Sunday sit-down with… Huffty McHugh
Next in our Billboard Interviews series is the Centre Coordinator for the West End Women and Girls’ Centre, whose commitment to changing the world one youth club at a time has earned her a special place in the hearts of her local community.
Spend five minutes with Huffty McHugh and she’ll have you convinced you’re the perfect candidate to stand for office in the next round of local elections.
She’ll have you outraged and believing in better all at once; opening your eyes to the worst of society and yet recognising the very best of society, too. And all with a smile on her face. Because, for Huffty, changing the world really doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
At least, not if we each pull our weight – which is an attitude that visibly pervades throughout her management of the West End Women and Girls’ Centre.
Having assumed command as Centre Coordinator at the tender age of 18 (and very reluctantly at that), Huffty has successfully steered Newcastle’s first – and only – open access women and girls centres through local riots, a global pandemic and fierce funding cuts to emerge as one of the two last independent girls groups in the country, just in time for the Centre’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
Which is why we knew we wanted her to be involved in HLN’s first ever billboard campaign. After all, if celebrating women like Huffty – who dedicate not only their entire careers, but also their whole lives to lifting other women up and bringing their local community together – isn’t what High Life North is all about, then we’re not sure what is.
That’s why we popped into the Centre for a cuppa to chat with Huffty about everything from gender inequality and managing racism on the estate to how the Centre’s new Northumberland farm is coming along and playing hide and seek in the dark…
Tell us about your role as Centre Coordinator of the West End Women and Girls Centre?
I can’t really say that being Centre Coordinator is a job or a career. If you work in the charity sector, it’s a vocation. And I’ve spent all my working life here. I started at West End Women and Girls Centre at 17. So, I know this might sound really naff, but it feels like a family. I’ve known some of the women here since they were bairns coming to the youth club and I’ve seen them grow into amazing, strong women. Other women come as victims of domestic abuse and they leave the Centre as survivors; as strong, independent women. We go through what families go through – good times and bad. We all support each other, look after each other and help each other grow. So, yeah, it’s way more than a job for me. It’s an amazing thing to be involved in.
How did you first become involved with the Centre?
I started off as a Youth Worker for the Tuesday Junior Club and the Older Girls group, both of which I still do now. It was part-time and I was very lazy when I was 17! We used to have a pool table so, when my boss, Brenda, would go into meetings, I’d just play pool all afternoon. I thought I had the best job in the world! But then Brenda told me she was going to university for a year, that she’d spoken to the management committee and they’d all agreed for me to take over from her. I was like: ‘oh my God, Brenda, look how incompetent and lazy I am! How can I take over?! I can’t do this!’ But Brenda just told me it was happening. So, at 18, I became the Centre Coordinator.
That must’ve been trial by fire?!
Absolutely! All of a sudden, I was responsible for managing all the staff, recruiting new staff, managing volunteers, liaising with the management committee, running the youth clubs, fund raising, writing all the accounts in a big red ledger, even answering the phones… it all fell to me.
And then, as the Centre grew, I realised I had to learn how to deal with women coming up to me – as an 18 year old youth worker – and saying: ‘this is what’s going on at home; my husband’s thrown me down the stairs. What should I do?’ I had no idea. So, it was vital that I learned on the job. I needed to learn how to handle those situations and help those women in the best way possible.
That’s a huge responsibility.
There was lots of childhood sexual abuse going on in Elswick (as there is all the time) that girls were disclosing to me, too, so I knew I needed safeguarding training. Some Tuesday nights I would be ringing social services saying: it’s 8pm, mams are coming to collect their kids, and I’ve got a girl that’s just told me she’s being sexually abused at home, and the social workers telling me: keep her there. Don’t let her parents pick her up. Then they would arrive at the Centre with the police and there would be consequences of that in the community – people coming up and saying to me: you got that bairn taken off her. And I was just like: yeah, she was being abused!
So, it really has been a case of learning on the job. Recognising that I’m not an expert and not only undergoing training myself, but also getting funding for proper Domestic Abuse services with expert workers who can help these women and girls, and getting proper support from Rape Crisis to help those experiencing sexual abuse, too. I see my job as making sure we create a safe space here. Because, when you create a safe space, people talk to you about what’s going on in their lives. And if they tell us what’s going on, we can escalate that accordingly and make sure they receive the right help.
But it’s not all super heavy – you also get to go quad bike riding in the summer holidays, so it’s swings and roundabouts!
There’s so much you do here at the Centre – who comes up with the ideas for new groups?
It really is powered by the people. Take the Edible Elswick project – that came about because there were no Bengali women coming to the Centre in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The biggest Bengali community in Newcastle is literally across the road from us, but the Centre was purely white. So, we went out knocking on doors – myself, Pat (who’s one of our volunteers) and Emma, my colleague – and asked the Bengali women: ‘we’ve got a Centre across the road, why aren’t you coming? Is there something missing?’
As we were doing that, Emma kept getting distracted and was asking the women: ‘what’s that you’re growing there?’ And they’d explain that it was coriander seeds from home or whatever, and then Emma would say: ‘oh, I can’t get coriander to grow like that!’ And I felt like saying: ‘Emma, shut up and stay focused!’ But then we’d go to the next door and Emma would start again. And it turned out that what the Bengali women really wanted was a growing space. A lot of them come from Sylhet, which is an agricultural community, and they were used to growing their own fruit, veg, herbs and spices. In Elswick, they didn’t have any room to do that – they only had back yards and no gardens. So, Emma was right!
The Bengali women started coming to the Centre, we developed cookery classes so that they could show the white women how to cook with what they were growing and learn English recipes themselves, and the community cohesion that resulted was all down to cookery and gardening.
That leads us nicely onto your new farm in Northumberland – what was the incentive behind that?
The farm came from Covid. We started doing daily ‘Scran for the Fam’ soup deliveries: my colleague Susan made 500 portions of soup a week and we delivered it out into the local community. Over 15 months we delivered 25,000 portions of soup. And for our community, sometimes it wasn’t really about the soup at all – it was about the conversation. They could tell us things, knowing we would investigate and try and help where we could.
A lot of those conversations came from women saying: ‘look, I’ve got five kids in a two-bedroom flat; they can’t go to school, I’m not allowed in the park and we haven’t got a garden – what can I do?’ When we came back from the soup run, washing up all the pans and things, we’d discuss some of these conversations and we realised a lot of families were in the same boat. So, we started asking ourselves: what do we need to help them?
We need fresh air to breathe, we need to see sky, we need some greenery, we need to be out and about and have space to be wild and roam and scream and shout. That’s where the farm came in. It came from trying to give this community a little of that, and to offer women the chance to take their kids on holiday for free.
The Centre is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. How have you seen it develop in that time?
WEWAGC started off as just one youth club session a night a week; it went up to two nights after I started, to facilitate Junior Youth Club and the Older Girls group. Then the women’s side of things started. Now we have 20 sessions a week, for the whole community.
In the ‘80s, there were loads of girls’ clubs, but they’ve all gone now. We’re the last youth and community club standing in this part of Elswick. So, we have to be conscious of that and use our influence, if we do have any, to make sure that there are resources here for everybody. Take our Gender Inequality work – if we work with girls, that’s only half the world. In order to change society, you have to change the whole world – so somebody has to work with the men and boys. We need to make sure that we’re advocating on behalf of the men and boys in our community as well as our women and girls, because they need services, too.
We’re so chuffed you’re involved in our new billboard campaign! What do you love about High Life North?
High Life North is amazing because it’s glossy, it’s all about women in the North East and it makes the our region look like a great place to be as a women – which it is!
And why do you think it’s important to have a magazine that spotlights women and celebrates their achievements?
We still experience gender inequality, sexual abuse and violence against women and girls. That’s why it’s really important that there’s a magazine that shows the best of women in the North East and supports us. We’re really strong and, together, we’re better. We can all smash the patriarchy!
What would you say are some of the most pressing issues of social injustice facing women here in the North East right now?
I think it’s our lack of a voice. We’re not listened to. In this day and age, girls in schools are still told that they can’t take their jumpers and blazers off in the summer, because their bra straps will inflame the passions of male teachers and students. It’s mental, it’s like we’ve been transported back to Victorian times. And that’s just what’s going on in schools that our girls are telling us about. Sexual harassment in schools is at an epidemic level – and nobody’s talking about it.
Problems grow from seemingly small things like that into big things like the gender pay gap, massive rates of sexual harassment in the workplace – I mean, 10% of MPs in parliament are currently being investigated for sexual harassment at work. So, it goes from our schools right the way up into our houses of parliament. Something has got to be done – and it starts with all of us, every day.
What would you say to encourage any women or girls in the North East who may need support in any capacity to come along to the WEWAGC?
We play hide and seek in the dark! And we go camping. We go on trips, we go to the Hoppings, we’ve got a mini bus and go down to the beach and eat chips, we run round the park, we paint the building… everything you’d ever want to do as a kid, we do them all now.
And what are your ambitions for the next 40 years of WEWAGC?
I think the next stage really is about local democracy. Right now, our voices aren’t heard. Especially where money is spent. Over 2,500 people came to our 40th anniversary party on International Women’s Day, but half an hour before that party started, the council rang me up and told me that they were withdrawing their permission to have the fairground rides on the land opposite the Centre. They knew that the rides were already set up and that the community could see them and were really excited about them, because I told them. But they didn’t want the liability of potential accidents – even though we’d already submitted thorough risk assessments, insurance policies and all health and safety protocols were in places. Now, that says to me that they have no idea what goes on in this community and what our community wants and needs. So, we went ahead and had the party – as you saw, because you were there!
But all the strong women who come through our Centre need to make their voices heard. They need to take up positions of power in order to affect public policy and to affect how people here in Elswick are treated and talked about and dealt with. I think that’s the way forward, as well as continuing to have a marvellous youth and community centre!
If you’d like to find out more about the groups and support offered at the West End Women and Girls’ Centre, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
Or simply pop in and say hello!
West End Women and Girls’ Centre, 173 Elswick Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 6SQ