Empowering women through A Pot of Courage, a culturally diverse cafe

Stefi Tello beams as she carries an unusual breakfast plate to our communal wooden table. I’m at A Pot of Courage in Ballarat, a non-profit social enterprise cafe that empowers women from diverse cultural backgrounds through hospitality training and employment opportunities.

Ballarat is a former gold rush town in the Central Highlands of Victoria, an hour and a half northwest of Melbourne. There is already a small pot of Australian native flowers on the table, along with a yellow card designating the section as a “Have a Chat” table. Later, A Pot of Courage founder Shiree Pilkinton tells me that sharing stories is what she thinks breaks down cultural barriers.

“It changes perspectives and expands minds,” she says.

Tello proudly places an arepa in front of me. The cornmeal cake is miles away from the ones she grew up in Colombia. The top half has been deliberately angled from the bottom to reveal an avocado rose, carefully positioned alongside a fried egg and chorizo. Frijoles (beans) and cheese taste like home to her.

“In Colombia, everyone loves arepas. We’ve been eating them since we were little,” says Stefi. “We eat arepas all day, but the special moment is breakfast.”

For many Ballarat locals, a visit to A Pot of Courage is the first time they’ve tasted Colombia’s favorite breakfast. Other South Americans living in Australia go out of their way to eat arepas. There is also Vietnamese lemongrass chicken, homemade spanakopita and Bangladeshi dhal on the menu.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re Anglo-Australian, Aboriginal or Persian – there’s a place for you here.”

In her former job at Women’s Health Grampians, Pilkinton met with 14 women each week to discuss gender equity, support services and preventing violence against women. Everyone brought food.

“I used to say I went to the best cafe every Thursday because there was often food from 14 different cultures. Now everyone can experience it,” says Pilkinton.

She got tired of hearing horror stories of discrimination and job rejection from women and decided to think about how to turn their cooking skills into income, with the help of the group. The result was a cookbook published in 2018 titled It needs courage. A pop-up followed, with people lining up for the best banh mi in the area.

When Pilkinton started a new job in the Barkly Square neighborhood, a former high school campus with an uninspiring cafe downstairs, she struck a deal for her Thursday women’s group to take over the space.

A Pot of Courage opened in early February 2020; six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted meals. To survive, they launched door-to-door banquets in Latin America and street food deliveries in Malaysia. The silver lining was a huge growth in the A Pot of Courage database, which meant that by the time hospitality venues could reopen for dinner, people were flocking to the cafe.

“We trained and employed 30 mostly marginalized, isolated, financially independent people who were really eager to share their culture through their food – and get paid for it,” says Pilkinton.

Some of the women have since set up their own side businesses, bottling traditional condiments and serving their national food at the Ballarat Farmer’s Market. The cafe throbs with community support, from selling local art on the walls to a pay-for-pay initiative.

“We call it an intercultural cafe because it’s more active than a multicultural cafe,” says Pilkinton. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Anglo-Australian, Aboriginal or Persian – there’s a place for you here.”

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A pot of courage
Barkly Square, 25-39 Barkly Street
East Ballarat, Victoria

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement