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Invisible Cities: Walking Tours off the Beaten Track

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An off-the-beaten-track tour of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester or York, presented by a homeless tour guide

Here at Culture Calling we’re all about finding the very best of a brand-new city, exploring the off-the-beaten track nooks and crannies of the place and living like the locals do. See the city in this unique way and book a tour with Invisible Cities, a social enterprise company that train homeless city residents to give interesting and unique tours of the place they call home.

No one tour is the same, and the company’s website displays unique profiles of different tour guides for each city. You can take a Trainspotting guide to Edinburgh, a poetic trip around Manchester, an exploration of crime and punishment in beautiful Glasgow or a railway heritage tour of York, along with many other tours by talented and well researched guides. We sat down for a chat with company founder Zakia Moulaoui about the origins of this wonderful company and the effects of helping homeless people find work as tour guides.

Image credit: @InvisibleEdin via Twitter

Culture Calling - How did Invisible Cities come about?

Zakia - Well I used to work for an organisation called Homeless World Cup. It’s a street soccer project from around the world, across 70 countries, using football and sports to support people who are either homeless or in shelters and temporary accommodation, and once a year they come together and have a big tournament. So I used to be part of the team and one of the things that always struck me was that, no matter where people came from they always faced the same issues and same stigma; that people back home thought they were homeless because they were lazy or addicts or whatever. When I left back in 2015 I really wanted to do something about that, something to break down the stigma. My work really highlighted to me how no two people had the same story, everybody had different circumstances and I’d never met anyone who had purposefully chosen to be on the streets. So that’s how it came about, trying to help bring down stigmas by having someone tell their own story as opposed to letting the media direct their narrative.

Culture Calling - So you started the company in Edinburgh?

Zakia - Yeah it was 2016 in Edinburgh, we started our first round of training in the spring and then did some pilot tours in the summer. We then started expanding to other cities and last November we started in Manchester and Glasgow and this June just passed we started touring in York.

Culture Calling - What cities would you like to further expand to?

Zakia - Well to expand we aim to move in with local organisations. We need someone on the ground to do the training and the managing of the guys and all of that, so wherever we can find a good partner then I want to work there. Cardiff is a good city, and obviously cities like Liverpool, Newcastle, Dundee would be great. There are even international cities that I’d love to go and work in! But realistically we’re always looking for smaller cities where we can find really strong partners.

Image credit: Luke Bennett Photography via Invisible Cities

Culture Calling - Can you tell us a little about the recruitment and training process?

Zakia - We recruit via referral systems, so we have what we call recruitment partners which are like organisations that support people with day-to-day things, soup kitchens or The Big Issue for example, really any organisation that’s offering food, accommodation or training. This works because these organisations know who we are and what we do, it’s not like we’re just going up to random people and asking them to do tours, it’s a vetting system that works both ways! The organisations also know who would be really good at doing the tour, who has the confidence or those who could work on their confidence! When we organise the training, we always divide it into three parts and start by organising a call out to anyone that the organisations think would be great - it’s completely open to everyone. If someone doesn’t want to finish the training then that’s absolutely fine, and if they want to finish the training but don’t want to be guides - that’s also totally fine. We see that a lot when women come from Women’s Aid or other refuge centres. They don’t particularly want people to know that on Wednesday at 2pm then they’ll be doing a tour, so we know from experience that they want the training but it’s to grow their confidence or their social life.

Culture Calling - and what about the rest of the training process?

Zakia - After a workshops step then we move onto the second part which is the matching process. People work in pairs with a volunteer or someone from the heritage or tourism centre and they get the chance to build their own tour. They’ll chose a theme and sometimes people come up straight away and know what they want to talk about, for example crime or a certain person in the city’s history, and some people come with nothing. They all start from a slightly different point and it’s such an individual experience. The last part of the training is the practice and they’ll practice it over and over again until they’re happy and their mentor’s happy and we’re happy. Finally, we do a practice tour with the public, people come for free and give us feedback, and once everyone is happy then we launch it to the public.

Culture Calling - Can guides include accounts of their own experiences in the tours?

Zakia - Absolutely. Sometimes it’s massively personal and sometimes it’s not at all, it depends on how comfortable the guide is with that. We don’t push that, if they don’t want to then they don’t have to. The funny thing is that usually when people start, they don’t want to, but then what happens is that people are just interested and ask loads of questions and the tour guide keeps adding bits and bobs of their own lives or own interests into their tour. That’s when they feel comfortable and when they start owning it. The number one thing that everyone’s afraid of is that people on the tour will judge them. I have to say to people “If they don’t want to come then they won’t come, and they certainly won’t pay money to go on a tour to simply trash it.” When they do share and notice that they haven’t been judged by anyone, that’s when they feel comfortable adding bits from their own lives or personality.

Image credit: Luke Bennett Photography via Invisible Cities

Culture Calling - Can you share any particular success stories?

Zakia - Honestly, all of them. All of the guys we have on the website have such unique and interesting tours, but the story of Laura in Manchester is a good example. If you visit our news section you can read her story in her own words but for me, I’ve witnessed her coming out of her shell. She’s a person who never thought she could be a guide, could never talk to ten people at once and be the centre of attention, and now she loves being a guide and loves being the centre of attention. She loves taking people on this journey, which is a very personal tour for her, and it’s incredible. People do a lot of work for this and there’s a lot of build-up in terms of trust between the guys and the team, and for them to know where they’re going to go with that, what they’re going to achieve and what they want to do with it. It’s an empowering project. Ultimately, we believe that people are responsible for their own growth and journey, and ideally, we want to be part of that and support whatever people want to do. Sometimes that means becoming a full-time guide, the guy who does our Trainspotting tour in Edinburgh wants to become a Blue Badge Guide, and sometimes people want to go on to work in a hotel or a restaurant or whatever. We’ll help them whatever journey that is, it doesn’t have to just be with us.

Culture Calling - Why should someone choose an Invisible Cities tour over a regular city tour?

Zakia - They’re for people want to see a city in a different way, as opposed to simply what you’d see on Google. We try to show the invisible side of a city in two ways - one is the unbeaten track side, the things you don’t see on Google, but the second way is the more social invisible side, the homelessness, addictions and mental health in the city. If people are interested in learning about that and want to have more of a meaningful experience, then they should definitely come with us. The piece of feedback we often get is that it’s like going on a tour with a friend. So, if you feel at the end of the tour that the guide is your friend then it has to be because you’ve had a meaningful experience.

For more information or to book a tour, please visit their website.