Kusanya Cafe x Sonny Speaks: Elevating Englewood Voices Through Storytelling

Kusanya Cafe opened its doors to Englewood residents in 2013. The nonprofit cafe, which is situated on the corner of West 69th and Green Street, sustains through (moderately priced) cafe sales and donations. It was founded by Englewood residents in direct response to the lack of spaces to gather in their neighborhood.

Phil Sipka—an Englewood resident for nearly a decade—took lead on the project, but you won’t see his name listed anywhere on the website. Why? Because his ultimate goal is to empower and uplift, and he does not believe you can do that from a place of power. “Empowerment, in my definition, means giving up power so you can give it to somebody else,” said Sipka when explaining his approach to leading the charge.

It’s been 5 years this month since Kusanya Cafe started serving coffee, breakfast, and lunch in Englewood—and today it is a place for residents to gather, to empower one another, and to tell their own stories.

Clarence “Sonny” Hogan is a regular at Kusanya Cafe. “This is a spot for creative thinkers to come meet and sit down,” Hogan said as he pointed to a man a table away who sat with his head down in his computer and a hot coffee just within reach; “I want a place where I can go and think; a place where there’s music playing so I have a muse.” Hogan and Sipka met as neighbors. They both live a short walk from the cafe. Hogan had recently been laid off when he started making Kusanya a routine stop in his day. It became somewhat of “a hub” for him as he figured out what came next.

Clarence Hogan is the embodiment of Kusanya’s mission: a resident of Englewood with a story to tell. He is the founder and storyteller behind Sonny Speaks, a brand and alter ego he’s developed to use his talents in comedy and storytelling to build community and bridge the divides between us. “Storytelling highlights our similarities,” Hogan shared. When he first approached Sipka about bringing Sonny Speaks to the Kusanya calendar, it was a no brainer—of course they’d do it.

“Clarence has got a unique ability to curate good stories, to make them universal,” said Sipka, with a big smile on his face. You can tell when Sipka talks about Englewood and the vibrant nature of the people who live there—his neighbors—he carries a sense of pride in the home he’s made for himself here in Chicago.

Phil Sipka is in the business of “waiting for creators to create.” He has no interest in programming for programs’ sake. It was challenging when he started out not to jump in and fill the calendar with events, but was he able to wait for residents to raise their hands to tell their own stories? In short, yes. And that’s exactly what Kusanya’s collaboration with Sonny Speaks did. It gave way for residents to stand up, speak up, and ensure that the voices of the neighborhood were not lost in the fast-paced evolution of the city of Chicago.

Englewood Speaks is a series of storytelling events that exists to elevate the stories of teens, teachers, parents and elders in the Englewood community. Each event, or episode as they’re identified on Sonny Speaks’ website, is led by Hogan and hosted at Kusanya Cafe. Topics have ranged from “I Remember When,”  a theme designed to share the story of Englewood through the memories of local elders, to “Things I learned While I Was Teaching” and “The Young Men of Englewood.” Through this series, residents have been empowered to take ownership of their own narratives.

“Black people have been telling stories for years,” Hogan exclaimed. Through his partnership with Kusanya Cafe, he’s doing his part to make sure this important tradition can exist beyond the dining room table.

When asked who Kusanya Cafe is for, Sipka quickly replied, “residents of Englewood.” But he just as quickly reassured that their doors are open to anyone, and that at any given time you can walk in and see cops, nonprofit leaders, single mothers, neighborhood kids, teachers. “I don’t know anywhere else this is happening in the city of Chicago or just in America. Where is that kind of true diversity happening?” Sipka asked rhetorically.

Kusanya Cafe is an “Englewood spot, not a tourist spot,” but it still has everything you’d want from a cafe: good music at the perfect volume that allows you to tune in and zone out all at once, delicious food (editor’s note: get a breakfast sandwich), and coffee, roasted right there in Englewood. If you decide to pay Kusanya Cafe a visit, Sipka has one small request: Please don’t come in power. “You automatically don’t get to hear and feel the culture. You’re changing the culture just by your existence.” Not sure what he means? Stop by and ask. He’ll greet you with a smile and a thoughtful conversation about this little coffee shop that could.