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In the 17th and 18th centuries, otherwise known as the Age of Enlightenment, coffeehouses were recognised as public, open spaces where people could come together to debate and discuss news, disseminate ideas, make conversation with new and familiar faces and drink (lots and lots of) coffee.

These places became the centre of innovation; hubs for social interaction and intellectual & caffeinated stimulation. They were the information networks of a world without Wi-Fi.

Over time, digital evolution has provided us with alternative news sharing and communication platforms. Whilst the internet has brought us together virtually, I wonder whether it has cost us an opportunity, perhaps even the inclination, to spark up a conversation, face-to-face, with a stranger as we wait in line for our soy chai lattes.

That said, a growing number of community-led and socially focused cafes are popping up across the UK. It was during a chance catch up in an independent coffee shop in Manchester that we - Rachel Barker, RSA Area Manager for the north of England and Ireland, and Claire Haigh FRSA, Co-Founder of Community Interest Company, Collaborate Out Loud - got talking about how we might revive an approach that the RSA launched ten years ago, it being something we resonate with in both our personal and professional lives. 

The RSA Coffeehouse Challenge was a series of events on social themes, bringing Fellows together locally to get involved in the work of the RSA and to inspire people to discuss and take action on pressing issues in their communities.

We are living in extraordinary times and we both believe that many small acts of generosity, kindness and openness to contribute can add up to achieve momentous change. Both the RSA and Collaborate Out Loud developed from innovative ideas that were set in motion in coffeehouses hundreds of years apart (read about the RSA’s history with coffee). Both organisations have a shared interest in supporting communities to come together to address the challenges we face in the modern world.

For Claire, the Coffeehouse Challenge approach is all about bringing people together in a democratic and open way to work collectively on challenges that really matter. This might be about changing a physical space or it might be about tackling the loneliness of dementia; no challenge is too big or too small. 

Rachel agrees, in her world of work she has witnessed and encouraged dozens of good, small intentions and watched them grow into incredible, life changing projects, charities and companies. It’s not about less talk and more action, but about meaningful talk and interaction.

When people from different backgrounds come together to share their ideas, passions, stories, strengths and weaknesses, amazing things can happen.

We’ve seen it, we’re part of it and we want to invite you to take a rein and help drive the #cupofchange notion forward. We’re excited to say that the informal chat we had earlier this year planted the seed for a new project, born by and ever-dependant on collaboration. We’ve reinvigorated a simple approach to effectively bring people in the boroughs of Greater Manchester together to address and tackle the challenges we face as a community.

Claire’s hosting our first Coffeehouse Challenge in Prestwich, her home town, on 8 September and Rachel will be announcing a get-together in Stockport over the next few weeks (keep your eye on the RSA North page for more information).

We’re encouraging people, Fellows and non-Fellows alike, to step forward and ask the questions, what change do we want to see? and how can we achieve it? over a cuppa at their local coffee shop or cafe.

The model we’re developing encourages an experimental approach and we'll provide a simple toolkit (coming soon!) to help people set up their own local groups, with steps, advice and access to a wider, connected community.

If you want to get involved and set up a Coffeehouse Challenge in your area, please share your ideas in the comments below or get in touch with Rachel: rachel.barker@rsa.org.uk and we’ll let you know when we publish the toolkit. Similarly, if you fancy a brew and a face-to-face conversation, please join us at an upcoming event.

Coffeehouse Challenge at a glance

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