregate. “The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” says Epps.

“You give them the sign, explain how it works and leave them to it. It sustains itself. It’s all very organic.”

Table Talk has been popular among a mix of people – some who are feeling the effects of social isolation and some who just like chatting to others.

Epps was surprised to find that young men were the most enthusiastic about her initiative. She also discovered one cafe opposite a retirement block, where residents are delighted by the opportunity to walk over the road and find people to talk to. The manager of another establishment told her about a man who comes to sit at their assigned talking table every day.

“The idea was to make it legitimate as a practice,” she continues. “It can be hard for people on their own, maybe older people who have lost their partner. And a lot of young or self-employed people work in coffee shops so I want to encourage them to talk to the people beside them. We’ve even linked up young mums with older people, an intergenerational link that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”

Earlier this year Epps secured a small amount of lottery funding, which made getting help for the website and admin easier. Table Talk also has three volunteers, though it needs more. This autumn Epps and her team will be targeting universities, where she thinks thousands of new students would benefit from an initiative like hers that makes it just that little bit easier to feel like you have a community around you. The scheme is linking up with GPs, too, who can socially prescribe a visit to their local cafe.

“Obviously not everybody can afford to be in a cafe so I’ve tried to create balance in both location and affordability,” says Epps.

“Ultimately I’d like to get funding to give vouchers to people who would like to go but can’t afford to get a drink.”

DID YOU KNOW…

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Among the dozens of cafes involved are local independents, chain stores like M&S and Debenhams, Starbucks and hospitals. The founder is aiming to be in 100 cafes before May next year. Beginning on October 7, Table Talk week will invite curious chatters to drop-in sessions and manned cafes to see what all the fuss is about.

“Kim, [a Big Issue vendor] who I’m now buying the magazine from, has been so enthusiastic and so supportive of the idea,” says Epps. “It worked both ways – The Big Issue started the idea and now, through Kim, is encouraging me to keep it going.”

Find out more tabletalkbrighton.org