Leading Change Together: 3 Black Cats Café Is By Brownsville, For Brownsville

 

Brownsville’s 3 Black Cats café resonates a strong communal atmosphere even from the entrance. As I walked up to the front door, a little girl was playfully sprinting between chairs in the front of the cafe. Once I stepped inside for the interview with Ionna Jimenez, one of the three founding sisters of the cafe, the first thing I noticed was the vibrant, fluorescent-colored couches.

There were cushioned booths and padded nooks throughout the cafe.  Two gentlemen hung their hands over the bar, holding a conversation with the Barista long after their food was done. It was a relaxed-yet-lively environment.

3 Black Cats opened two months ago, during which time the Jimenez sisters have provided Brownsville residents a space to socialize, get work done or just grab a cup of coffee. However, the 3 Black Cats Café is more than just a great place to eat and chill.

Beyond the sleek bar and seating area, there is a reservable room in the back of the restaurant where, in a partnership with the Dream Big Foundation, the café provides entrepreneurial services and mentorship programs to the community.

Area residents also use the room to hold court on issues such as economic renewal, and methods of protecting the community from gentrification that’s rapidly sweeping the city. The Jimenez sisters are from Brownsville’s Prospect Plaza houses, and despite having moved out of the area, it’s important to all three that they help its residents thrive. .

It was in part the reason that they decided to open the café in the area, and provide a space perfect for work, advocacy, or just plain chillin’. Check out our conversation below:

Ben: Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and talk about all the great things you guys are doing at the cafe! So you had mentioned that you have been doing community organizing in the neighborhood prior to the opening of the cafe, do you want to briefly talk about your background in community organizing?

Ionna: Sure! About five years ago I was applying for jobs, looking for work and there was a specific job with responsibilities that were just me, like talking about me. They were looking for a resident from Brownsville, someone who used to live in a development that was being revitalized, which was me, and what they were trying to do was, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the Prospect Plaza houses. It’s a public housing development here in Brownsville that had received a “Hope Five” grant not too long ago.

Ben: You said the “Hope Five” Grant?

Ionna: The hope five grant is really to revitalize a public housing development. So what that means is it takes all the residents out of a public housing development and puts them in different housing developments across the city, reconstructs or rebuilds it, and then moves them back. That didn’t happen, and it took 13 years in process for it (the revitalization) to happen.

Ben: Wow.

Ionna: There were a lot of reasons why it (the revitalization of the housing developments)  didn’t happen. One of them was because it wasn’t feasible. Once the residents were moved out, they assessed the land and the property and was just so badly deteriorated that it cost way more than anticipated. So this took some time of course. The original agreement of the residents leaving and then coming back just didn’t happen, and now the property had to be sold to a private developer. This now meant that it wasn’t public housing anymore.

Ben: Wow.

Diana, Ionna, and Melissa Jimenez. Credit: Wall Street Journal

Diana, Ionna, and Melissa Jimenez. Credit: Wall Street Journal

Ionna: And with a private development, the application process is different than public housing. This meant that the residents had to undergo a credit check, which you don’t have to in public housing. So of course the residents were like, “whoa we didn’t know about this we just thought we would move out and come back.

So the job that I applied for was offering the residents of this public housing development financial counseling, which allowed them to fix and build their credit so that way they have a greater chance of moving back into the development, which the residents asked for like, “well okay if you’re going to do this, you can at least provide us with–

Ben: –someone to help get things in order before the change.

Ionna: Right, so it’s gonna take some time for [the housing development to rebuild the houses]) so we have time to build our credit score in the meanwhile.They needed someone who was a resident to kind of inform the other residents that this was happening and that this service was available to them. So i applied for the job, I got it.

Ben: Sweet.

Ionna: So I reached out to hundreds of my residents, my former residents, and provided financial counseling. I wasn’t the financial counselor, I was the one giving them the information to access that service. So that was a part of it.

Ionna: After that job, after those three years passed, I started to fall back in love with Brownsville. I too had moved out of Brownsville because I lived in this development that most of us had moved out of. I came back to do work, and I was just like, “wow, there’s like so many people here that need services, that need resources, what else can I do in the community that I grew up in?”

Ionna: I applied for a job at the Brownsville community justice center which really rethinks the justice system.

Ben: It’s Brownsville community justice? What does that look like?

Ionna: Yeah, it’s trying to come up with innovative ways to rethink the Justice system, because we all know our Justice system is a broken one. How can we kind of fix it and be innovative?

Ben: Okay. So your background in community organizing definitely lends itself to all these things being synthesized together. What type of entrepreneurial programs do you guys offer, being entrepreneurs yourselves?

Ionna: The Dream Big Foundation offers mentorship opportunities. An aspiring entrepreneur would apply for the program, and go through a series of workshops to get them the necessary skills they need to become entrepreneurs.

Ben: Okay, so what do these workshops look like?

Ionna: They’re basic entrepreneurship workshops: marketing, branding, budgeting, finances, and all that good stuff. But then also tying them in with an entrepreneur that’s already established and providing those type of mentorship opportunities as well. Kind of partnering them with that mentor, and giving them the hands on skills that they’re missing in a workshop setting. A one on one relationship type-thing where they get to shadow, see how a business is run first hand from an entrepreneur in that field.

Ben: Sweet! So how do these entrepreneurs get involved with the program?

Ionna: So Dream Big has a lot of relationships with the entrepreneurs. So the founder of Dream Big is Robert LaCasio He is also the CEO and founder of Live Person (A marketing App). So he’s the founder and he has a lot of networks with entrepreneurs, as you can imagine, but the Dream Big Foundation’s Executive Director is Parnell Price, who has a lot of relationships with entrepreneurs as well.

Ionna: So they go out and speak to people about what the Dream Big Foundation is all about, and people are very  interested in helping out on this project. A lot are willing to participate and mentor other aspiring entrepreneurs.

Ben: That’s amazing. In doing a little background research on the Cafe, one of the things that struck me the most was how big of an investment in the community this is. Five, ten, fifteen years down the line, how do you want this investment in the community to pay off? What would you like to see?

Ionna: Along Belmont Avenue, this used to be a thriving business corridor. Adjacent to Belmont is Pitkin Avenue and that’s a thriving business corridor right now. A lot of people frequent it and know about Pitkin’s history, but what I would like to see on Belmont Avenue is that it becomes what it once was; a thriving business corridor.

So there’s about a 30% vacancy rate on Belmont right now and what we would like to see is that there’s more businesses coming to Belmont and opening up. Without the people, our businesses won’t stay alive. So we also need the residents to come and frequent Belmont as well. We want it to kind of be the “it” spot in Brownsville.

We also want other people from outside of Brownsville to come and shop in Brownsville, or to come and hang out and chill in Brownsville, or to come here to do work in Brownsville. But we want the residents to own it, and that’s the difference here about what we’re doing at the Cafe. We’re from Brownsville, we want to be the leaders of the change here. There’s residents here who are entrepreneurs already; they’re doing hair in their homes, they’re watching children in their homes, they’re cooking for people.

Ben: There seems to be a real entrepreneurial spirit already existing in the community.

Ionna: Exactly! For us it’s, “how can we take that spirit and really become true entrepreneurs in our own communities?” We’re trying to lead that change. We all know about “The G Word” (Gentrification) that everyone is talking about. So we wanna be able to take that fear out of our residents, and let them know that they can lead the change.

Ben: Exactly. One of the things that I feel is so great about what you guys are trying to do is you’re trying to stave off this economic violence that is unfortunately rampant right now in Brooklyn. So if you were to have a general mission statement, what would you say?

Ionna: To be a visual reminder to people that dreams do come true; You work hard, you have a plan, you reach your goals, and then you get to see things come into fruition. We can be the change. People say you shouldn’t have fear, but fear is there. Fear should push you to make that change happen and that’s exactly what it’s done for me and my sisters. It’s the fear of not being successful, of naysayers saying “this is not going to happen for you,” or “we’re going to let you down.” Pushing through those things and actually executing and getting things done.

Ben: Exactly, also it really seems to me like the community is going to benefit off this. The community is going to lead its own revitalization, not people moving in from outside, and lifelong residents being pushed out, which is so important, especially right now given what’s happening in Brooklyn.

Ben: Shifting over a little bit, I had read that Nadia Lopez had come here to celebrate her book with the Hashtag #OpenaSchoolToCloseaPrison. Do you want to talk about that meeting?

Ionna: Nadia Lopez is an amazing person and individual, and she said something at the signing that was really helped me not be so shy about things. She’s doing what she’s doing but she’s making it sexy. She’s making education sexy, and I was like “exactly!” We’re making being an entrepreneur sexy, and I think that’s important for people to be individuals and be allowed to express themselves how they want to but get the job done. So when we sat down with Nadia to do the book signing, the idea was to bring people together and let people know that we can lead change together.

 
Ben Zehren