CJ Executive Director Nikkita Oliver (right) with Blas Alfaro (left), owner of Fulcrum Roasters • Courtesy

Creativity, coffee, and community. These are elements that local groups Creative Justice and Black Power Unlimited are melding together in their newest initiative, The Creative Café, which debuts at Washington Hall on January 15, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated.

Black Power Unlimited (BPU) has long been the primary tenant at Washington Hall, the historic Central Distric venue whose first floor includes a kitchen. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, BPU had previously operated a cafe there and, since 2016, has rented some of its space to Creative Justice (CJ), a public art program that offers alternatives to jail for youth facing charges for nonviolent offenses.

More recently, Creative Justice’s Executive Director Nikkita Oliver said that the two organizations came together a year ago to address community and particularly elders’ concerns about isolation and violence.

“During a healing circle held at Washington Hall after the community experienced a shooting, elders and youth alike said they wanted the cafe to come back,” said Oliver. “Creative Justice and BPU put our heads and resources together to figure out how we could reopen the cafe, provide employment opportunities for youth, co-create an intergenerational space for youth and elders to connect, and revitalize the first-floor lodge as a viable venue for artists, conferences, meetings, fairs, and intimate shows and performances.”

Since then, Creative Justice (CJ) and BPU have worked toward the café opening, partnering with several other local organizations like The Fulcrum Coffee Roasters and The Station for mentorship. La Marzocco, a local coffee machine supplier, has also donated an espresso machine to get help get the cafe started.

Oliver also acknowledges the contributions of Historic Seattle, a local foundation whose focus is to maintain historic buildings and present events with a focus on community. “It is the wisdom of these community-committed businesses that has allowed us to bring this project to fruition in such a short time,” Oliver said.

The Creative Café will be overseen by manager Dan Bash and operated by youth staffers designated as fellows. “In working closely with the fellows, with the help of with the help of the community and community centered institutions, and pulling from my own two decades worth of experience in the coffee industry and community building,” said Bash. “We will develop the professional skills necessary to navigate the industry with intention.”

To begin, the Café will employ four youth, and Bash and Oliver have worked together to develop a less traditional hiring process. Intead of focusing on professional skills and qualifications, they want to emphasize community building and individuals that could contribute social skills for curating and holding space for creative- and justice-centered orientation.

CJ emphasizes that the cafe will not be just another coffee shop, and that it will serve as a “third space” for members of the community to celebrate and mourn, to resolve conflict, and to establish community norms.

“In a world where most human-to-human connection is facilitated or augmented by the telecommunications and tech industries, we find the revival of third spaces as serving a particularly important role in achieving justice and liberation for oppressed and marginalized communities,” said Bash. “We don’t pretend to have any of the answers to the problems that plague the world, however we do believe that solving these problems requires authentic human-to-human connections.”

In this way, the Creative Café is, for Oliver, a logical extension of CJ’s work since 2015 as a diversion program. 

“During this time, the No New Youth Jail Movement was calling on King County not to build the new youth jail and to instead invest in community-based resources and responses to preventing and healing harm,” Oliver recalled. Entering their 10th year of service and organizing, CJ has grown, operating three arts-based healing programs, a youth advocacy project, a restitution relief fund, a garden program, two fellowship programs, and a wellness and fitness program. They also produce a podcast called Recess in partnership with Converge Media.”

To begin, the cafe will be open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and will include a library and hallway seating. An array of beverages will be served initially, with food items added later in 2024.

But bigger plans are on the horizon.

“There are very few affordable venues remaining in the Central District, specifically and in the city of Seattle more generally,” Oliver said. “Opening the Creative Café is just one step in a larger vision of re-establishing the first floor of Washington Hall as a community space and performance venue.”

During 2024, CJ plans to expand the cafe hours into the weekend and open the larger space to event bookings. Then, as 2025 approaches, the organization will present a monthly open-mic series called Dripped and develop a culinary arts program called the Justice Kitchen, whose mission will be to provide food service for Washington Hall events.

All communities, especially BIPOC, are welcome.

“Washington Hall has been used by different [Asian Pacific Islander] community groups as recently as late December,” Bash said. “Specifically, Creative Justice and Black Power Unlimited co-sponsored an event for Palestine with API Chaya, and we would encourage API community groups to continue to reach out and collaborate on events or other ideas to help heal and get justice for our shared communities.”

Bash and Oliver also emphasized Washington Hall’s close proximity to the historical Chinatown International District. 

“Ultimately, the Creative Café is a communally collaborative effort,” Bash said. 

“We encourage you to come through the cafe and be part of the community.” 

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