There are very few times in our travels that we are in a place with as much diversity as the SAME Café in Denver. It is a place where people who are marginalized and defined by what they do not have (homeless, unemployed, developmentally disabled, economically disadvantaged) meet side by side with people who would be seen as the “haves”. However, in this context the café creates a space in which people define themselves and one another by the “gives” and the “give nots” rather than the “have” and the “have nots”. Everyone who comes to the café is coming for the same reason: good healthy food, a warm comfortable space, and a community that cares about one another. In exchange for this bounty which the café provides, it asks that you give what you can. The sign suggests two forms of payment: money and volunteer service. By allowing people to give in any way that they can, you create a structure in which everyone has something to give. For example, the small group of adults with developmental disabilities were the first patrons to arrive. They get there early in order to sweep the floors and set the tables. Then there’s the busy lunch crowd with people dropping in on their lunch break and choosing to pay in money instead of time since that is what they have to give.
The kitchen is all volunteer run and what frustrates this dedicated work force are the people who take and take and do not give. Some people come back everyday and pay only 5 or 10 cents, coming back for seconds and thirds, never supplementing that meager contribution with volunteering. Why don’t they contribute? It is so easy to help out in some way and strengthen the café community, but it only takes a few leeches to begin to suck the life out of it. Once you have people abusing the system then you start having conversations about adding controls or rules. That conversation is one in which you are opening the door with a distrustful mindset and expecting that most people will take and take and not give. That mindset is at complete odds with the one that inspired Brad and Libby Birky to open this café in the first place. The two cannot coexist and I encourage the café volunteers to try to keep perspective on the majority of patrons who give and who appreciate what is served. I’m also curious about ways that the cafe can reinforce the values that it was founded on.
The café looks like a regular restaurant. They produce great food and have a colorful warm space for people to sit and eat or make conversation. But like many cafes and salons throughout history, this space is also an opportunity to create the world we want to live in. A place where people are valued for what they give rather than what they have and a place where people value a healthy hot meal for all enough to give what they have.