Want my job? with Elaine McGinty, Founder of Pheonix Cultural Centre

Elaine shares 13 tips for young people starting creative careers

Want my job? with Elaine McGinty, Founder of Pheonix Cultural Centre

Hi Elaine. Could you first introduce yourself to the reader? 

Hi, I’m Elaine McGinty. I co-founded the Phoenix Cultural Centre CIC and the Fiery Bird Live Music Venue in Woking with Joe Buckley. I write and perform poetry and work on various social and community issues. Additionally, I mentor people and host the Fiery Bird Show on Radio Woking, where I interview a wide range of guests from emerging talents to well-known figures in the arts and activism. I also contribute to the Surrey Policy Hate Crime Scrutiny Panel.

As a second-generation Irish person, growing up during the 1970s and 1980s, my heritage has profoundly influenced my creative work and community involvement. My background is in community development and these experiences continue to shape my efforts in fostering cultural and social initiatives.

Why did you decide to start the Phoenix Cultural Centre and what ambitions do you have for its future?

I was in a band with Joe, my co-founder, and we wrote and gigged original music, but our town had no grassroots music venue—only pubs that put on cover bands. Despite Woking's musical heritage, with famous names like The Jam, Rick Parfitt, and Ethel Smyth, it lacked its own music venue. 

Woking has the highest ethnic diversity in Surrey, yet no cultural centre. Many people I worked with in job clubs and community learning felt excluded and the town centre wasn’t welcoming or affordable at night. The town has vast wealth divides and the ongoing regeneration was making it look very generic. As a commuter town, people weren’t connecting.

Arts and music can be very difficult to get into if you aren’t well-financed, encouraged or well-connected. We had faced these barriers and wanted to create a space where others wouldn’t experience those discouragements: people could experiment, develop and showcase their own work in a supportive environment. We wanted a place where people could feel safe, welcome and connected with others and learn skills that could enrich their lives.

We envisioned a space owned and operated by its community of all ages. We wanted to include gigging musicians who understood both sides of the stage, writers, poets that could offer new music and arts for all ages, cultural activities from our diaspora communities, wellbeing support and skill development. It aimed to be a training venue generating income for community benefit, offering affordable or free music workshops and outreach work. Inspired by the grassroots tradition of Irish culture and friends doing similar work elsewhere, we felt it was obvious to start something like this for our town.

So far, we’ve managed to do what we can in temporary places having to change to suit the building. For the future, we aim to secure a permanent venue to encompass all of this for generations. Creativity is a fundamental human behaviour that should have space to be expressed. We believe places like this should be as common and accepted as leisure centres and football fields, becoming a basic part of every town's fabric.

How does the Phoenix Cultural Centre engage with the local community?

We provide affordable guitar and vocal workshops whenever possible as well as different hire rates for community organisations. We host supported internships for SEN (Special Educational Needs) adults, many of whom join our team and help run the venue. We offer school and college work experience placements and provide space for community groups and charities to increase the impact of their work. For example, we run Mayhem, which is a SEN adults nightclub night put on by LinkAble. Our venue is a hub for creative networking, beginner open mics, artist showcases, and touring gigs that give local bands support slots.

Additionally, we offer mentoring, advocacy and promotion for community-led, social businesses, musicians, and writers who we refer to festivals, radio & press opportunities. We organise music events in various settings such as streets, cafes, parks, and care homes. We ran a free, one-day festival Phoenix Rising, which showcased local original bands, provided workshops, and space for charities to sell their goods. This festival embodied our commitment to fostering creativity, community engagement, and social impact.

What are the ups and downs of leading a community centre? 

The upsides of our work are undeniably the positive changes people report in their lives and the variety of people we meet who each bring unique skills and perspectives. Being at the forefront of creativity and new work, supporting artists we believe in and witnessing their success is incredibly rewarding. We thrive on the ability to respond immediately to needs and ideas brought to us, rather than imposing rigid structures, allowing us to adapt to changes and movements in grassroots culture and help foster them.

However, obtaining funding for a catalytic space like ours is an ongoing challenge. Funding is often available for specific activities or through other organisations but not for the venues that support these activities. This creates a chicken-and-egg situation: if the venue could support more bookings, we could generate enough income to employ staff, but as a community startup with limited resources, we lack the initial funds to hire people. Consequently, the hours are long and the responsibilities can be overwhelming.

Our commitment to running a community venue means our own creative work often takes a backseat. Despite these challenges, our dedication to fostering a thriving community through arts and music keeps us motivated, even when the responsibilities and hours are tough.

What are the highlights of your career to date? 

With our music and writing, it was wonderful when the British Library requested a CD to include as an example of the genre. Writing and performing poetry and songs in places where people aren’t typically fans of poetry, and then hearing them say they loved it and how it reached them, is incredibly gratifying.

Another highlight was seeing each iteration of the Phoenix/Fiery Bird grow with each new building and challenge we overcome. It’s a joy to watch volunteers or beginner musicians start to flourish. When a gig is full of people enjoying themselves, or an event brings people together, creating a space where people of all ages feel comfortable and connected, it's incredibly rewarding. Seeing people breathe out and exclaim with relief and comfort when they enter our public living room area validates our efforts.

When one of my children says something nice about our work is really special. Similarly, my dad had a photo taken in front of our venue doors just before it closed for COVID-19. He’d thought I was mad most of the time. He passed away shortly after, making that moment especially treasured.

Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in the life of the Phoenix Cultural Centre? 

To be honest, there have been so many setbacks that I’ve started to regret naming it after a bird that has to completely start over again and again! I suppose we brought that on ourselves. At each obstacle, people have said, “You’ve done your best, but you’ll never get past this.” For a moment, we think we've had enough, but then we realise, “No, wait. This isn’t a big or good enough reason to stop what we are doing. We know this is a good thing and we know it’s worth doing because of the impact it has during those times when it’s just about the people, the music, the art, and the community.” That is what keeps us going. 

One of the biggest challenges is apathy and dealing with people who make assumptions about our knowledge and expertise. Despite these challenges, we persist because of the undeniable positive impact we see in the community when things do go right. It’s the small victories and the support from the people we serve that keep us motivated to overcome every hurdle.It’s definitely not rocket science and it shouldn’t be this hard. 

Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job? 

  1. Keep learning: Always be open to learning new things and improving your skills. 
  2. Stay focused on your purpose: Keep the mission of your work at the heart of everything you do. It’s easy to get sidetracked, usually by others’ priorities but always remember why you started and what you aim to achieve.
  3. Balance excitement with responsibility: While exciting opportunities like conversations with famous people can seem more appealing, never neglect the foundational tasks like filling out forms, securing licences, and ensuring safety. These are essential for making the magic happen on stage and keeping everyone safe.

  4. Prioritise safety: The bottom line of every decision should be the safety and well-being of the people involved. This is non-negotiable.

  5. Cherish the high points: The most rewarding moments are seeing people light up and enjoy the space and experiences you’ve created. These moments make all the hard work worthwhile.

  6. Collaborate wisely: Collaboration is important, but always maintain your integrity. Don’t give away too much or compromise your core values. Align partnerships with your mission and purpose.

  7. Believe in your mission: Socially responsible projects are crucial. Stay true to your mission and believe in the importance of what you’re doing.

  8. Stay confident: Don’t be intimidated by someone’s title, age, or celebrity status. They don’t necessarily know better than you. However, always be willing to listen, learn, and adapt. Also don’t make assumptions about others either. The person you least consider could be the decision maker or best ally in the room

  9. Make Decisions and take responsibility: Be decisive and take accountability for your actions. Hold others accountable as well to ensure the integrity and success of your project.

  10. Protect your health: Your well-being is essential. Take care of your physical and mental health to sustain your efforts over the long term.

  11. Seek support: Reach out to peer groups or start one and look for a mentor who can provide guidance and support. You don’t have to do it all alone but you will often feel like you are. That is normal. Feel sorry for yourself for five minutes. 

  12. Exceed expectations: Under-promise and over-deliver. This builds trust and credibility with your community and partners.

  13. If in doubt, go for a walk.

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Voice Magazine

Voice Magazine

Voice is a magazine and platform for young creatives covering arts, culture, politics and technology. This account contains anonymous posts, information regarding the website and our events.

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