You may not see many young people spending time at coffee shops. A Black business owner wants to change this by making his shop an art resource for more Brown and Black youth in DeKalb.
Jeff Foster is an artist and the owner of Common Grounds Coffee. This shop opened in 2016.
On Sunday, for the shop’s 4th anniversary, Foster invited a group of individuals in to talk about an initiative called CG4Art. The program allows mentors to work with young artists ages 14 to 25. This would include classes, workshops and other art initiatives.
“I wanted to make some drinks for people and invite them in,” he said, “particularly people who are interested in advancing the cause."
He explained that he wants to help young artists of color who do not have representation or access to resources that would help them flourish.
Foster said he can see some things forming with the use of YouTube and TikTok but he suggested that the youth need guidance.
Foster started out as a youth pastor. He said that wasn’t for him. But Foster shared that he still wants to give attention to minority youth.
“We have an epidemic of under-resourced youth. We have an epidemic of idle youth,” he said. “We have a youth culture, which is completely enamored by entertainment. And they're not producing, they're not creating.”
Foster spends most of his time at the coffee shop. As an artist, he said, he can use this space to help with that lack of youth creativity. He said a plan was all set, with a leader in place, before the pandemic. But when COVID-19 hit, that person decided to do other things.
Foster also had to let go of his staff because of COVID-19. He said customers helped him get by.
“It's a miracle. The amount of people who have come into the shop who, you know, [are] wearing a mask,” he said, “calling in orders -- we started doing text orders -- and buying coffee beans from us.”
Foster said people would just leave extra money.
And the support doesn’t stop there.
Korrin Gladwin is one of the people who wants to donate to the cause. Gladwin attended the Sunday meeting. She first came into the coffee shop the day before.
“Jeff came up and introduced himself and he started talking about his goals and his mission and what he wants to turn Common Grounds into,” she explained. “And within five minutes of the conversation, I went, 'Oh, I want to be part of this.' And I'm definitely coming back because this is a really cool opportunity that doesn't come every day.”
Gladwin is an administrator and she said she can pour those skills into this program.
“Like making sure that bios for the artists are available next to pieces so that people really understand that these are kids making some of this artwork," she said. "These are like high school-aged kids who are making beautiful pieces of art that is for sale.”
Gladwin admitted that at first, she didn’t realize that some of the art in the coffee shop was created by teenagers.
Gregory Ross was also there. He said he lives close to the shop and frequents it three or four times a week. He said this is the place where he relaxes. He wants to help with the youth initiative, too.
“I can listen. I can offer ideas, provide financial support,” he said. “You know, I'm open for whatever capacity I can help in.”
Foster’s schedule is tight. Even so on another day, he found some time to talk via Zoom. Foster was home during this time and his house sounded just as busy as the shop.
“And let me put you on mute for a second here. Where's mute? Hey, guys, I'm on the phone. Sorry," he said in the midst of the noise.
Foster said when he was growing up, there weren’t many places that allowed him to focus on his creativity. But he says he felt comfortable at coffee shops. He spent most of his 20s and 30s hanging around coffee shops in Chicago's Lakeview area.
“And I always felt like kind of a little bit of a misfit because I had a tendency to be one of the few Black people or persons of color at the coffee shop.”
And that is how his love for coffee shops began.
“So, what got me into coffee, [the] bottom line is the idea of a place where anyone can get inspired. A place where connections can happen, networking can happen,” he said.
Foster’s many connections led him to another coffee guy, Aaron Clark.
“He had started this street side coffee place called The Bean. We started to talk and we really just clicked because -- a little bit younger than me -- but basically, he had a lot of the same spiritual impulses that I had,” he said.
Foster said Clark loved art and he was also a musician. This is who showed him the ropes.
“So, Aaron was there for the first six months, I think. And he basically, you know, was showing me all the different techniques and stuff,” he explained. “And I really didn't have that much intention of running the coffee shop.”
Foster said he likes to tell that story because he wants young people to know that you don’t know what you can do until you try.
“I don't have the best skills in any particular area. But I've always had a willingness to try and this was one of those times when things just seemed to click for me,” he said.
He said he doesn’t think coffee shops would flourish if it weren’t for creative individuals.
And Foster wants to have ongoing events for youth interested in creating art every Sunday.
“I don't need to preach. I just need to be Jeff and make the coffee shop a shining example of God's blessings in my own life," he explained.
Foster said he is looking for a bigger space for CG4Art but he isn’t going to leave DeKalb.
“Yeah, and we don't want to leave downtown. There are spaces outside of downtown that will work well but it will take us away from the heartbeat of the community,” he shared. “And being the only Black business on the strip, you know, which is [an] important place.”
He said this may not happen for another year. His current lease ends next April. He admitted that he has his eye on a certain property that sits on the same strip as Common Grounds.
There is a GoFundMe account set up to help with the CG4Art initiative. The starting goal is $10,000.
Foster said the money will help kickstart a program he hopes will help change the community -- as well as the world -- for the better.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It’s a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.