Black Coffee Northwest tells the story of many things: what a lifetime of activism and compassion can manifest, the experiences and hurdles the Black community and Black business owners face, and the story of a family who embodies what it means to care deeply about their community.
Not your average coffee shop, Black Coffee Northwest opened in October 2020 in Shoreline, Washington, where only 5.9% of the population is Black. The cafe puts its beliefs and values of social justice at the forefront of its mission with the goal to spark real, systemic change. It’s the culmination of over 20 years of owners Darnesha and Erwin Weary’s activism in the North Seattle community.
Black Coffee Northwest hires youth in the Shoreline area to offer them career opportunities they otherwise may not have gotten. In addition to receiving on-site barista training, they have the opportunity to take skills training classes to build their confidence in the workplace.
The cafe also openly endorses candidates for city council in Edmonds and Shoreline, and during the 2020 runoff election in Georgia, they sold a Georgia peach drink to bring awareness to the election and educate people on Stacey Abrams and her leadership as a voting rights activist.
“We were constantly telling that story because it’s important to the Black community,” Darnesha said. “And we have to tell those stories.”
The community-first cafe hosts pop-up shops on the weekend featuring local businesses owned by people of color. They also created a free pantry — which was built by Shoreline community members — where people can grab food for free if they need it.
Black Coffee Northwest is also intentional about their products. They source their coffee from Boon Boona, a Black-owned coffee roaster in Renton, and their pastries from Zuri’s Donutz, a Black-owned donut shop in Lynnwood. The cafe is always looking for ways to keep their products and services local.
“Who else can we hire? Who else can we contract? What other business can we support so we can keep the money within this community and within people that look like us?” Darnesha said.
And the list goes on and on.
Darnesha admitted it was a risk to build her business with her beliefs and politics front and center — something few businesses, big or small, do.
“We know that systemic racism is real and everyone’s beliefs for every company are embedded in the fabric in their organization — you just don’t see it,” Darnesha said. “What they believe fundamentally lives in their HR department, who they hire, how they promote, who’s in senior leadership. If your whole senior leadership is white, then you’ve already told us what you subscribe to. You just didn’t say it. So, we’re going to tell what we’re subscribing to. We’re going to tell everyone that we’re anti-racist from every part of this organization.”
Darnesha handles the policies, processes, and day-to-day operations at the coffee shop. An introvert at heart, Darnesha loves spending time with her family and dogs in her free time.
Darnesha and Erwin’s daughter, Mikayla Weary, is the president of Black Coffee Northwest at just 17 years old. She’s more than capable of juggling her work at the coffee shop along with graduating high school. As president, she handles youth outreach and ensures the youth workers have a role and voice in the cafe’s marketing and programs and serves as their mentor.
“I’m still 17 and graduating high school,” Mikayla said. “It’s really hard to kind of balance the two, but it’s super fun as well because I can see how the system is actively changing.”
On top of that, Mikayla is in charge of Black Coffee’s social media, marketing, and designs their merchandise. Mikayla loves art and has been studying Japanese for about six years, which inspired a matcha KitKat drink at Black Coffee Northwest.
Local coffee shops have always held a special place for Darnesha and Erwin because they’re places to try new drinks and meet and connect with people. They’re always on the hunt for mom-and-pop cafes when they get a chance to travel.
“When we think back, our very first date was at a coffee shop,” Darnesha recalled. “Coffee shops have always been a place for us where we’ve met great people, had meaningful connections.”
Darnesha worked in the nonprofit sector before opening Black Coffee Northwest. But no matter what role she was in, Darnesha always sought to find a place for her community. And if she couldn’t find a place, she built it herself.
Fresh out of college in 2000, Darnesha volunteered to start the Northside Step Team — a type of dance team that has a longstanding tradition at historically Black colleges and universities. She started the group at the North Seattle Boys and Girls Club to give Black and Brown students a place to go that was free and accessible to everyone.
The Northside Step Team was so successful it eventually grew to attract hundreds of kids. Their performances have and continue to be centered around social issues and racial justice. They’ve chanted “Black lives matter” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” during their acts, which caught the attention of music artist Lizzo who invited the team to perform in one of her music videos in 2018.
“All these things that our teenagers are going through, but couldn’t find a space or place to talk about it — we created that space,” Darnesha said. “And then through our step shows, [we] created conversation.”
Mikayla grew up being part of the step team, which she said meant a lot to her growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood.
“Basically, it was kind of like the Black Coffee [Northwest] before there was Black Coffee,” Mikayla said. “It was making a space for us where you know that you’re safe, where you can dance. The stepping part was maybe half of it. The other half was going to protests and sitting through meetings at city council and performing for city council.”
For years, Erwin and Darnesha did their community organizing wherever they could. Out of their living room, garage, and car — wherever they could find a meeting space to build up their community.
The years leading up to opening Black Coffee, Erwin and Darnesha were doing community activism work across the city of Shoreline. They advocated for Black and Brown students, organized anti-racism forums, engaged at the local government level, and attended city council meetings. They learned the names of every city council member in the city so they’d know who to hold accountable.
And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — Mikayla has been right alongside her parents doing community activism. She was involved with Black Lives Matter Shoreline and has been an activist through her school since middle school, which is how she built such a strong network with Black youth in her community.
“I’m so grateful to have grown up doing this work and being under my parents,” Mikayla said.
As a student, Mikayla shared that she never felt like Black student life was being seen or heard at school and that through Black Coffee she now has a safe space to be herself.
“We needed a space or a place that we could all collectively come together — Black people and everybody,” Mikayla said. “I just wanted people to see that there is representation and that there’s a safe place that’s kind of like a North Star. You can come here as a Black person, and we’re going to acknowledge that you’re a Black person. But everybody, of course, knows you’re safe no matter who you are.”
In 2017, Erwin and Darnesha organized their very first Black Lives Matter Shoreline meeting where they pulled together a group of activists and community members in the area. That space would eventually become the Black Coffee Northwest storefront.
In August 2020, the Wearys started the process of opening Black Coffee when the building went up for sale. In order to help raise funds for the initial purchase, Darnesha and Erwin did what they know best — they looked toward their community.
“We asked the community,” Darnesha said. “We’re not a nonprofit, but you’ve seen us do this work. We need to crowdfund because we don’t want to own a business in debt, and this is going to be a huge benefit to this community. And they believed in it because they’ve been seeing us do it for so long.”
Darnesha said they crowdfunded through Facebook and reached their goal within a couple weeks.
But the process of opening their business didn’t come without its hurdles.
It took three arduous months to get Black Coffee Northwest’s doors open. Darnesha said they had trouble getting a health inspection, there were issues with the condition of the building, and they had problems being seen as capable business owners by their white counterparts.
“Those that were involved always looked at us as a charity case,” Darnesha said. “They always looked at us like, ‘We want to help you start a business. We want to help you.’ But we don’t need your help. We just need access. That’s it. We need access to the same tools you have.”
When Black Coffee Northwest did get access to the tools they needed, the community rallied behind them.
Just as Black Coffee is more than the products they sell, Black Coffee is also more than the racist incidents that have been perpetrated against them.
In October 2020 right before their grand opening, someone attempted arson on the building and in January 2021, someone graffitied hate speech and symbols on the coffee shop’s facade.
But the Black Coffee Northwest team was not deterred. Instead, they took a couple days off to decompress and then persisted.
“For me, what keeps me motivated is there’s still a need for us,” Darnesha said. “And when there’s no need for us, then, thank God. There shouldn’t have to be a space for Black people to go and feel safe. There shouldn’t have to be a specific place where Black youth are being hired in Shoreline because they can never find jobs. There shouldn’t have to be a Black Coffee.”
Until the systems that keep people of color marginalized and oppressed are uprooted, Black Coffee Northwest will serve their community until there’s no need for them. But that won’t happen with the cafe alone.
To help Black Coffee achieve its mission, Darnesha encourages people to echo the messages and voice of Black Coffee Northwest, give them access to the tools they need to continue to grow and expand, and to continue to buy their coffee so they can support their staff and community.
“So, that’s how people can best support us,” Darnesha said. “Continuing to buy [from us] and tell our story.”
In a sense, Black Coffee Northwest has always existed for the Wearys — whether it was through the Northside Step Team or in Darnesha and Erwin’s garage. Now that there’s a dedicated space for the Weary family’s activism, Black Coffee Northwest will continue to be a space for community and collaboration, be vocal about the issues Black people face, and celebrate Black joy and excellence.
“And so we’re going to keep telling that story,” Darnesha said adamantly. “Upfront and outloud. All the time.”
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