//Millete Birhanemaskel stands in front of the Whittier Cafe on June 9th. Photo by Polina Saran | firstname.lastname@example.org
Millete Birhanemaskel, the owner of the Whittier Cafe, did not choose activism. Rather, activism chose her.
“I was really tired of the activist life,” Birhanemaskel said. “But I guess when something is in your blood you can’t get away from it.”
Birhanemaskel attributes this inheritance to her parents who fled Ethiopia, where her father was a guerilla fighter. After arriving in a Sudanese refugee camp, Birhanemaskel was born. At the time, children born into refugee camps were not given birth certificates and no nation sought to claim them.
Upon proving Ethiopian lineage and receiving political asylum, the family moved to Denver where her parents opened Denver’s first Ethiopian church. Birhanemaskel felt the fatigue of her parents’ advocacy work, so she shifted to a private business model. She hoped to share the origin of the world’s most-consumed drink: coffee.
Much of the coffee sold in the shop uses Ethiopian coffee beans, the same as those that a 9th-century Ethiopian shepherd found his jittery sheep eating, and decided to try himself. In the time before COVID-19, the Whittier Cafe would come alive with their free Ethiopian coffee ceremony event.
“Everybody drinks coffee, it’s this big connector and nobody knows where it comes from,” Birhanemaskel said. “The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is where everyone sits together and you roast beans in the clay pot. They’re like really strong espresso shots, the smoothest coffee you will ever have.”
The coffee-based business plan shifted when in 2015 Jessie Hernandez was killed by police near the Whittier neighborhood. After the mourners were dissuaded from gathering at another cafe in the area, Birhanemaskel welcomed them with bottomless coffee. A void was filled and “the activist coffee shop” was born.
The best-laid plans evolved into something Birhanemaskel never expected: A community center that happens to sell coffee.
“When tragic, terrible things happen in the community, we’re the soft landing place where people can come,” Birhanemaskel said.
With the spread of the pandemic, the Whittier’s role of providing an indoor space to mourn was compromised in the wake of George’s Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Despite the inside space being closed, the patio became a place for those who were grieving another loss to police brutality.
“We are a place of hope for people who feel like nothing is working right now,” Birhanemaskel said “When George Floyd was killed it was like groundhog’s day for us. At some point, something has got to change. Us being here is a reminder that we can’t forget.”.
The cafe also boasts its justice fund that offers free coffee to those wearied from protesting. The cafe’s future was recently made murkier with the purchase of the building that it resides within. When rent was tripled in the adjoining space that was once filled with black-owned businesses, including a grocery store, butcher shop, church, and thrift store was vacated.
For now, Birhanemaskel is holding strong while supporting her customers in every way she can.
“I hope we can get back to being able to gather in a safe way because I think that is our most powerful use,” she said while standing in front of her cafe with the sun on her face. “Beyond that, even our place in this neighborhood is an act of defiance.”