Kusanya Cafe in Englewood has neighborhood unity at heart of its mission

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Kusanya is the Swahili word for "to gather" or "to come together," and is the founding principle of an Englewood cafe co-op founded in 2013.

"We started talking about what we wanted to see in the neighborhood. And we would try and get together and we'd have to another neighborhood to talk about our own neighborhood," said founder Phil Sipka.

EXTENDED CUT: Get to know Kusanya Cafe, Englewood's coffee shop for the people
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Kusanya means 'to gather' or 'to come together' in Swahilli and that has been at the heart of the Kusanya Cafe co-op's mission since it opened in Englewood in 2013.

Sipka, a Michigan native, moved to Englewood in 2005. The coffee shop was opened not as a money-making business, but as a cooperative, owned by no one and run entirely by Englewood residents, all of whom started as customers with ideas to turn the space into something more.

"We walked in and we were just floored. It was amazing," said Erik Jones, Kusanya music and arts curator. "I talked to him and said I want to bring some music here, but I want to start out slow. I'm not sure how it will work in Englewood, but there's nothing really going on so let's attack the lunch hour. People started hearing more and more about it. It was just a great collaboration that started to say, there's more of this that can be done here, especially at night, because there wasn't a lot of entertainment at night."

And that was the point: to provide Englewood with options that don't readily exist in the neighborhood, where more often than not businesses protect themselves behind bars and plexiglass.

"How you face the neighborhood really dictates, makes people feel it's truly theirs," Sipka said. "If you guard yourself against the neighborhood and then say it's for you, well, not really."

Six years later, Kusanya is still primarily a coffee shop, but one where people can come and work, read a book from the lending library, and enjoy the rotating artwork. All of it is painted by local artists. There are also yoga classes and storytelling hours.

"We started doing a series called Englewood Speaks," said Clarence Hogan of Sonny Speaks. "We worked with young people at the Salvation Army right down the street. We had a group of seniors that came in and worked with us. A group of teachers, just to hear different stories, different perspectives from different people in the community."

Having succeeded in gathering people inside, Kusanya is now looking forward. They've acquired a plot of land down the block from the café and hope to turn it into a community garden. But their final vision for it is of something bigger.

"I want it to feel like, I guess, kind of like the melding of a community park and Ravinia, but for our neighborhood," Sipka said. "So, a place where people can go out and sit and enjoy and relax, but which is also this place where people can hear music that they haven't heard or see a movie premiere they want to see."

"You are just going down Halsted, you're going down 69th, but you're not, 'But what is there to do here?'" Jones said. "You can't just keep driving through. So now we want you to stop. We want you to pull over. We want you to come in and see what we have to offer."

Kusanya Cafe

825 West 69th Street
Chicago IL
(773) 675-4758
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