Chicago’s Cafe YO! Combines Youth Jobs, Activism, and Caffeine

Kari Lydersen

Chicagoan David Meyers was never one for a 9-to-5 job that didn’t let him express his creativity and desire for radical social change. So seven years ago, Meyers founded a one-man fair trade organic coffee roasting and distribution outfit called Resistance Coffee. The labels on his bags of coffee usually bear information about an ongoing social justice struggle or a cryptic image like a McMansion with a slash through it, or an alternate name like Kropotkin Koffee.

Learning about coffee on the fly, Meyers roasts fair trade beans from around the world in small roasters stashed in garages around Chicago, and sells them to individual buyers and coffee shops, often as fundraisers for local groups. (Full disclosure: David is a friend of mine.)

This spontaneous and DIY spirit also characterizes Café YO!, a new venture Meyers helped launch in January, which trains urban youth in roasting and marketing fair trade coffee, and ideally will allow them to visit and connect with independent coffee growers around the world.

In April, the first three teen members of Cafe YO! will begin roasting coffee and creating custom artistic labels for the coffee bags, working three days a week for $10 an hour. While the pay isn’t high, given the group’s lack of financing, Meyers told me that the idea is to plant the seed” of do-it-yourself entrepreneurship in kids from low-income, beleaguered neighborhoods like Humboldt Park, Cafe YO!‘s first outpost thanks to collaboration with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Meyers noted that many youth in these neighborhoods have natural business and networking skills, but find only limited options like fast food joints, the military or the drug trade in which to use their talents. He hopes Cafe YO! can provide another outlet. Meyers told me:

There aren’t jobs out there for young people now, so what a lot of them are doing is just making their own jobs. The hipsters are doing this all over the place (with artistic micro-enterprises)… We’re trying to cross the race, class and gender divide, taking the business skills some kids have from their daily lives and incubating the idea that they can do something else.

The teens will spend one day a week roasting coffee, one day on designing the custom labels and one day on marketing. While coffee roasting is in and of itself a skill, Meyers sees it as perhaps more important as a symbol. He told me:

Roasting creates this weird space where you get really creative. Roasting one day a week might sound like a little thing, but it’s actually a big thing, it’s doing something that creates wealth and value, it’s making something happen just by the will to do it. When you combine the culture, politics and economics (of the project), you can go from the idea that people who are making something are exploited to them being empowered.

Once it gets off the ground, the idea is for Café YO to also raise money for causes, with one of the first being the Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, one of 13 Puerto Rican independentistas arrested in the early 1980s who received inordinately long sentences after refusing to acknowledge the U.S. court system. Eleven of the prisoners had their sentences commuted by then-President Clinton in 1999; another was paroled in 2010, so only Lopez Rivera remains behind bars.

While the first participants are from Humboldt Park, the goal is for Cafe YO! to ultimately serve as an umbrella group for youth in different locations to start their own small coffee businesses. Meyers said that after a 10-week pilot period, they will evaluate whether the Humboldt Park youth might spin off their own business. Additionally, the urban bike collective Ciclo Urbano in Humboldt Park has partnered with Cafe YO! to deliver coffee orders.

Meyers and the other Cafe YO! founders — Jane Moccia and Eric Burton — are in the early stages of fundraising to send youth to meet with coffee growers in places like Puerto Rico and Nicaragua. Meyers said he has been talking wiith labor unions, among other groups.

Last year Meyers and other members of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center visited coffee growers in the highlands of Puerto Rico, an experience he said opened doors to thinking more broadly about the world and what you can do in it.” He calls these types of connections globalization from below,” as described on Café YO’s website:

Globalization from below. We do this within a new economic model that runs on equitable labor partnerships, makes the smallest possible carbon footprint, and works with youth who are developing the tools to create their own livelihoods and campaigning for change and justice along the way. We honor social life and action; we are greed abolitionists; and we take solidarity seriously…

Confederated, caffeinated, and free of sluggishness; we are promoting horizontal expansion, determined by the interests of project participants. The goal? To end the line artificially dividing wealth from the majority of the people of this earth. To put people before profit. To energize new and inspired realities. Hmm, what else? Oh yeah, to serve up some kick-ass coffee.

Cafe YO! initially will share a roaster with Café Chicago, run by workers at the Latino Union workers center, who are roasting and selling coffee with the ultimate goal of opening a café for day laborers waiting for work. Meyers also helped launch Cafe Chicago, which like Cafe YO!, has close ties to Puerto Rico. As I wrote for Area Chicago last year:

Norberto Gonzalez, 46, came to Chicago from Puerto Rico a year ago with no job or place to stay. Someone told him about the Albany Park Workers Center. He didn’t get any work his first day there, and considered not wasting my time” by going back. But he did, and now he says the workers center put clothes on my back, put a roof over my head. That’s why I want to give back and help create opportunities for other people.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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