Reconnect Café is like any other café that has opened recently in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Bagels are doled out daily and the café features a free wi-fi connection and seating area for guests. The only difference between this café and the others is that this one is fully staffed by young at-risk men from Bed-Stuy.
Started by the nonprofit, Vernon Ave. Project in 2013, Reconnect Café aims to create jobs for young men from Bed-Stuy who are at-risk of falling through the cracks. Father Jim O’Shea—a community organizer, Catholic priest, and executive director for Reconnect—recruits the men from community organizations or via referrals from the café’s employees. Thanks to the café’s revenue and donors like the Pinkerton Foundation, the café is able to employ 25 young men from Bed-Stuy, several of whom were previously incarcerated or involved in gangs.
Each employee must work a minimum of 20 hours a week (at minimum wage) and be enrolled in school. According to O’Shea, Reconnect is about the engagement of a demographic that is often left out of the economy of their neighborhoods as they become gentrified.
“There’s a lot of cafes that are going to open up and they’re probably not going to be started by young people in the neighborhood,” said O’Shea. “How do we use the new economic resources coming in to really produce some more just results?”
“Why does it always have to be people who move in and start something?,”asked O’Shea.
According to the US Census, the Caucasian population of Bed-Stuy increased by 633 percent from 2000 to 2010. With such a fast shift in the demographics of the neighborhood, gentrification is on everyone’s mind in Bed-Stuy and at the Reconnect Café.
Edwin LaChapelle,19, a Bed-Stuy resident, has worked in the café for over two years and helped fundraise to open the café.
LaChapelle says he is happy to greet the community’s newest residents. “It doesn’t really offend me that other people are coming because before we only interacted with our kind, and now we’re interacting with people from all over the world.”
Efrain Hernandez, 30, a co-founder of the Reconnect Café and lifelong Bed-Stuy resident, says this wave of new residents was part of the impetus for the cafe’s creation.
“I would see the new folks in the neighborhood get coffee from the bodega and the bodega doesn’t really have good coffee so it was like what about a coffee shop?,” said Hernandez, who manages the cafe.
“We could embrace the gentrification and build our own little community of folks.”
In addition to meeting the neighborhood’s demand for a coffee shop, the cafe’s founders wanted to find a solution to the growing violence between rival gangs in the community.
“We figured out how to build an organization to do great work for the young men so they won’t have to be put in the line of having to join in those forces, you can join in this force,” said Hernandez, who was incarcerated before joining Reconnect.
Reconnect’s customers enjoy supporting a business that invests in Bed-Stuy’s youth.
Miles, 27 who moved to Bed-Stuy a few months ago, appreciates that Reconnect Cafe sells things he can’t get elsewhere. “Here in this neighborhood they have a very limited palate of stuff they do so it’s cool to be able to get baked goods and juices and coffee.” For Miles, the cafe’s mission is the icing on the cake.
“I’m definitely happy to support that mission,” said Miles. “It makes me feel better coming here than just going up the street.
Reconnect Café reminds customers of this perk with mottos like “your latte can change a life” and “wage peace”.
Hernandez has seen the power of Reconnect Café in his employees’ lives.
“A few guys graduated high school already, a few guys are in college,” said Hernandez. “It’s good to see the young men doing something positive and changing their lives for the better.”
LaChapelle would agree. He attributes his new attitude towards life to the skills he learned working at Reconnect.
“It helped me push myself harder, it helped me believe in myself, ” said LaChapelle. “It helped me stay focused on goals that I needed to accomplish like graduating high school.”
Reconnect Cafe is not the only of its kind. The Old Skool Cafe in San Francisco is a youth-run jazz club that aims to provide at-risk youth the opportunity to gain job-readiness skills. In Chicago, Perla Cafe employs teen mothers.
In Bed-Stuy, Several coffee shops have opened in the past two years since Reconnect Café was founded. Although Reconnect is one of the first in the neighborhood, O’Shea knows that in some ways it cannot compete. But he is confident that Reconnect, which now raises 80 percent of its current operating costs, will continue to thrive.
“We may not fit into the profile of the emerging coffee scene,” said O’Shea. “I’m sure we won’t, but we’ll find our own niche.”
Gentrification may be a reason for its ongoing success but Hernandez sees the ingenuity of his employees as a bigger force spurring the cafe’s popularity.
“If you could sell drugs you could sell anything, you could sell coffee beans,” said Hernandez. “It’s what you put your mind to.”
To get a glimpse inside the Reconnect Café click here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/135444324@N03/8MfE31