Ben Lewis believes anything is possible through good coffee. And he sees the proof every day at Meraki Roasting Company.
Since it opened three years in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, Meraki has become a destination café for coffee lovers drawn to specialty brews made from beans roasted on site.
But the real magic of Meraki is in its mission.
A project of Griot Arts, a Clarksdale-based nonprofit serving Coahoma County, Meraki operates as a career readiness program providing employment training to youth and young adults working to break the cycle of generational poverty in the Mississippi Delta.
“Meraki is about giving opportunity to those who represent the future of Delta,” says Ben, Meraki’s program director.
To date, more than 70 Meraki 'fellows' have worked and trained at the café, in roles ranging from coffee roasting, to product development, customer service, sales and marketing.
We talked with Ben about the role Meraki is playing in preparing Delta youth for workforce success.
How did Griot get the idea of opening a coffee roastery?
Meraki was born out of an activity that took place within Griot. During one of our community meetings, when students have the opportunity to express their hopes and ideas, a common theme emerged: They all wanted to work, but for a variety of reasons, they couldn't find jobs. These young adults and youth have amazing hopes and dreams for the future. We try foster those hopes and dreams, help them hone their skills and find and sustain employment.
What are the ingredients that have made Meraki work?
We wanted to create a learning environment and a business that was self-sustainable. A difficult aspect about being in a small, rural community is that opportunities for growth can be limited. To overcome that hurdle, we wanted to create a business that both our community could get behind and could also bring in outside resources to support our program. Coffee fit that model. We have the café, which serves the community through the roastery and we also sell our coffee online, so we’re producing a product for a larger market.
What skills are you teaching?
We develop the soft skills that our fellows need in the workplace, like self-awareness and social awareness, communication, conflict management and responsible decision making. We use the café and roastery as a practical learning environment to give them real-time feedback on these skills.
Why does Meraki’s model work?
Coffee encompasses a lot of the soft skills we want to develop. Whether you are brewing coffee or roasting coffee, it’s very scientific. There are clear and specific steps. Coffee is also very susceptible to changing variables like humidity, barometric pressure, temperature or even how many people are in the room.
It all affects the quality of your product. So our fellows are learning to follow directions, but they are also thinking on their feet. They have to understand the ‘why’ behind every step to respond appropriately to the changing variables and get a consistent outcome.
Coffee is also very social medium, so they learn customer service and communication. They’re dealing with different types of people and learning to communicate across lines of difference.
What kinds of students and young adults are you serving through Meraki?
We’re looking for young people between the ages of 16 and 24 years old, who are not in school and not working. We want to find young adults who have fallen through the cracks, hit some sort of hurdle in their life and trying to figure out what’s next. We use the Meraki environment to discover what they want to do and how to do it, to help them overcome hurdles so they can re-engage in the community and demonstrate the skills to maintain a job.
What makes the Delta special?
I moved to Mississippi from Spokane, Washington. I fell in love with Clarksdale for a lot of reasons. But in short, it’s because there’s a really strong sense of community. It’s easy to quantify what’s wrong with the Delta. You can put numbers to the education problems students here face. You can put numbers to the crime rate and poverty. That’s part of the Delta, but that’s not the whole story.
What’s right about the Delta specifically is less quantifiable – it’s the people, the history, the heritage, the culture and creativity. It’s these intangible things. There is a lot of potential. The kids I work with at Meraki are extraordinary. What they are able to accomplish, with what they are given, just blows me away every day.
Griot Arts, a Walton Family Foundation grantee, works with at-risk youth in Clarksdale to foster creativity through the arts and provide academic support and skills training.