Parliament on King: A counter-narrative

Ravi chops a cheese toastie into several strips and disappears out the back to deliver it to his daughter.
An inner west local takes a beer from the fridge and cracks it open. He looks to pay with his credit card and is gently told that Parliament only takes cash. He is invited to have the beer anyway and bring the cash later.
The barista tells me, “It’s the refugee chefs and the cooks that are working, doing catering or in the café, that have the stories that are important to be told and heard – to create the human interest that will shape policy.”
Parliament on King, a small café at the Erskineville end of King St, breaks down the traditional barriers that exist in the strict separation of home, work and community. In my early visits to Parliament on King, I noticed three dominant narratives that were challenged by this space.
Firstly, Parliament provides a counter narrative to the dominant narrative of separating personal and public space. When I was first welcomed to Parliament, Ravi the owner greeted me as he ran a cheese toastie out the back to his daughter. I experienced for the first time the intersection of personal and public space at Parliament. Growing up in Sydney, I’ve witnessed western home culture that is filled with gated communities, homes encircled by fences, and a clear distinction between those on the inside and those on the outside. There’s an entitlement to personal space, an obsession with having a space that is your own, and a focus on the nuclear family before those beyond. Parliament on King has shown me that this separation of home and work, family and the wider community, is not the only way to live.
Parliament is like a communal living room. There are vibrant conversations and a sense of familiarity amongst strangers. ‘Customers’ pick books off the shelves to discuss the insights pencilled in the margins. A woman in a pink velvet dress is out the front playing a ukulele rendition of Satellite of Love. The café’s windows are open to allow voices to enter, along with the stream of bubbles coming from further up King St. The unplanned sounds, the masses of books, the aroma of coffee and the delivery of toasties to Ravi’s daughter all help to create this sense of home. This is demonstrated at an even deeper level in the way Parliament actively seeks to facilitate a sense of home and belonging for refugees and asylum seekers in Sydney. When I think about my friends and myself—many of whom are in the process of moving out of home for the first time—it makes me wonder how we can reconceptualise ideas of home and community to be more like this.
Secondly, Parliament provides a counter narrative to the dominant narrative of consumer capitalism. The local beer drinker was astounded by the offer to pay later and came rushing back from an ATM up the road fearing he’d forget. The barista at Parliament had turned a clinical transaction into one that built trust and community. He had personalised a depersonalised experience. The customer’s discomfort and confusion with the situation highlights the radically generous and community-oriented posture of Parliament. Again, Parliament was able to demonstrate an alternative to the traditional experience of the customer service industry, which is so quick to turn customers away when money isn’t paid in the moment. In my visits to Parliament on King I have seen numerous customers struggle to find cash to pay their bills – myself included! And each time, I have seen the staff’s consistent trust in the customer’s integrity when they don’t insist on payment then and there – or sometimes even at all. On my first visit, Ravi pointed to the ‘Pay It Forward’ teapot under the passionfruit vine and said, ‘Someone’s already got you covered’.
This counter narrative also manifests itself in Parliament’s rejection of growth and scale as the predominant markers of business or commercial success. At social enterprise conferences, Ravi has engaged in countless discussions about growth and scale of change. Ravi reflected, if Parliament grows to the point that we’re not actually able to sit down, be present, listen and talk with people, what’s the point?
In an interview, the barista at Parliament also commented on scale: “Well, yeah I think it’s a small place changing things for some people. We can only affect the lives of so many people who are working here and who have opportunities. At any single time that’s about ten people. And that’s massive, because you’re changing ten people’s lives.”
I love that. I love that Parliament is not all about scale, growth, expansion and productivity. In the world of social enterprises and social change, Parliament has helped to reorient my understanding of ‘productive’ social change from the quantity of lives changed to the power and beauty of being present and listening to a person, even just one.
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And lastly, Parliament provides a counter narrative to the dominant political discourse around asylum seekers. Politicians such as Dutton, Morrison, Abbott and the like, have used their political profiles and platforms to label asylum seekers “illiterate”, “illegal”, “burdens” and “fake”. Amidst these voices, Parliament provides a space in which all people can come and be trusted. Ravi said to me:
“The assumption when you walk in the door here is that you are a good and trustworthy and kind and honourable and decent person, because most of us are . . . If you look at the world and the way it works and the rules that are in place, everything is set up because of our distrust of a small minority. It just makes more sense if the rules were set up because of our faith in the majority.”
Parliament provides a space that affirms all people and counters the narrative of fear and exclusion with acceptance, community and joy. But not only is Parliament on King a welcoming café space, it is also a social enterprise catering organisation that trains asylum seekers in hospitality skills. The work they are doing at Parliament is relationally-focused and counter-cultural. As I attempt to co-construct one part of their public history, I hope that I can represent their stories with the same authenticity they have shown me.