Tiger Community Hub - the Social Enterprise Livening Up Lister Gate with Love

Interview: Adam Pickering
Wednesday 09 August 2023
reading time: min, words

Tiger Community Hub is a big box retail unit with a difference. For one, they don't mind if you just come in and hog their heating whilst never spending a penny. Adam Pickering checks it out and chats to Founder and resident idea factory, Toni Jarvis.

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It’s just after midday on a Thursday as I step into Tiger Community Hub (Tiger), shining, loud and proud, in an increasingly empty-looking Lister Gate, bereft of the big box retail that once made it hum with footsteps and chatter. 

Where over eight years ago HSBC’s logo sat atop the shopfront there’s a white space, an A-board sits outside bearing the slogan “We Are Open”, windows are awash with cheerful creations and notices. Oh and there’s a whopping great tiger, you can’t miss it.

It’s my first time here, and with some guilt - Tiger had been an enthusiastic part of Green Hustle Festival, which I organised, and a visit has come strongly recommended by multiple people over the last year or so. I’ve been busy, ok? The aptly named Toni (nominatively determining the Tiger brand, the story goes), greets me warmly. Warmth, it turns out, runs through the place like a stick of rock.

Inside there’s a bustling atmosphere in the main space. Toni guides me through the shop, cafe, sewing circles, and tables bedecked with thick, childproof art mats where an anime drawing class has been taking place. Next is the brutalist alleyway out back where they’re composting food waste and hope to make a garden area, then I'm shown upstairs into their “tardis” of rooms storing projects and more than a few future ambitions. 

I’m introduced to various volunteers along the way, people come and go picking up and dropping off bits, young kids rampage, others huddle over snacks or creative tasks, calmly cracking on in duos. About 15 minutes into this introductory meeting/tour, I have to stop Toni in her tracks. “Sorry I have to record this, it’s brilliant” I gush, “I should have been interviewing you”. The energy is palpable and I want to pass it all on.

When people think about learning skills, they think about things related to jobs and things but actually, most people just need joy.

Toni reels through the community interest company’s thrifty, nifty ways of making little bits of income - a fiver for a roll of fabric here, a few quid for some lunch there (made using whatever ingredients they’re donated, usually veg), the gift shop populated with volunteer-made items. They make a bit of income via their recycling centre too. It’s a sort of trickle up economics - small change adds up to a force for change. 

“To help people help themselves to grow” is their motto. I ask what that entails; “there’s a couple of things at the core of what we do”, Toni explains, “at the heart of all our projects is reduce, re-use, recycle, which is partly about necessity, and saving the planet. But equally at the core of everything we do is those soft skills, building confidence and self esteem”.

“It could be something formal, like when we're working with young people and doing work experience, or it could be something really simple, like learning to sow, that I consider a life skill, or even like the kids have done today - learning to draw anime. When people think about learning skills, they think about things related to jobs and things but actually, most people just need joy. Finding the thing that gives them joy, that takes them out of their head for a few hours. We tag it with mental health and that sort of thing but really it’s just about being with like-minded people and building, or sharing your skills”.

Leaning over her shoulder a little, she says with a performative emphasis “I’m supposed to be helping the crochet group at the moment because Barbara’s not here... but”, turning back to me, “they’ve been coming so long, it’s a social now, they don’t need the technical help. They enjoy coming, it’s good for mental health. One of the main feedbacks from covid was that being part of a maker community has saved their sanity.” 

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During COVID, Tiger picked up and dropped off supplies for making scrubs and accessories to those volunteering, including some who were shielding; “between us and the hundreds of volunteers we made and gave away 33,000 items!”. Volunteers now make products like fabric sanitary pads as part of their Sustainable Period (SuPer) Project, and sell them on a "buy one give one" basis - for every item sold they donate one to someone facing period poverty in the UK.

When Tiger moved out of their previous, smaller space on Carrington Street at the end of lockdowns, Toni debated keeping the leaner, more remote network setup, but wanted to bring people together and open “a space that welcomes everybody in.” With a history of working with marginalised groups and those at the sharp end, they’ve seemingly succeeded in this.

Despite 10 years of running Tiger and with a great deal of prior experience working in the community food space, Toni tells me that the threat of closure periodically looms, a challenge sustainability-focussed nonprofits often face. But they’re confident in getting on; “I mean, don't get me wrong. I have a backup plan and we have another space that we can move into that won't be customer facing, because I've got to plan for the worst, but I hope for the best, always. So if there are any sugar daddies, or mommies, we need about 100 grand a year really to not worry”.

Someone could sponsor a wellbeing day, where we welcome everyone for free drinks, free lunch, activities, a bit of pampering.

No less seriously, they’re keen for local businesses to help support their work. “We’re happy for sponsorship or we can do a staff wellbeing day, getting everyone in for some team building workshops. Their staff can come and get involved in activities that support their mental health and wellbeing. We also do things like a regular tombola, sometimes we’ll do a commission with the university - more of those would be good because they actually pay you what you need. We are going to be doing more wellbeing days, so someone could sponsor a wellbeing day, where we welcome everyone for free drinks, free lunch, activities, a bit of pampering”. I grab a cheap, hot lunch of daal, tomato stew and rice, and leave a sizeable tip. 

At the mouth of the old Broadmarsh shopping centre, in what was once one of the city’s main shopping hubs, Tiger offers a new vision of resilient, multi-faceted, freestyle community enterprise. On this doorstep of the vaunted Green Heart park central to Broadmarsh’s inspiring, albeit still distant-seeming vision, it seems clearer than ever that big box retail is leaving the high street picture. Without Tiger there would be little left down here.

Our old system, based on individualism, consumerism, and perennial growth on a finite planet, is surely cracking. This is no abstract thing; through those cracks fall human beings. Thankfully, people like Toni are there to catch them. I am left with a hope of a new type of economy rising - one rooted in care, love, and empowering communities.

This is a precious, fragile, hope-filled seed, itself in need of our warmth and nurturing. If generations to come are to have social forests in which to thrive, they will grow from such seeds.

Visit Tiger Community Hub at 19-21 Lister Gate, Nottingham NG1 7DE or find out more via their website

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