The evolution of a 107-year-old eastern Jackson County service organization is still brewing in Independence as BlendWell Community Cafe pours coffee and deeper connections through a celebration of diversity — and partnership with an entrepreneur across the state line who shares its mission, said Doug Cowan.
“In 2015, we bought this building and we started talking to the community — and it wasn’t the elected officials — it was the people who live here. Nobody said please open another food pantry. Nobody said please open a thrift store. They said our neighborhood is a shell of what it used to be. It’s payday loans and buy-here, pay-here car lots. We want nice places to gather,” said Cowan, CEO of Community Services League, which operates the new BlendWell Community Cafe.
“And it was then the light bulb went off about the opportunity to engage in something like a coffee shop that would anchor this,” he continued, describing the origins of BlendWell, which opened in 2018.
The BlendWell building at 10725 East US 24 Highway is also home to CSL’s WorkLife Center, which connects community members to career opportunities to help them build financial stability. CSL provides services like rental assistance, job training, and food pantries, and in the past 15 years, the organization has progressed to address the root causes of poverty by moving from transactional to transformational impact in individual’s lives.
BlendWell’s “Cultural Connections” series takes that mission to the people; this month, hoping to draw in more community members with a Black excellence art exhibit and other events, including children’s story time and book signing with Brittany Toney — local author of the toddler series “Big Emotions in a Big World” — on Feb. 25.
The cafe also is planning events for Women’s History Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Pride Month.
“I’ve had the good fortune to live in Independence for 40 years, and the strength of our community in the year 2023 — and beyond— is our diversity,” Cowan said. “But I do recognize that diversification of a community can be a challenging thing to work toward. (Cultural Connections is) where we exist to be a platform to share stories with people, share art, bring culture into the community, to share voices that maybe in the past were relegated to the side.”
As part of the cafe’s Black History Month celebration, KCK’s Kinship Cafe — owned by TJ Roberts — is providing the coffee on tap. A coffee tasting and Q&A session with Roberts, as well as live music, kicked off the month.
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Cowan, who said the cafe is already partnering with Independence bakery Eclairs De La Lune for the pastries, is hopeful the partnership with Kinship will extend well beyond this one month. The connection with Roberts and Kinship feels natural, he noted.
“TJ is right down the road,” he added. “When you’re a struggling community economically, you’ve got to keep your money local. We have no margin to not. What we have to do is raise people up and keep our money in the neighborhood and lift people up. We can’t just lift people up socially, we have to lift them up economically. … (BlendWell and Kinship are) kind of swimming in the same waters of building communities — that’s what we do.”
Click here to read more about Eclairs De La Lune.
Just like at BlendWell, Roberts said, Kinship — where he is working to create a wholly Black coffee supply chain — is more than just coffee. Kinship also offers events; like hip hop yoga, meditation, and other events for those who are trying to heal from trauma. After doing some research on CSL’s work and seeing the alignment with Kinship, he said, it was an easy yes on his part.
“Because just like us, you have a space and you want to utilize it for the community,” Roberts said. “Continuing to see people grow and develop and help equip them with skills and talents and things that they need to be prosperous communities that they live in, that’s an important factor to us. And it’s really important to (CSL).”
Roberts noted he also appreciated the “heart posture” of the CSL leadership when they approached him about a partnership in the fall. They viewed him as the expert who could teach them what they needed to know about coffee — much different than when he worked in the insurance industry and had to constantly provide his credentials to try to convince others to work with him, he said.
“That was something that I actually respected a lot about them when they met with me in November before Thanksgiving and said, ‘We really want your coffee,’” he explained. “And it was me that said why not Black History Month? And they said, ‘That’s great, but we also need a lot of other help that pertains to coffee.’ … They didn’t hold my color or how new we were to the coffee industry (against me), they were like, ‘You’re the pro. You tell us.’ So that was a great start to our working relationship.”
The Black Excellence art exhibit— for which BlendWell took submissions — will be on display through March 3. Raytown artist Leonard Le’Doux— who has been an artist in Kansas City for more than 50 years and has his paintings on display at several places around town, including the Jones Gallery during February — was approached about addings several of his paintings to the exhibit.
“I think it’s pretty good to have it in a place like this where people can see that art does make sense and that you can make money on art,” Ledoux said. “And stop telling kids that they can’t get a degree in art because they’re not going to make any money.”