Susan Garcia Trieschmann is the founder and executive director of Curt's Cafe, which opened on Central Street almost four years ago. Curt’s is a bustling community gathering spot where customers “dine with a purpose:" the Cafe trains young men who have been in trouble with law enforcement—or who are headed in that direction—in life skills and food service skills. They are paid a stipend during the three-month training period and Curt’s then helps to place them in jobs.Curt's Cafe South, on Dempster and Dodge, works with young women.
Nina Kavin asked Susan about the Cafe, the young people it serves, and how her work helps to reduce violence in Evanston.
Q: Do you think violence is an issue in Evanston?
A: It is for some people in our community. Yes. It is an issue for a group of young people who are under-served, who haven’t figured how to get along better, and for whom constant disappointment and failure, hunger, lack of housing, lack of opportunity, turns into anger, which then turns into violence.
Q: How do you think Curt’s helps to prevent violence?
A: We help kids on that spectrum re-establish a purpose in the community, regain a sense of hope. Many of our students are young parents, and so we hope that what they learn at Curt’s they will in turn teach their children, and in that way we are working to break a cycle.
Q: Why did you open Curt’s Cafe?
A: I opened the cafe because I felt that a segment of our community wasn't being heard or serviced, and that they were falling through the cracks—young men between the ages of 15 and 24 who had high contact with the justice system. I thought I could help that particular demographic. I've done a lot of work in restorative justice, and I’ve sat in many peace circles with young men who’ve been in trouble with law enforcement, and over and over again they would say that they wouldn’t have committed the crime if they had had a job. Now, they might have needed housing or tutoring or various other services, but what came out of their mouths was that they wanted to work. So I decided that I would start an organization committed to workforce training for these young men, but also offer help with the other things they needed.
Q: Why did you pick a cafe?
A: My background is in catering and restaurants. I know the restaurant business and I get excited about it. I also did research and discovered that food service is the second or third highest hiring sector in the economy. So I thought, if I’m going to do workforce training, I should do it in an area I know well, that also happens to hire a lot of people.
Q: In addition to job training, what else do you provide for Curt’s students?
A: Our program is 50 percent life skills education and 50 percent job training. In addition to teaching our students food service skills, we provide them with access to a full-time social worker who can help them with housing issues, getting their drivers licenses and IDs, working through trauma that many of them have experienced. We help them with life skills anywhere from anger management and understanding appropriate relationships to balancing a budget and developing a resume.
Q: How did you come up with the program model?
A: I formed a youth board which consisted of two brothers who had just got out of prison, three young men with whom I’d sat in peace circles [this is an alternative to going to jail, where the offender sits with the victim and members of the community to discuss the incident and take ownership of it], and another young man who was at risk of going to jail. They told me that they would only participate in this kind of program if they could be paid for the training. That they were tired of organizations making them promises that didn’t pan out. It was important to them that they would be paid while they figured out how to move their lives forward. So we decided on a stipend for the three-month training.
Q: Where do most of Curt’s students come from, and how do they find out about Curt’s?
A: Most of our students come from the area around the high school and also south Evanston, close to Howard Street. They hear about us from probation officers and social workers, and now, because we have been around for a while and because they like and trust us, we have a lot of word-of-mouth referrals.
There are a lot of very good services in Evanston for fourth to sixth graders, like Y.O.U. and the Youth Job Center. The problem is that so many of these kids don’t have parents who are in a position to advocate for them, to recommend these programs to them, and so they fall through the cracks. Many of the kids we work with have parents who have issues themselves, and in many cases, they’ve had to raise themselves. And that’s where the breakdown is.
Q: Have you been personally affected by violence in Evanston?
A: Before I opened the cafe, I’d been a victim of theft, small stuff. But since I opened the cafe I have become much closer to violence. Through working with and talking to our students, I’ve learned about violence that goes on behind closed doors, especially toward young women, but also toward the young men from some of their parents or other young men with whom they've had conflict. Often as long as 10 years earlier.
Q: Are there challenges working with young men most of whom are African American while you are white?
A: I have never had a problem with this. I am my genuine self and I think the students know this and respond to it. They trust me. They know I’m consistent and that I will be here for them. They tell me things. I don't think they don’t hold back because of the color of my skin or because of my gender.
Q: What’s the most profound experience you’ve had since you opened Curt’s?
A: Every day is an “aha” moment for me. The students amaze me with their strength given what they have to overcome. Even to get to the cafe every day. I’m so proud of our students. There’s Claude who came to us with a 2.0 GPA and is now working at Linz and Vail and has a 3.9 GPA. We have students working at Whole Foods, at Starbucks and Valli and Edzos, kids who didn't think this was ever going to be in their future. The joy I feel when they get their food service certificates, which for many is the first educational success they've had. Their strength gives me my strength.
Q: How did Bey Bradford’s death affect you, especially in light of Curt’s mission [Bejamin "Bo" Mandujano-Bradford was a Curt’s student who was shot and killed on January 19, 2016]?
A: It made me want to do better…faster. I was amazed at how the community stepped up and embraced Bo’s family and our organization and raised the money for his burial. But it was the first time I really saw what students had been telling me. This was just another candlelight vigil for them, though it was a first for me. It was a norm for them that I just didn’t realize, even though they'd been telling me. It was one of the hardest nights of my life.
Q: What’s the most important thing Evanston residents can do to reduce violence?
A: Look people in the eye. Don’t judge them. Many of us in Evanston don’t judge people by the color of their skin. But we judge them on where they live, or how they dress or talk. Sometimes we’ll look at the ground when we pass someone who scares us a bit. Let’s pick up our heads and be respectful of everyone as we walk by.