Everyone who comes into the Foundery Cafe on the main street of Port Kembla in New South Wales stops to say hello to Jennifer Briscoe-Hough. She’s so involved in every aspect of the hardscrabble community’s life, she might as well be its unofficial mayor.
But politics hold no appeal for her. She’s too frank to be a public official and not remotely interested in power. Having once considered and then rejected the idea of running for council, she acknowledges that “I operate best outside the system.”
She prefers to give people the means to make their lives better for themselves and then move on to the next project. Her sense of satisfaction comes from seeing ideas take hold so that they become part of the cultural fabric of the neighbourhood where she lives.
So far, these have included setting up markets; launching Tender, a not-for-profit funeral home; establishing Culture Bank, a crowdfunded bank that gives out money for artistic endeavours and recently helped to turn a local disused service station into a live music venue.
Her full-time role is general manager of the Port Kembla Community Centre, so she knows the locals well, many of whom bear the brunt of long-term unemployment and disadvantage. Port Kembla people are used to doing it tough, and Briscoe-Hough has made it her mission to give them resilience, agency and dignity.
But the truth of the matter is that much of what she initiates is also her idea. She spots gaps and goes about filling them. Instinctive rather than strategic, she attributes her sense of purpose to “not being formally educated. I don’t know what I can’t do.”
Growing up surrounded by the warm, chemical fug of her mother’s home hairdressing salon where women gathered not only to get their hair done but to share stories, is where Briscoe-Hough’s course was set. “My mother would have them in their curlers, waiting for their hair to dry, and they’d do the housework for her – everything from the vacuuming to sewing and cooking. The atmosphere was one of sharing, laughter and joy.”
Briscoe’s own infectious enthusiasm along with her fearlessness and ability to step up means she gets things done, even if they aren’t always her things. “If you work in this way, which is very consultative, and organic, you have to accept that you won’t always get your own way. For example in establishing Culture Bank to put more arts into people’s lives, I would probably fund the edgier, more extreme things that others don’t want to back, but I have to accept the will of the majority.”
Frustrated by long-term grumbling about insufficient culture in the northern Illawarra region, Briscoe-Hough called a public meeting in 2013. After some discussion, she and business partner Lara Seresin came up with an idea that engaged the whole community.
Five years on, Wollongong Culture Bank is a micro-financing initiative in which members pay a modest annual subscription of $120. The funds they raise are then redistributed to artists through a simple grant application system. The system is kept lean, with no red tape and minimal admin.
To date, with only one very part-time staffer, and relying on word-of-mouth, Culture Bank has 100 members in the area who have raised more than $30,000 in one year which has gone towards local performances, exhibitions and events. There’s also been seeding money for the Wollongong Emerging Writers Festival, gigs, film screenings and even a series of specially written poems performed on the local bus network.
“Whenever we’ve got about $5,000 in the kitty, we do a call out for applications,” says Briscoe-Hough. Decisions about who gets Culture Bank funding are made at members’ dinners where conversation can get heated before a final vote. Briscoe-Hough loves supporting wild cards and giving them a chance to experiment, no matter how rough and ready their material: ‘‘I don’t care about the results, really, I care about the process and taking a chance on someone. I want Culture Bank to show that if you have a dream and you need a bit of money to make it happen, you can. We are too hung up on success and polish. I’m more about just having a go.”
One of the unexpected hurdles she faced was the battle to include the word ‘bank’ in the name of the organisation, which required months of to-ing and fro-ing before final approval was granted by ASIC. But Briscoe-Hough is a fighter. “I’m naturally rebellious and have no fear of authority,” she says. “When I was three, I told my mum ‘It’s a free world and I’ll do what I like.’ I was very naughty as a child. When I ran away from home, I took the keys so they could not come looking for me.”
Many members do not attend the cultural events they have helped support. “Pure altruism is not attached to outcome,” says Briscoe-Hough. “It’s not about glory or kudos. It’s about the pleasure and satisfaction of giving without expecting something back. We have to give up on the idea of ‘What will I get out of it? which turns everything into a commodity.
“Culture is not a product. I think when you give, you have to do so unconditionally, because the moment you impose terms on a gift, that’s known as Indian giving; it diminishes its value and onward energy. Altruism is not a transaction, it’s an exchange. It’s quieter, more under-the-radar, less showy than a lot of philanthropy.”
Last year, Briscoe-Hough’s boldest venture, the not-for-profit funeral service Tender, held 120 funerals from Wollongong to Sydney and beyond. Recently she secured a $60,000 grant from Create NSW for the funeral home to enable a couple of local artists – a singer/songwriter and a textile artist – to collaborate with grieving families in creating personalised ceremonies for non-traditional funerals.
Her latest project is The Servo, the disused service station transformed into a no-frills bar showcasing live music talent and cabaret, which she initiated together with a group of 12 investor mates.
Despite being in a near-perpetual state of exhaustion, Briscoe-Hough seems to make time for everyone but is stumped when asked about the role ego plays in her drive. “I don’t know,” she says, momentarily nonplussed. “I must have one. I think my Achilles heel is that I don’t like anyone who feels they are special, I get upset about issues of justice and fairness. We are all special and we are all ordinary.”