Q&A: A Roseland teacher wants to revitalize her neighborhood one book at a time

By Elisa Xu
Medill Reports

Iesha Malone, a teacher at Chicane Collegiate Middle School in Roseland, decided to open her bookstore Pink Coffee to help fill the desert with books in Roseland – the Far South Side neighborhood where she was born and raised.

She operates as an online bookseller, also hosting pop-up events in the neighborhood and distributing books on the street. Rose Café, which opened in June 2020, does not yet have a physical store, but Malone said she is in the process of asking the city to rezone land for a future brick-and-mortar store in Roseland. Since she said she feels the neighborhood lacks the resources to support the majority black population, she wants Roseland residents to have access to black success stories. Its goal is to help create more spaces and businesses for the community, by the community.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is the origin story of Rose Café?

In 2020, George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police (in Minneapolis), and it sparked a nationwide revolution. But more personally, it damaged my neighborhood, because my neighborhood responded with looting. When I asked, “Why are you doing this in the neighborhood we need to get things?” Everyone kept telling me, “It’s because none of this belongs to us. I started thinking, “You know what, you’re right.” Not in a “you’re right, let me help you loot” way. But in a more solution-oriented mindset.

So, I’m like, “Maybe we should put (more) here what’s ours. Maybe it could help us appreciate this community. And that was during COVID, the schools were closed. My son and I kept going to Printer’s Row to read or buy books. But you know, we live on the Far South Side in the community of Roseland. I thought, why don’t we have a bookstore here? So I say to myself, “I’m going to open a bookstore.”

I posted on Facebook and then got a call from Rebecca Silverman, who is now my co-founder. And she’s like, “So you’re starting a business, what do you do?” I told her about it and she was immediately enthusiastic. And I just found out that her dad is a lawyer. The following week I had an LLC.

And what role has reading had in your life?

When I read, I become different characters. When I was reading as a kid, I could always escape my life and become who I wanted to be. And I needed that growing up, because I’m from Roseland. There are so few resources. The school systems are horrible. Violence is everywhere. Drug addiction, prostitution, everything. It has been named one of the worst communities on the South Side of Chicago. I never lived there, even if I lived there, if that makes sense. I was always someone else, I was always somewhere else.

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I read “Their eyes looked on God”. These are the stories I needed to read to keep hope alive in our culture. I needed to, because other than that, I was always one decision away from being another stat.

It’s really powerful. Is this what prompted you to create a particular library?

Yeah, because I feel like the community doesn’t know much outside of those four corners. They don’t read stories about black struggle or black success. When you’re trapped inside your house, with your barely-there mother, or your drug-dealing brother, or your abusive father, you may start to think that this is it for life. And that’s never life.

But if we start to read and are soaked in inspiring and representative literature, maybe we start thinking more about ourselves and maybe we can start communicating better.

On your Facebook page it says that you are committed to bringing coffee, books and community back to postcode 60628. What does this mean to you?

You know, coffee and books go well together. But if we have a space in this community that combines books and coffee, you get community. Like me, I am urban. I always wear Jordans. And I need girls and boys in this community to see someone like them doing productive and positive things. If you see me in the cafe reading Nat Turner’s book, and you see a healthy dialogue between me and a brother, me and a sister, or me and an ally. And we do it in a respectful way, you discover other ways to communicate. Now we get the community!

How did the Roseland community react to this bookstore?

I didn’t think there would be so much support. For Juneteenth, we had a community walk. And when we went up the street, there were many of us. All the elders were there crying. They hadn’t seen that kind of positivity and in a slew of numbers. No one speaks for Roseland. So the community is like, “OK, finally we have someone trying to make transformational change here.” And it’s with books, so they like it even more.

We’ve hosted things right in 60628. It’s very intentional that we do everything here. This park called Palmer Park, there was a boy who was killed at the park about four years ago. So now nobody wants to go to this park. And understandable, I understand. But we cannot continue to live in the past. So we had six events in Palmer Park where no one was killed, where everyone was a community. So the community loves it. They buy books. And even I didn’t know they were going to buy books like they do. They must react now that they have access.

Since you launched the library, have you noticed a change?

We distributed 8,000, almost 9,000 books to this community. I tell everyone, “OK, so you’re not a reader yet, because that’s a growth mindset. My question is, do you want to become a reader? These authentic conversations that I have with people, that’s the change, right there.

Having access to books, statistically, can increase your IQ. And when I say access, that means you have a book in the kitchen, in the living room. This stuff should be in every home. And it has to be a book that you might end up finishing. It could take months to finish a book. But if you read a little every day, I’m doing my job. And you can’t say you don’t have the books now because I’m handing them out in the middle of the street.

Did you get a strong response from your students as well?

I have a student who is about to start a shoe cleaning business. And that’s because CBS came here, and Block Club Chicago came the next day to take pictures. And when we had the dialogue about (the bookstore), my student was like, “Man, I’m going to start a business.” I’m like, “What do you like?” “Shoes.” “OK, I have a pair of Jordans, can you clean them?” And he started cleaning my shoes. He’s supposed to bring them on Monday, so I’ll pay him. Everyone is already an entrepreneur, but you have to work your way up. And that’s the kind of conversation we have.

My school allowed me to install my library in my class. So when my students come in, they see all these books that look like them. And they love these books.

Do you have specific authors or books that you are trying to highlight in your store or at school?

We try to make sure we highlight minorities and local (authors). So anybody in Chicago who’s a minority is a woman, brunette or tan. Everything about racism and anti-racism. Anything that will help Chicago unity. Because we are one of the most isolated places in the world. But that’s because we don’t exploit each other’s stories.

How did you choose the name Rose Café?

Oh, that’s my favorite question. I’m a huge Tupac Shakur fan, and he told me about one of my favorite books, “The Rose That Came Out of the Concrete”. It’s just a symbolization of how you can go through like very difficult things – figuratively concrete – but you can still come out beautiful. The rose is me, because I didn’t have the ideal education, but I still succeeded. And now I have this vision for the community of Roseland. We are the roses. We are the rose that grew from the concrete. And we’re like, OK, Rose Café. And Rosaland. It happened like this.

Elisa Xu is in the Magazine major at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElisaXu7.

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