Whether by aiding refugee resettlement or combating the impacts of mass incarceration, more and more cafes are adopting some kind of social mission. In that way, sipping a good cup of coffee might be one of the simplest ways to contribute to the resistance.
Located near the UC Berkeley campus, 1951 Coffee Company (2410 Channing Way) uses its business as a platform to assist the resettlement of refugees through job training and employment, while also educating the surrounding community about refugee issues. For instance, two weeks ago, community members gathered at the cafe to write postcards to senators, urging them to push back against Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee executive orders.
Doug Hewitt, the company’s co-founder, was first introduced to refugee issues while working at a Starbucks during graduate school. There, Hewitt befriended a barista who shared his perilous story about fleeing Eritrea, sailing across the Mediterranean Sea, and eventually entering the United States as a refugee.
“[His story] opened my eyes up to an entire community of refugees living right here in the Bay Area that I didn’t know a lot about before,” Hewitt said. Shortly after, he began volunteering for the International Rescue Committee in Oakland, where he would meet Rachel Taber, 1951’s eventual co-founder.
Since it opened in late January, the cafe has become a safe space for its refugee employees to meet and become a part of the Berkeley community.
“Since we opened just a couple days before Trump’s executive order, we found that people are coming in as a way of supporting refugees. We’ll overhear customers asking, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’” Taber said.
In Uptown Oakland, the Coffee Box (2327 Broadway), the shipping-container storefront for Red Bay Coffee, aims to promote diversity in the sourcing, roasting, and retail sides of the coffee industry by making sure its staff represents the community it serves. Founder Keba Konte’s team of employees is composed entirely of people of color, women, and the formerly incarcerated. And the Coffee Box’s business model of “radical” sharing gives 100 percent of retail profits to its employees, on top of their hourly wage.
Given the country’s current administration, Konte feels that his desire to promote inclusivity, equity, and fair trade is more relevant than ever. One of Red Bay’s in-house coffee partners, Port of Mokha, focuses on developing coffee from Yemen — one of the seven Muslim-majority countries Trump attempted to ban in his recent executive order.
“It’s hitting home, right here in our coffee house,” Konte said. “We stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and we’re going to keep doing the work we’ve been doing for the last twelve years.”
Just down the street from The Coffee Box is Tertulia Coffee and Sanchez Contemporary (1951 Telegraph Ave., Oakland), where Tim and Maria Sanchez have combined their passions for coffee and art to create a combined cafe and art gallery that combats displacement by preserving the cultural legacy of Bay Area Latinx/Chicanx artists and other artists of color.
The gallery has showcased work by artists ranging from pioneering Chicana artists, including Ester Hernandez and Patricia Rodriguez, to 6th–12th grade students from Oakland School for the Arts. According to Sanchez, it’s important to give these young artists a safe space to have their voices heard.
“Art is medicine,” Sanchez said, “because it heals the artist when they’re creating a piece, and when they’re ready to let it go, it can heal others.”
The list goes on. Hasta Muerte, another Latinx-owned cafe set to open in Oakland’s Fruitvale district early this year, will focus on providing space for people of color, queer folks, activists, and undocumented communities to share stories and stand together in solidarity. And in Antioch, John Krause, a former inmate at San Quentin State Prison, started Big House Beans with the goal of helping formerly incarcerated individuals by offering employment opportunities and supporting rehabilitation programs.
So, the question remains, why does coffee make such a fitting platform for social justice causes? According to Hewitt and Taber, it’s the conversational culture of cafes that make them a suitable space for critical dialogue and change.
“Cafes have always been a place where people gather for discussion,” Hewitt said. “Usually when [customers are] consuming something that’s pleasing, like a warm cup of coffee, it tends to open you up to conversation.”
As Red Bay Coffee’s Konte put it, “The Bay Area has a rich, dynamic legacy of activism and great culinary experiences. So anytime something is done that combines those things, it works for the community. That’s why you see these cafes coming up, and I predict you’re going to see a lot more of them — especially in today’s political climate.”
Back at 1951 Coffee, one customer, a UC Berkeley student named Anna, pointed at a wall where a large graphic outlined every step of the 17-year resettlement process that refugees undergo after being forced to flee their homeland. At the top was this statistic: “107,100 refugees were resettled by the UNHCR host nations in 2015. That’s 0.5 percent of the 20.3 million living as refugees.”
“I didn’t know about most of this,” she said. “And the way things are these days, I think we all need to know more so we can help more.”
“Is that why you came here?” I asked. “To learn how to help the cause?”
“Well, I came for the coffee. But I’m going to come back for the cause.”