More than coffee percolates at Oak Park cafe

After a year, LIVE Cafe creates community-building model that could go viral

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Two thousand miles away, a revolution is brewing, and it started here in Oak Park. 

"When I first moved here, I didn't know anybody," said Cote Soerens, 38. An immigrant from Chile who now lives in Seattle, Soerens said her local independent coffee shop was her saving grace. The space allowed her to meet new people, find new opportunities and forge enduring relationships.

The experience converted her into a believer in the importance of vital community spaces. But it wasn't until she became friends with Reesheda Graham-Washington, the owner of LIVE Cafe, 163 S. Oak Park Ave., roughly three years ago, that Soerens discovered a vision after which to model her own coffee shop. 

LIVE, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, has quickly become the 21st-century equivalent of the town square in Oak Park, where any visitor on any given day is likely to cross paths with anyone from the mayor to the local newspaper publisher to a poet and educator like Jamael Clark, a cafe regular.

"LIVE Cafe has a unique personality that embraces everyone," said Clark, who uses the stage name Isiah Makar. "I've had the pleasure of speaking with individuals ranging from educators, researchers, politicians, poets, musicians, investors, lawyers, etc. I think the persona of the business owner influences the culture of the business."

Graham-Washington, who co-founded the establishment with her husband Darrel, said she envisioned the kind of space that LIVE is becoming. 

"This was the theory I had before I opened the cafe, and a year later, it's starting to prove true," she said. "LIVE sells an experience and a model more than anything else." 

That model, Washington noted, is premised on partnerships that intentionally span the artificial divide separating Oak Park and Austin, where Washington was raised. For the former teacher and school principal, the partnerships are also personal. 

The cafe recently launched its own line of soy candles that mirror the scents of its six in-house drinks with names like "#woke," "milk and honey" and "get out and get something" — the result of a partnership with Bright Endeavors, a social enterprise started by the Austin-based nonprofit New Moms, which provides resources for young, single mothers throughout the Chicago area. 

"I grew up in Austin, but I was also a teen mom myself," Graham-Washington said. "So before LIVE even opened, I was thinking of a way to partner with New Moms." 

Washington said the cafe raised funds for the candle line through a Let Your Light Shine campaign, which was based on donations by community members. 

The cafe's radically community-based social and political consciousness permeates other offerings, such as the gluten-free muffins, cookies and brownies (the products of a partnership between LIVE and Flùr, a gluten-free bakery in Riverside) and the quiche (made by a woman who went into business after Washington, who is also a life coach, mentored her for eight months). 

Another social enterprise, called Bridge to Freedom, supplies LIVE's chicken and tuna salads. The Austin-based nonprofit helps prepare the formerly incarcerated for daily living after prison. 

"These stories are examples of the way that LIVE Cafe is passionate about intersectionality and working with all kinds of people," said Graham-Washington, whose role as the executive director of the Communities First Association — a faith-based community development nonprofit — merges seamlessly with her role as a business owner. 

"The work I do through CFA has afforded me a national network and platform, but I don't think you should be working on the national and global level unless you're also willing to walk the talk at home," she said. 

When people ask her what that walk looks like, she points them to what she calls the LIVE blueprint — a model for how small business capitalism can merge with social awareness and community development in a way that doesn't feel contrived or mass manufactured. 

Graham-Washington recently laid out that blueprint in a book she co-authored with Shawn Castleberry called Soul Force: Seven Pivots toward Courage, Community, and Change, which was published this year. 

"The book is about how we make small tweaks in the intentionality we portray in our own lives in ways that result in collaborative community transformation," Graham-Washington said. "Because I made this shift in my own life [from educator to business owner] and by opening this cafe for the community, all of these stories have come about as a result." 

Which is where Soerens re-enters the story. When she visited LIVE, her faith in coffeeshops as places of community transformation intensified.

"I saw the impact that LIVE had on the Oak Park community," Soerens said during a phone interview Monday from Seattle. "I thought it was unique in blending social enterprise with community development. I saw people from all walks of life and they were having hard conversations on race and equity." 

Soerens, who is a CFA board member, is roughly a month away from opening her own version of LIVE, called Resistencia (Spanish for "resistance"), in that city's South Park neighborhood. 

"I was born under a Chilean dictatorship in the 1980s," Soerens said, referencing the brutal reign of General Augusto Pinochet, whose dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990, has come to symbolize the dangers of free-market radicalism and the kind of corporate ideology that would turn community into a commodity. 

"We're the last neighborhood in Seattle without a Starbucks," Soerens said. "I'd like to keep it that way." 


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Ramona Lopez  

Posted: April 24th, 2018 12:45 AM

It's not that hard to have a booming economy when you have zero controls on pollution, controlled wages, a 14 hour work day, etc. If you somehow find the qualities of the Chinese economy admirable, I suggest you dig deeper than the falsified data China sends our way. They may eventually be the largest economy solely based on their population. Don't forget, there is a "cost" for you just to simply exist. With that, it would only be logical that a country with a population 4 times that of the U.S. should have been the largest economy 50 years ago. What's more impressive is that Japan is the worlds 3rd largest economy with only a population of around 125 million.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: April 23rd, 2018 4:56 PM

Ramona: I am not in any way arguing for the glories of the authoritarian mother state. On the contrary. All I am saying is that the success of the Chinese economy - measured any which way you want - powerfully questions the long assumed necessary interrelationship between liberal democracy and free enterprise questioning the "axiom" that (I believed) free enterprise can not exist outside a liberal democracy.. Clearly I for one despise authoritarians - of all stripe - and take great pride in mocking those here in our very own People's Republic of Oak Park. But rather than mock me for acknowledging an inconvenient fact in regard to China, it would be far better to try to explain and educate and clarify how this bizarre mixture of authoritarianism and booming economy has - against all odds - been born and in fact may in a few years replace the USA as the world's biggest economy .

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: April 23rd, 2018 2:40 PM

How people have to die for the sake of communism before the concept is thrown in the trash? China = 60 MILLION Russia = 30 MILLION, We can't forget Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, etc. I don't see people risking their lives to get into Russia, China, North Korea or Venezuela. I would much rather be "oppressed" in a free market state than in any of the aforementioned countries. Lastly, if you think all the economic data coming out of China is accurate, then you are as gullible as they get.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: April 22nd, 2018 1:20 PM

I agree Mike. China is exhibit "A" demonstrating that free markets and liberal democracy are not necessarily intertwined, as commonly taught. Present day China is a fascinating study as you point out. All we can say at this point in regard to an economy that might soon overtake us and become the biggest in the world: "free markets" (as apposed to centrally planned markets) are the "extra ingredient and secret sauce", the rocket fuel if you will, to booming economies. The example of modern China, says a lot about the extraordinary power of "free markets" ... but little else.

Monda Roberts from Bellwood  

Posted: April 22nd, 2018 12:38 PM

Words cannot express the Pride that I feel, when I read such articles, describing the unselfish assistance and caring that God has allowed my daughter, Reesheda Graham-Washington, to assist him in sharing with others. Reesheda has ALWAYS been a real "Go Getter". ? Keep up the Excellent Work!!! Ma

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: April 18th, 2018 3:58 PM

I am quite sure the laborers in China an Russia would like access to the free market system. The dictators and upper management not so much.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: April 18th, 2018 12:54 PM

"Dictatorship and free markets are on the opposite ends of the spectrum." How would you characterize present-day China and Russia?

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: April 18th, 2018 9:17 AM

"whose dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990, has come to symbolize the dangers of free-market radicalism " Dictatorship and free markets are on the opposite ends of the spectrum .

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: April 18th, 2018 8:16 AM

This person wants to keep Starbucks out, maybe the problem should be viewed as Starbucks doesnt want to get in?

Alex Garcia  

Posted: April 17th, 2018 5:10 PM

I had thought that there was a practical limit on how much leftist rhetoric and virtue signaling could be packed into one article, but this article apparently proves me wrong. I sure am glad that I now know where I can go in Oak Park to partake in soy candles and to rail against the "free market" excesses of deceased Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

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