Kusanya Keeps it Real Local

Kusanya Cafe is an Englewood gathering space that happens to also serve great coffee and tasty, reasonably priced breakfast and lunch. They’re not striving to become Chicago’s go to spot to grab a coffee and run. The nonprofit cafe is the epitome of local investment. Located at 69th & Green, in the heart of Chicago’s southwest side Englewood community, Kusanya is a place of the people, for the people, by the people—of Englewood. The sign on their door says as much. The organization runs on cafe sales, small donations and grants, but thrives on community engagement, intentional collaboration, casual interactions, and chance meetings that happen when Englewood neighbors come in and get comfortable. Kusanya is one of our most distinctive 2019 Catalyst grantees. We were thrilled to catch up with Executive Director Phil Sipka and learn more about how Kusanya is supporting Englewood.

Think of that one family member or neighbor who always hosts every get together, casual or formal—the house that is always open to everyone, where you can always come together, get something good to eat, relax, laugh, seek advice, make plans and linger: that’s the feeling you encounter at Kusanya.

The following Q & A has been edited for clarity.

SCE: Tell me a bit about what happens here at Kusanya.

Phil: Kusanya [Swahili for gather] from its inception was meant to be a vehicle to bring our neighbors together. We wanted to do something empowering for our neighborhood and we thought who better to empower the neighborhood than neighbors themselves. Lots of times organizations want to help by bringing in a lot of outside help. We believe that true empowerment really means you can do it on your own.

We tried to create a place where all the different members and cross sections of our neighborhood could come together and feel comfortable and that doesn’t happen very often.

It’s often overlooked how diverse Englewood is. It’s not racially diverse in any way, but it is very diverse in terms of where people come from, education, economic background, why people have located here: some families have lived here for sixty years, some used to live in Robert Taylor and when that came down they came to Englewood. People are in a lot of different financial situations here. Middle class people that live in Englewood are like middle class people everywhere: they drive to work, their kids go to school outside the neighborhood, they go grocery shopping outside the neighborhood, their entertainment happens outside the neighborhood. And they’re very cardoor to front door when they get back to Englewood. And other people are not.

How do we get those cross sections together? We wanted to create a space where people would come together organically, without being assigned to each other, not having an intermediary. Just people getting together. [That’s how] strong community happens and collaborations happens and ideas happen. And that makes for a better community overall.

Another one of our things is being very autonomous, believing that grants are incredible, but grants with strings attached: that’s where all the power’s at and that’s not what we wanted.

We always wanted Englewood residents to have the say in what we’re doing. Things like the SCE grant are incredibly helpful because they allow us to do more capacity building projects. We want our operations to be covered so that we are never desperate for money. We utilize grants to either generate more revenue or to create programs or a framework for programs that can happen. [Maintaining] autonomy and Englewood people at the table has been the heart of what we’re doing.

SCE: When you talk about Kusanya, you often use “we”. Who’s that we?

Phil: The we is the board. And the board over a few generations. We’re on probably our fourth full board right now. Members generally serve about two-year terms. The ‘we’ initially meant neighbors on my block. Probably some of the most incredible people who’ve ever living in Englewood have been on our board. That’s an important limit for us. We want only Englewood residents. And that’s really important because the board decides big things about how we face the neighborhood, how we approach the neighborhood.

If you don’t live in it, then you shouldn’t be making decisions about how to live in it.

That limits us in ways, like fundraising. We could get some really connected, really affluent people that want to be part of the board, but we say no for Englewood autonomy sake.

SCE: Having a board of only community members, being naturally invested, what are some board led initiatives or projects that the board handles?

Phil: We’re choosing only people who create first. Clarence Hogan for example, before he was a board member, started creating all these curated storytelling events at Kusanya. He worked with Salvation Army kids, teaching them how to tell their story. He also had adult storytelling events, bringing social events back to the neighborhood. We don’t hang out in our neighborhood. He’s making room to do that. Eric Jones has been creating a lot around music and art. He was collaborating with local artists, and creating gallery events using our roasting room next door long before he was on the board.

The concerts Eric was organizing at Kusanya caught the notice of Whole Foods [63rd & Halsted]. They started a five after five wine event because they got inspired by what he was doing. And they asked him to coordinate live music events there that became really popular too.

Lauren Duffy, who owns this building, has done a lot with real estate around Englewood. This is very much her project. We probably wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t purchased this building. Jonathan Brooks is a pastor in the neighborhood, a hip hop artist and an author. He just published a book about the neighborhood and community organizing. Giselle Owens has a lineage of entrepreneurship in the neighborhood. Her family has owned business in Englewood for fifty or sixty years and she’s running about three different businesses right now. It’s great to have partners, well, bosses really, who are all very involved in the neighborhood.

SCE: What has surprised you in doing this work?

Phil: A lot of things. Some I was prepared for, some I wasn’t. I think one of the things that keeps surprising me, and often goes under the radar is how loyal and ethical a neighborhood like Englewood is.

There’s an ethic that’s stronger than in most neighborhoods, I think because in others, people maybe don’t need each other.

I  knew the neighborhood would look out for the cafe, I was surprised at to what level people have. One of the best stories I have, something that meant a lot to me: I was leaving the cafe really late one night, maybe around 11 pm. This guy Razor is at the corner yelling at some kids, really letting them have it. When I asked what was going on, he told me, “I saw some kids looking in those windows and I told them they had nothing to look at and to get the hell out of here.” You don’t just call somebody out when you don’t know what they’ve got, what kind of day they’ve had, what they’re going to do, so putting yourself out there—physically, putting yourself in danger for the sake of an organization—that doesn’t make sense, that kind of loyalty. The decision to put yourself in harms way, that’s the ethic that I feel very honored by.

In a negative way, I was surprised by how long it took to adopt the idea of having a cafe. Some people came on board right away, others  still stop in and say, “I’ve been walking by for a few years and decided to stop in today.” It’s taken years, and it’s not like there’s competition! But I have to remember that change hasn’t been good for the neighborhood for a long time. So to ask somebody to believe, ‘oh, this change is going to be good’, when a lot of the changes over the last sixty years have been negative, it’s a lot to ask. So now coming up on five and a half years, we’re finally now seeing movement.

It’s not just about our organization now, but it’s about the neighborhood as a whole.

I’m happily surprised at how much more collaborative things are at year five opposed to year one. Then, all these non-profits were really siloed. It’s so cool to see how nonprofits are now sharing and co-promoting.

SCE: What do you think has inspired that type of collaboration? What  part has Kusanya had in that happening?

Phil: The reasons are hard to pinpoint. I would guess just small acts of generosity. A few people being very generous, just saying, ‘sure, use this space or have this x’ that then inspires others to do something generous. It’s the whole pay it forward idea.

For instance, I Grow Chicago just came in and said they’d love to do a free yoga class for the neighborhood. At the time, they needed public space and we said sure.

It’s been amazing, they provide everything and our neighbors have free yoga. It’s really caught on and is super popular. And they just offered it up and have been doing it for five years. That’s another surprising thing—We’re so hipster, what are the most popular things that we have going on, both started by Englewood organizations, run by Englewood residents—yoga and storytelling. And our new trivia nights are a hit too.

But that’s also part of it. We wanted the neighborhood to create what it wanted. We don’t program. We wait for people in the neighbor to program. Growing Home offered a night market and started to bring produce to sell residents [outside of traditional farmer’s market hours], and then we asked to buy produce for the cafe from them, so that’s been another really nice partnership. Teamwork Englewood, before we were even opened came in and got us a seed grant which led to other grant money and donations. There have been so many who have come together for Kusanya, for Englewood. Even other organizations who have said, we’ll cater with just you guys to keep money in the neighborhood or who regularly rent space from us.

SCE: Tell me about the community garden.

Phil: It’s still in the process of getting built. Our main idea is a mini Englewood Ravinia. We are asking now how do we gather people in an outdoor space, in an even more organic, even more approachable environment. There are a lot intimidation barriers for people. We all experience it, maybe just in different places. To get somebody through the door here is a big win, so an open lot is even better for what we want to do. Our job is to make a really pretty canvas. There will be a stage and a shipping container pop-up store. We also want to have rentable garden plots, where you can plant whatever you want to plant. I think a community garden is nice, but we want to give people more control. Our idea is to have concerts and our yoga teacher is chomping at the bit to teach yoga outdoors. We don’t even know what all will be created, but we want to make it open. We’re seeking collaborations. Englewood Brews is talking to us about growing hops on the lot. There’s a lot of promise.

SCE: Because Kusanya is so focused on things happening organically, without pre-planning, how do you measure success?

Phil: We have a lot of different rubrics for measuring success. Number of events happening the cafe is a definite measure, and also who runs and attends them. Customer count on any given day is another, but more, the constituency of those customers. Are they staying?

If we’re just a food service place then we’re not really accomplishing our mission.

We want to know who’s coming and also how they are engaging. How are our staff doing? How are we preparing them for even better jobs? Part of our apprenticeship program is to not just employ people for a good period of time but for them to acquire good management and other skills that they take with them. Another big thing for us is overall neighborhood perception. That’s hard to measure, but being on the ground, you can really get the vibe. The biggest one might just be, are people coming together? And how people are feeling about themselves and their neighborhood. If we get that wildly successful middle class family and also get the dude that just stands on the corner all day to both come in and feel like it’s their place, that’s the ultimate form of success. If that’s happening then we know we’re really collaborating. And that’s happening more and more.

SCE: Tell me about the apprenticeship program

Phil: We’ve based it in my own and the boards experiences of  working with other organizations and learning from them. Like with the board, we limit ourselves to hiring very locally, here in Englewood.

We wanted to give priority to our neighbors who generally don’t get prioritized. We want to give them as may tools as we can to succeed.

I think if you can do food service, you can do any job. Very few jobs require you to be very fast, very precise and to be happy and smiling while working the entire time.

In our apprenticeship matrix, people literally control their own destiny. We list every expectation we’ll ever have of you at the cafe up front. As you acquire skills and show proficiency, you get a pay raise, you get access to more hours. There are three phases. We want this to be empowering like we want the cafe to be empowering. You control the experience. Your manager doesn’t matter. If you do well, then you get compensated for it. It’s not based on feelings, it’s based on more objective, predetermined things. How many jobs do you know exactly the things you need to do to get a raise?

SCE: What do the skills look like in each phase?

Phil: All the things you need to do well are basic competencies that you can move through as fast as you want. A lot of these competencies are soft skills, but we also want to incentivize proactivity. This is an area where everybody has had really different life experiences. In some instances proactivity and curiosity hasn’t always been rewarded. Delayed gratification hasn’t been rewarded. Trying to create an opportunity where those get noticed and rewarded is our goal. We also do a one month trial with all of our apprentices. We bring someone on and then the staff votes on whether they stay. Staff chooses their teammates. They own their own team. They’ve always chosen very well. That’s part of empowerment.

I don’t think you can empower without giving up some power and control.

I can’t empower the neighborhood with events if I get to choose all the events. It’s the same thing with choosing employees. I cant empower the staff without giving up what would be seen as a normal right of getting to choose who comes on.

SCE: What new partnerships are you working on? Where do you source coffee/food/etc?

Phil: We still are limited to places that can deliver. That’s just a logistical thing. We haven’t been able to source a lot of local food. We have a lot of conflicting ethics. For instance, conflict between where we source our food and affordability. We could get super organic, super local produce all the time, but that would price out our menu. We couldn’t have somebody from off the block come in and afford a sandwich then. You can say you’re all inclusive and you want to serve everybody in the neighborhood, but your prices tell you how inclusive you are. If you price people out, you are not welcoming. While we haven’t been able to do too much with food. We do now actually roast all of our coffee.

All of our coffee comes from about 10 ft over, right next door. Our importer is in Bridgeport. They have a lot of direct relationships with coffee offering so we try to utilize those. That was another thing that grants provided. That was a capacity building project. We used about $10,000 dollars in grants and rehabbed the whole facility next door, we set up a roaster and now between coffee roasting and room rentals, the roasting room produces about $30,000 a year. That’s what we try to do with grants. Since we made that investment, we’ve probably made $90,000 to $100,000 to put back in.

[As for] future partnerships, we want to continue deepening partnership with Growing Home. Their admin offices are now right above us. It’s hard for them because they are the finest certified organic farm in the city of Chicago and they have self-sustaining goals as well. We’ll of course continue partnership with I Grow Chicago. I think a partnership with Englewood Brews is going to be interesting. Maybe do some great hoppy beers. Also with Growing Home, we’re talking with them about their job readiness program. They help formerly incarcerated and others struggling to find jobs and give them a job training course. We may be able to use that as a feeder program to the cafe’s apprenticeship program. I don’t know what all the lot’s going to do, hopefully it’s space that several Englewood organizations can use. We want to be able to be able to give it away.

SCE:What can funding organizations, and other larger NPO’s, local and national, learn from what Kusyana is doing in Englewood, in terms of lessons on collaboration, growth and sustainability?

Phil: Immediately I can say they need the humility of knowing that you don’t know what’s actually going on in neighborhoods.

It’s hard not to be patronizing, and we all think that what we think is right and that we’re helpful, but there has to be humility that says, I don’t know enough about that.

I don’t need to try and lead anything. I need to spend time figuring out who’s already leading and then support them in whatever way they need to be supported. That might not be sexy for us. When you get people that are already on board and who are creators you need to latch on and support them as much as you can. A lot of times the whole nonprofit system doesn’t incentivize being good at what you do, it only incentivizes being good at presenting well what you do. If you present well someone will give you money and if you can’t, then they won’t. There’s a lot of ‘come to us and impress us’ kind of thing opposed to funders who really care about money going to a great place, and spending time going out and finding where the work is happening, who the great leaders are. The leaders who are spending all their days looking for you, those might not be the people who you should fund. You want people who are going to be on the ground, who don’t have time to go look for you.

And that’s where SCE is great. I never sent a letter, you literally just suddenly said, ‘Here’s a check. We see what you’re doing. Keep doing it.’ You’re already in the know. That’s what’s so cool about the approach. I’m too busy during the day to look for grants. I’m working with my neighbors. We’re building things. I’ve always seen this as a major disconnect. If I were to over-characterize the nonprofit sector, I’d say you’re either connected with donors or you’re connected to the neighborhood, but you can’t be both.

The job for funders shouldn’t be to notice who’s knocking down their door, they need to look for the people too busy to come find them.

Those are the ones who are really going to use well the money. They’re not going to take three quarters of  it to pay the development director who got them your grant, they don’t even have a development director. And their board is out there building.

One other thing, eliminate the patronizing view of the neighborhood.

Don’t look at any neighborhood and not think that there are already people there doing great work.

It might be under the radar. Like people don’t believe that Englewood can lead itself, people think that we really need some outside help. As an 11 year resident, I can say that we’re really just under resourced.  All the skills are already here. We don’t need as much from the outside as people might assume.

Images courtesy of Kusanya Cafe.