Image: La'Shante Grigsby at Cafe Latte
Written by: Mecca Bos
The pilot episode of Moesha, the ‘90’s sitcom starring singer/ songwriter Brandy as a sassy, fashionable, typically angsty teenager, portrays the young woman and her friends gathering comfortably at a hang called The Den.
The Den is helmed by an auntie-like, aproned female proprietor full of equal parts jokes, wit, and wisdom. Moesha and her clique of 16-year old girls occupy a center table where they (in a noticeable reversal) catcall boys, heckle each other with lighthearted roasting, crack up at their own jokes, and most importantly-- seem completely free to be themselves.
As the episode progresses, The Den is home to a hip-hop show, a poetry slam, and all manner of daily dramas and trivialities from heartbreak to homework. It’s a place where the young women obviously feel safe and feel held. It seems like home.
Growing up in Detroit, La'Shante Grigsby found herself dropping out of her high school and enrolling in a college preparatory school in another district at the age of 16. She’s not sure where she got the wherewithal to change her life independently at such a young age, but she does remember being influenced by Moesha-- her independence, her strength, her feminism. Possibly it had something to do with that space where she could always go to feel safe.
At her new school, Grigsby was introduced to entirely new-to-her concepts like volunteering, preparing for college, and study abroad. Even though she says her family often didn’t have the money for the school standard uniforms, she pushed through and graduated. She eventually landed in Minnesota for graduate school after attending Clark Atlanta University.
As a poet and a writer, she gravitated to coffee shops as creative spaces, and naturally fell into Black owned-and-operated neighborhood coffee shops like Golden Thyme and Sammy’s Avenue Eatery. Walking in, she says, though she was from another city and another place altogether, “It felt like they knew me from another life.”
Those spaces were, and continue to be crucial for her creativity and general wellbeing. Still, she says, she thought about how rare similar spaces were for her and other young Black women like herself during the pivotal years between the ages of 16 and 24, and how different her own life would have turned out had she not found her new school, exposing her to an alternative life.
Coffee. Culture. Community. Flava Cafe
Flava Cafe, now open in Saint Paul’s Neighborhood Development Center, will be that place. A safe and affirming place for young women to work and be, but is also an open and welcoming space for the entire community to “just come and be.”
“Our own music, our own style-- you won’t have to explain who you are or why. Where Black folks can see each other and not feel othered.”
In addition to “coffee, culture, and community,” Flava has intensive mentorship and coaching on the menu, and an important imperative for the adults who work within the space: helping young women and gender expansive youth (i.e. trans, non-binary, non-conforming) realize their passions and purpose and putting the onus on leadership to help make it happen.
“When it comes to youth of color, a lot of employers don’t have a vested interest. Outside of them training you for your first day, they don’t talk to you,” says Grigsby. “But I like to ask [employees] ‘What can I do for you’? And everyone has a lengthy answer. It feels cruel to just look at someone like you work here, I pay you. So, instead, how can we do this work more effectively?”
Grigsby also plans to have a “Dream Fund,” where big, long term, lofty goals can get realized with the help of the cafe and the community at large.
“Moesha was never afraid to be herself,” says Grigsby. But she didn’t get there by accident. Surrounded by other supportive women of all ages in a safe and affirming environment was crucial. Grigsby says young women naturally tend to gravitate and cling to her, and her calling is to meet that with intention.
When she left high school, says Grigsby, she felt like this: “I have options after I leave this place.”
Those options turned into an obligation: help others to find theirs.
Favorite place to take a visitor/guest?
My favorite place to take visitors is Penumbra Theatre. I love that their shows have intentional focus on Black playwrights, stories, and aesthetics. I’m also able to share the history of the Rondo Neighborhood with folks, which I think is important for people to understand in the larger context of why that space and work is so special.
A neighborhood you love – and what is the vibe of that area?
I mostly hang out in Rondo, Frogtown and on the East Side.
Favorite Saint Paul place to eat or drink?
My favorite place to eat in Saint Paul is Red Cow. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m obsessed!
Favorite Saint Paul coffee shop? What do you love about it?
My favorite coffee shop in Saint Paul is Golden Thyme in Rondo. It’s truly a communal space, where everyone is friendly and cordial even if they don’t know you-- it’s just the culture. Beyond the community aspect, I love their jazz theme. I’ve grown to appreciate jazz over time and enjoy the sounds of smooth jazz and artistry on the walls.