Jenessa Williams tries a new social experience that’s the first of its kind in the UK
How long have you lived in Leeds? Whether you were born here or moved for university, chances are that there are parts of the city that you’ve never ventured, or bits that you walk past daily without a second thought. Sometimes, it takes a fresh set of eyes to open up those little details you didn’t know you were missing.
The first of its kind in the UK, Tales of a City Tours is a social enterprise that stresses the importance of taking the time to experience stories other than your own. Inspired by Leeds’ rich, diverse history and hospitable attitude towards those who need it most, all tours are led by refugees. A pay-as-you-feel experience, it promotes cultural exchange and understanding - not to mention the emotional catharsis that comes with getting out in the fresh air.
We meet our small group on a warm Sunday afternoon at Leeds Civic Hall, where we are introduced to our guide Lilly. She moved to Leeds in 2001 from South Africa for her own safety; an activist and social worker dedicated to protecting the welfare of children, her role was threatened after the assassination of a colleague, leaving her a choice between going into hiding or fleeing.
Despite the heartbreaking reasons for her journey, Lilly speaks warmly and openly, taking us past the landmarks that helped her acclimatise to life in a new country. We pause at Mandela Gardens as she reflects on her birth country and talks about the nerve-wracking freedom that came with adjusting to a country that wasn’t in the grips of apartheid, of dealing with the overwhelming nature of being able to come and go as she pleased.
A visit to the library and art gallery helps her explain her career growth in the UK, and the joy of educating her children in spaces that, back home, would have been preserved for the white middle class. I’m forced to admit that until now, I’ve never stepped foot in the art gallery - not because I don’t love art, but because I just take it for granted that it’s always been there, that I’ll ‘get round’ to visiting. Seeing the passion with which Lilly speaks is a real humbler and a reminder that these places can mean so much more than what they physically are.
As a mixed-race woman, I relate strongly as she explains her desire to raise her children with connections to both of their cultures, the British and the South African, and can’t help but smile as she recalls her difficulty in understanding her children when they speak ‘Yorkshire’.
As we are a diverse group of attendees ourselves, the conversation isn’t just reserved to Lilly. We chat amicably with each other about our own stories as we move from venue to venue, recommending other spots to see.
I speak with Emily, who co-founded the whole project, and learn that it was her degree in Responsible Tourism Management that pushed her to share the stories of others, encouraging a living wage for the guides from attendee donations. Where a similar setup has the potential to feel exploitative, it’s clear that real care has been taken to create a respectful, fulfilling environment that puts the speakers in control of their own story.
Although it’s just two hours long, we end the tour having gone full circle - strangely feeling something of a connection. Some of those who have only just met drift away for coffee, and on an afternoon that could have easily been spent on the sofa or in the pub, I feel a whole lot richer for having taken the time to hear from somebody I may never have crossed paths with on my own. Sometimes it pays to walk a little bit in somebody else’s shoes.
Tales of a City tours take place every first and third Saturday of the month. For more information, visit eventbrite.co.uk or follow across social media @talesofacitytours