After a year in business, Austin native Reesheda Graham-Washington’s L!VE Cafe, located in nearby Oak Park, is not only profitable — it’s also inspiring someone 2,000 miles away to start her own coffee shop based on Graham-Washington’s blueprint.
“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 that the local independent coffee shop where she lived at the time 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 Graham-Washington roughly three years ago that Soerens discovered a vision after which to model her own coffee shop.
LIVE 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 (who also graduated from West), 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 coffee shops 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.”