Wednesday Work Day is a series started by editor Hillary Leftwich to showcase and support creatives who offer services, both in-person or online, and are impacted by the pandemic and the shutdowns both statewide as well as in other countries. The series will showcase one business or individual that is still able to provide a service during the shutdown, whether via remote service or some other way. The hope is to overcome the struggle creatives are enduring through these times and have you, dear reader, get to know some folks who might be able to help you or someone you know with their services. Read a conversation with Whittier Cafe owner Millete Birhanemaskel below.
From the website: “Whittier Cafe is Denver’s only African espresso bar. All of our coffee comes from various African Nations. Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. ‘The activists’ coffee shop’ is a nickname we proudly accept. We do believe in social justice and support related causes. We also have a justice fund. Ask if you need a break on a cup of coffee or want to contribute. We do an Ethiopian Coffee ceremony every Sunday at 2 p.m. Come and watch us roast, brew in the clay pot ‘jebena’ and enjoy coffee the way it was intended.”
Hillary Leftwich: Whittier Cafe opened in 2014 as a coffee shop and bakery in the Whittier neighborhood of Denver. It serves as a local gathering place for high school students, open mics, performances, as well as the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. What were you envisioning when you decided to open?
Millete Birhanemaskel: Whittier Cafe was created to teach people about coffee. It was frustrating that people around the world love this magical drink but don’t have a clue where coffee comes from. It comes from Ethiopia. The process of becoming an activists’ coffee shop was a very organic one. It started because of the unjust murder of Jesse Hernandez in Denver. We invited the community to mourn when another coffee shop refused them. And from there it morphed into the community space it is today.
HL: Such an essential and missing element to so many coffee shops! The organic aspect of becoming an activists’ coffee shop, I’m sure, felt bittersweet. I remember the murder of Jesse Hernandez very well in 2017 and remains a tremendous loss as well as a current issue today with police brutality and murder. Sometimes, all it takes is one open door, and here you are, years later, as a constant source of support and advocacy for the Denver community. In the current state of both our city as well as our country, what do you see Whittier Cafe’s role moving forward, and what would you like to see change in the community that Whittier Cafe can be an integral role in helping?
MB: Coronavirus took so much away from our business, and I don’t mean revenues. Clearly, we were financially impaired, but Coronavirus took away our ability to gather and mourn collectively. So we have had to rediscover how we fit into the activist struggle. We’ve added to our sign garden in front of the cafe. So when people walk by or come into the cafe, they hear the messages: “We are fighting two viruses: COVID-19 and Racism” and “The violence started when George Floyd was murdered.”
We want to keep the conversations going—isn’t that what coffee shops are all about? We also want to continue to be a soft landing spot for community when they don’t know where else to turn. We will continue to offer our space and keep our Justice Fund alive to buy coffee for anyone who feels hurt or is suffering in this unjust world.
We are also focused on helping keep other Black businesses alive with a rotating food truck schedule. I hope we’ll be able to collectively gather again, but in the meantime, we’ll keep an active role in the background.
HL: Navigating a pandemic and violent racism as an active safe space can’t be easy. The financial aspect, as you mentioned, is the lessor of the impact. Necessary gathering and mourning and figuring out how to fit sounds like it will be an active, continually changing act. As a community, what does Whittier Cafe need from us? For folks looking to volunteer, donate, or spend their money, where should they look to best support you and other Black-owned businesses?
MB: That is such a great question. If Black Lives Matter then so does Black business, and so does Black health, and so does Black education. What is different about this time is that people are not only marching to stop the violent killing of black people, but people are also redirecting their dollars and refocusing political and social change. Stapleton is finally dropping its KKK reference, Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the vice presidential vetting because she said a woman of color should be selected. This is powerful stuff. We need white Americans to help because they are the majority in America. We need everyone to march, spend money with Black businesses, send your children to school with ours when we live in the same neighborhood. We need people to show up in all ways.
Follow Whittier Cafe on Facebook. Have a comment or a question? Are you interested in booking their circle table for your book club or other discussion group? Send them a message, and they will get back to you as soon as possible.
Hillary Leftwich earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Her writing can be found in print and online in such journals as The Missouri Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matter Press, Literary Orphans, Sundog Lit, NANO Fiction, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in October 2019. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com.