Meraki Roasting Company

View Gallery 7 Photos

story and portraits by Lindsay Pace

Ben Lewis had just hiked 127 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail when his wife picked him up. The native of Spokane, Washington, was sticky from three weeks in the sun and needed a shower. But the first thing he wanted to do was listen to his voicemails.

It was 2014, and Lewis’s sister had recently moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for a job with Teach for America. She recommended him for a government-funded contract position at the now-dissolved Coahoma Agricultural High School. Minutes from leaving the trail behind, Lewis called the contractors back to discuss a job offer.

“I get off the phone, my wife turns to me and says, ‘I’ll move anywhere, as long as it’s not Mississippi,’” Lewis said.

Lewis is no stranger to misconceptions about Mississippi, particularly the Delta. Before moving to Clarksdale, he had them, too.

“It’s really easy to quantify what’s wrong [with the rural South],” Lewis said. “What’s right is something underneath the surface.”

Coahoma, colloquially known as Aggie, was Lewis’s introduction to Mississippi: to the state’s relationship to racial tension, economic inequality and social inequity. Lewis, who grew up in a primarily white area of the country, noticed an open secret in Clarksdale: racialized space.

“Systems have been created where people don’t have opportunities to develop relationships across lines of difference,” Lewis said. “I think about how in Clarksdale, the white community has their own [liminal districts of] entertainment, their own grocery stores, their own churches, their own schools.”

After two years of working at Aggie  — a school that educated Black people like the late Civil Rights activist Aaron Henry —  he decided not to return for a third. Former governor Phil Bryant planned to sign into law Senate Bill 2501, which would dissolve the school.

“I knew everything I built would probably leave with me when I pulled away,” Lewis said. “And I didn’t feel good about that.”

So, his wife made a suggestion: How can we stay in Clarksdale, a place we’ve grown to love, and still contribute to youth education?

Meraki Roasting Company wasn’t simply Lewis’s vision. While working at Aggie, he befriended the founder of Griot Arts, a grant-funded youth program in downtown Clarksdale. There, he attended student-driven “town hall” meetings, where students voiced two things: a lack of affordable places to gather, and a need to contribute to their families’ incomes. Meraki was created to aid both.

As most small businesses know, no venture is seamless. Lewis considers Meraki’s current iteration the “2.0” version. The first was a community garden.

“It looked good on paper,” said Lewis. “But students need consistency and predictability. And working in agriculture is anything but consistent or predictable.”

Next, Lewis and the Griot team theorized a coffee shop. How could they offer youth a space to connect? How could they provide them job opportunities or prepare them for careers? And how could they pay for it?

Much of what Lewis and the Griot team puzzled out required humility. At first, they thought Meraki could sustain itself. That idea quickly dissolved. They’d need donors.

Once pay is divided and business costs are covered, Lewis says the not-for-profit shop breaks even. Individual donors and grant funding — both state and federal — comprise 50% of Meraki’s revenue. The other 50% is generated organically.

On a granular level, the cafe functions as a ‘practical learning environment,’ where roughly 30 students per year complete a 16-week career readiness program. A cafe manager hosts weekly meetings with each student, helping them identify and measure their goals. They earn a stipend for their involvement.

“As you build their confidence, you’ll see that their weaknesses start to kind of fall away,” Lewis said. “Then they then have the margin to focus on how to strengthen them.”

Meraki students tend to express interest in nursing, teaching or barbering post-high school, Lewis noted. It’s not that these professions are more appealing than others. They’re more apparent, especially if the student faces a barrier to resources or capital. This begs the question: Who is deserving of a dream? What would an equal-access world look like?

“I keep talking about opportunity,” Lewis said. “But how do you know what you’re good at, unless you’ve tried something?”

Ultimately, the program is about connecting students with resources that can help execute their ideas. It’s also about understanding barriers they may be up against.

Lewis remembers one student in particular who struggled with job retention because of anger management issues. He worried the student hadn’t made progress, until the teen disclosed that he took a pause to smoke in the bathroom instead of yelling at a customer. Cigarettes aside, Lewis was proud his student learned when to step away — and that he did.

“He didn’t come out of [Meraki] being the mainstream, idyllic version of what an excellent employee should be. But he grew,” Lewis said. “He self-reflected. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”

The shop’s lead roaster, 25-year-old Eugene Wilson, credits the 16-week program for easing the weight of his depression. Prior to Meraki, Wilson hadn’t left his house in a year.

“Eventually, all my friends just gave up on trying to get me out,” Wilson said. “But I had one friend, every single day, who would come over. He brought me [to Meraki], and they just so happened to be hiring. So I gave it a shot. And ever since then, I’ve been coming outside.”

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.