Empowering women through a measure of courage, a culturally diverse café

Stevie Tello raises a beam as she carries an unusual breakfast plate toward our communal wooden table. I am at A Pot of Courage in Ballarat, a non-profit social enterprise café that empowers women from diverse cultural backgrounds through hospitality training and employment opportunities.

Ballarat is a former gold rush town in the Central Victoria Highlands, an hour and a half northwest of Melbourne. There is already a small jar of native Australian flowers on the table, along with a yellow card identifying the section as a “Have a Chat” table. Later Destiny of Courage founder Sherry Pilkington told me that sharing stories is what she believes breaks down cultural barriers.

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

Tello proudly places an arepa in front of me. Cornbread is miles away from the one she grew up eating in Colombia. The top half was deliberately tilted away from the bottom to reveal an avocado rose, painstakingly placed alongside a fried egg and chorizo. It tastes like frigoles (beans) and cottage cheese to her.

“In Colombia, everyone loves arepas,” Stevie says. “And we’ve been eating since we were two little kids.” “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 do their best to eat arepas. There is also Vietnamese lemongrass chicken, homemade spankopita and Bangladeshi dal on the menu.

“Whether you’re Anglo-Australian, Aboriginal or Persian, it doesn’t matter – there is a place for you here.”

In her previous job at Women’s Health Grampians, Pilkington would meet 14 women each week to discuss gender equality, support services, and prevention of violence against women. They will all bring food.

“I used to say I would go to the best coffee shop every Thursday because there are often dishes from 14 different cultures. Now everyone can try them,” says Pilkinton.

I was tired of hearing horror stories of discrimination and job refusal from women and decided to brainstorm how to turn my culinary skills into income with the help of the group. The result was a cookbook published in 2018 called It takes courage. A pop-up followed, with people lining up for the best Banh Mi in the area.

When Pilkington started a new job at Barclay Square, a former high school with an uninspiring coffee shop in the basement, she struck a deal for a women’s group Thursday to take over the place.

The Pot of Courage was opened at the beginning of February 2020; Six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped eating. To survive, they launched house banquets in Latin America and delivery of Malaysian street food. The bright side has been the massive growth in the A Pot of Courage database, which means that by the time the dining venues can open again, people have been flocking to the café.

“We trained and employed 30 people who were mostly marginalized, isolated people, who had no financial independence, and who were really eager to share their culture through their food—and got paid for it,” says Pilkinton.

Since then, some women have set out to establish their own side businesses, packing traditional spices and serving their national food at Ballarat Farmers Market. The café is buzzing with community support, from the sale of local artwork on the walls to the push initiative.

“We call it a multicultural cafe because it’s more lively than a multicultural cafe,” says Pilkington. “Whether you’re Anglo-Australian, Aboriginal or Persian, it doesn’t matter – there is a place for you here.”

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some courage
Barclay Square, 25-39 Barclay Street
Ballarat East, Victoria

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