Big Issue Vendor

Streetwise Opera 

There could be no mightier and more powerful riposte to the MP who at the turn of the millennium described homeless people as “the people you step over coming out of the opera house” [it was George Young] than Streetwise Opera. A phenomenal organisation, established in 2002 by Matt Peacock, it has empowered homeless people to literally raise their voices and become part of the high-arts world, working with homeless people across the UK. From regular weekly workshops in five cities to major productions staged everywhere from community centres to opera houses across the country, their ambition, scope, creativity and power to make positive change is remarkable. And in 2020 Streetwise Opera is set to make the world sit up and listen, as they present a new commission created with internationally renowned baritone Roderick Williams, Grammy-winning pianist Christopher Glynn, Brodsky Quartet, Genesis Sixteen and Rydedale Festival Community Chorus. Directed by Royal Danish Opera artistic director John Fulljames, their immersive retelling of Schubert’s Winter JourneyAfter Winter – will see the cast of homeless singers joined by the audience sharing a communal feast, in conjunction with Middlesbrough Food Partnership.
Art that’s truly communal, collaborative, inclusive and fulfilling!

The Cultural Spring 

From workshops for young inventors to calligraphy and creative writing,
The Cultural Spring is an organisation that has helped people in Sunderland to experience, be part of and be inspired by arts and culture in every form. Having drawn audiences of over 11,000 to events and productions, and given 4,500 people the chance to get hands-on with arts in lively artistic workshops over the last 12 months, for 2020 there is a new, ambitious production on the cards which aims to articulate the hopes and dreams of the people of Sunderland. Asking communities to share their dreams for the future, The Cultural Spring will then create a professionally produced theatre piece to be performed by a cast of local folk in September. It’s part of Sunderland Culture’s Great Place Unify programme, which aims to unite the diverse communities of the North East.

Adam Tulloch 

As chief executive and artistic director of Total Insight Theatre, Tulloch has given young people who might not naturally find a way into theatre the opportunity to be creative, take part, to be seen and heard – and find a passion for creative arts. The charity has opened doors to 4,000 kids across England, many from marginalised communities, in schools, referral units, libraries, town halls and community centres. Crucially, it ensures they have a meaningful voice and opportunity to construct, create and curate stories that reflect their lived experiences with energy and imagination. Getting to the heart of complex lives is key: their Nottinghamshire-focused production, When I Was 14, addresses issues including youth knife-crime in a thought-provoking, relevant way, and has been nominated for Outstanding Drama Initiative in the Music & Drama Education Awards in March.


There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

Emma Baines, Find Your Voice

Sing hallelujah! The health and wellbeing benefits of participating in singing are well established, and programme manager, director and founder of Find Your Voice Emma Baines explains why her mission – to give marginalised people across the UK an opportunity to raise their voice – is expanding in a big way this year.

The Big Issue: How did Find Your Voice begin?

Emma Baines: It launched in 2011 after I lost my job as a theatre manager. I’m a neurodiverse school-leaver and I very quickly found myself socially isolated and living with poor mental health. I took a look at what skills I had and what I enjoyed doing, and fortunately I had the privilege of being able to sing and teach singing. So I made some flyers, headed into Clerkenwell [in central London] and invited the lunch-breaking locals to join me the next Monday – nine people did. That was the start of us being a social impact organisation. Our overall vision is simple: we want everyone in the UK to experience the health and wellbeing benefits of singing a song they love out loud, even if it’s just the once and no one’s listening.

How has it grown?

We began working in schools and with local authorities around the UK, creating open access, fun and disruptive programmes that would engage people who would otherwise be unreachable and enable them to sing music they like. To date we have worked with 3,430, to be exactish, children and adults in schools, community settings and children’s centres. We’re the only UK organisation that uses quality-assured, professionally delivered singing programmes as a means to engage marginalised people within a community. We work with families, adults and adults in later life, helping to reach people least likely to engage and focus on linking them back into their community and support networks. 

What are your plans for 2020?

This time last year we had 15 programmes commissioned and ready to go within London and the Midlands. For 2020 we have over 150 programmes commissioned to run, reaching over 2,250 vulnerable adults living within the most deprived areas in the UK. We are delivering innovation projects in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset using singing as a means to address economic inactivity, rural isolation, deprivation of opportunity, ageing and early onset dementia diagnosis. In Hackney [in East London] we are working with adults facing life-changing diagnoses and in Calderdale, Harrow and Nottingham we run three programmes: Xplore multi-sensory singing sessions for parents and children up to age four, Xcite community singing groups and Momentum, where adults with disabilities or facing life-changing diagnoses engage in noisy, uplifting, fitness and wellbeing activities set to music.


Launched in 2018 by the PRS Foundation, Keychange is a commitment and pledge by music organisations to take positive steps to change the face of the music industry and achieve gender equality by the year 2022. From orchestras to festivals, labels to venues, concert halls to agents, the male-dominated and (in the past, if not still) notoriously sexist music biz has struggled to bring more women in. This is true across the board: creative, managerial, administrative and performance, essentially all aspects and all levels of the industry. By taking the 50:50 pledge, organisations will take positive steps to achieve an equal female:male ratio of workers. What started in the EU is now an international movement (thankfully, for the post-Brexit UK), with signatories from Australia to Brazil, and Afghanistan to South Korea.

Paul Sng

After hearing about the charity Dogs on the Streets (DOTS) from a Soho Radio interview with the charity’s founder, critically acclaimed director Sng quickly launched a campaign in order to fund a documentary surrounding the lives of homeless dog owners and the volunteers who work with them to ensure their welfare, and challenge the perception around rough sleepers and their companions. Soho Radio presenter Simone Marie will meet rough sleepers and their dogs from all across London, Birmingham, Kent and Oxford who receive help from DOTS with vet care, food and assistance with getting into housing in order to highlight their experiences. “There’s a lot of stigma around homeless people who are on the streets with their dogs,” Sng said. “In the vast majority of cases, the person was made homeless with the dog and may have been unable to find accommodation that accepts animals.” The documentary tries to show that homelessness is ‘created by economic forces’ rather than being the fault of individuals. Within the space of a month, the campaign smashed its target of raising £25,000 thanks to the crowdfunding of 559 people. More money is still needed to cover editing and post-production costs, however thanks to the crowdfunding, filming began in early September.

Stuart Semple

Benches with bars on, spike in doorways – hostile designs have become an unwanted and unwelcome feature of our urban centres. Artist Semple has been standing against them for a number of years. In 2018, his campaign to stop Bournemouth Borough Council from installing bars that would prevent rough sleepers from lying on benches was a success, forcing a council U-turn. He returned to the benches for his London solo show last year, recreating them with a cuddly toy-covered twist. Semple’s 2019 may have ended under a bizarre cloud – his POT shop inspired protests in Bournemouth after residents mistook the Pot Noodle homage for a cannabis cafe – but his message about our public spaces will continue to ring true in 2020. Everyone is welcome in our public spaces and anything that excludes anyone – especially homeless people with nowhere else to go – should be called out as the “design crimes” that they are. Semple continues to do just that.

Mele Broomes

Mele Broomes in Sonic Seance by Various Dance Artists (c) Marios Ento - Engkolo
Image: Marios Ento-Engkolo

Broomes is making waves in the Scottish art scene, working to amplify the voices of people of colour while breaking down the systemic categorising that can exclude minorities from the art world. A dancer and choreographer, she is also co-founder of Project X, a non-profit organisation that champions young dancers within the African-Caribbean diaspora, and Various Dance Artists, which makes space and takes space to produce professional performance.

The Big Issue: How does dance engage with people?

Mele Broomes: I feel like there’s a hierarchy in certain ways of speaking, whereas through movement and dance there is an intelligence that enables you to tap
into something that’s either unexplainable or really challenging. Dance can be
celebratory, it can bring people into a state of rapture and it can nurture your
mental health or wellbeing.

 What are your plans for 2020?

I’m working on a new solo show that’s ultimately to do with cleaning. I’m looking at it through my own family history, coming to this country and doing particular lines of work. Then also looking at what I and other women do, code switching in conversation, which is like a survival strategy to make sure the person I am speaking to doesn’t misunderstand what I’m saying. For example, when black music talks about violence it can be taken literally and then people say that black music is physically harming people. But, when a politician uses violent language towards an opponent, people hear it metaphorically, because it exists in a completely different context. People decide what context they think is OK – and by not having to always use words, by
using movements, we’re trying to unlock something that people feel.

Is there a gap in the stories being told in the arts?

In terms of people’s voices being heard, it could always be more. What is a contemporary dancer? If you see a black body on stage dancing a form that’s from the African or Caribbean diaspora, then that works and becomes ‘African-Caribbean diaspora’ and not contemporary dance. That doesn’t help people working in contemporary dance. Categorising people doesn’t give them the opportunity to develop their work in the same way. Contemporary means of the now, so it means many, many, many things. My story isn’t just mine, it’s always a collective story. I focus on making shit-hot work and supporting other artists to represent what’s going on and the talent in Scotland.