In President Ron Liebowitz’s speech earlier in the semester, “A Framework for Our Future,” he highlighted the importance of supporting different student and faculty initiatives. This type of bottom-up improvement is what makes Brandeis so special. While discussing the steps the university is taking towards supporting this student enterprise, Liebowitz stated, “If students wish to establish a startup on campus, how do they avoid what they have called ‘Brandeis’ bureaucratic black box?’”
It is clear in theory that Liebowitz wants to help ease the process of sanctioning and assisting “student initiatives,” but how clear is it in practice?
What good does the promise do if it isn’t executed to assist in current student initiatives? Students make up the heart of the school, and without students, the university would cease to exist. And since so much of the university is dedicated to student life, it seems absurd that the university would not assist more student initiatives.
As a university that is committed to social justice and helping student initiatives, the administration should be doing more to hold onto their promises and assist students in making their dreams a reality. But I, Sabrina, can’t justify this because I personally haven’t taken any initiative to pursue my dreams at the university. Thus I met up with Ben LoCascio ’20 to hear his perspective about his own coffee cafe, Cafe Undergrounds, and, in turn, justify my reasoning.
Sabrina: So Ben, can you tell me a little bit about Cafe Undergrounds?
Ben: Cafe Undergrounds is a pop-up coffee cart that operates in Upper Usdan. At this cafe, you can expect third wave speciality coffee (with latte art) and heavenly nutella paninis. Third-wave speciality coffee is all about the experience with the coffee. According to an article by Perfect Daily Grind, “The third wave is all about making the consumer feel special. Part of that is customer service, but another part is sharing the story behind the cup. This story is one created by producers, importers, roasters and baristas. It explains why a coffee is distinctive, why a consumer can taste certain notes and why high-quality coffee takes so much work.”
The coffee cart is surrounded by poetry books and a speaker playing incredible music, which creates an artsy experience for all the coffee drinkers and panini consumers. It brings that exciting coffee shop feel to the campus.
Sabrina: Because Ben’s business is not under Sodexo, the general food provider of the university, he was initially asked to stop operating by the university because if a student got sick while consuming his food, the university could theoretically be liable.
But take Ben’s business out of the picture, and what about every other food fundraiser and bake sale that occurs on campus, in Upper Usdan, where he was often camped out? Wouldn’t they also be technically liable and therefore not allowed to sell things in Upper Usdan? Why single out a student initiative that is ongoing?
Ben is no different from various student organizations and clubs that are always taking over the tables in Upper Usdan, trying to coax people into buying their products to fundraise money and support their causes. So, Ben, what is Cafe Undergrounds’ cause? What does it stand for?
Ben: The mission of Cafe Undergrounds is to spread the power of prayer in a format which is non-threatening. How the cafe accomplishes this is through the $1 discount. You get a $1 discount on your latte or panini if you submit a prayer request to the cafe’s prayer box. This way Cafe Undergrounds can spread prayer around, without tying the concept of prayer to an exclusive space. You do not have to be ‘holy,’ perfect, or in a religious setting to pray. You don’t even have to be a specific religion (or any religion).
There is then a prayer team (comprised of anyone who would like to) that prays over Brandeis and all the requests. Cafe Undergrounds then will share via social media when and how the requests get answered. Essentially Cafe Undergrounds focuses on four things: quality lattes, prayer, inclusivity and, of course, following your coffee dreams!
Sabrina: Tell us more about your belief in prayer. Why does Cafe Undergrounds so heavily support the mission of prayer?
Ben: I am glad you asked! Prayer is what makes me who I am. Prayer is my lifeline. It connects me with God, who I love. In prayer, God loves me and gives me the love and passion with which I live my life. Prayer connects me with how God sees me and, therefore, prayer shows me the best version of who I am.
I also am such a big proponent of prayer requests because of the ways I have seen prayers answered. My good friend from high school was healed from cancer (with verified doctor reports) after a group of people prayed for her. A lady at my church had her thyroid removed for medical reason, but after prayers and to the doctor’s shock and amazement, she had a perfectly new and healthy thyroid. Jesus gave her a new thyroid!
I have prayed for many people and seen their physical pain leave. It is impossible for nothing to happen when we pray. Prayer works. It works even better than coffee!
Sabrina: Wow! That sounds pretty inspirational. So I know that you’ve met with a lot of different administrators about finding the best pathway for you to keep Cafe Undergrounds afloat. How have those been going for you? I saw that you met with President Liebowitz and he loved your coffee!
Ben: The biggest problem I have had is that I receive practically no follow-through from the university. Initially, when Brandeis asked that I stop operating, they also stressed their desire to help the Cafe Undergrounds initiative to become sanctioned by Brandeis. They asked I stop the cafe at the time, but they also wanted to see it continue as a Brandeis-approved venture.
At first this was extremely exciting. With a ‘Brandeis-approved’ status, I would be able to market to a larger audience and perhaps even receive assistance from the university. The move would be mutually beneficial granting me a stamp of ‘officiality’ and would be a great selling point for the university. Having a ‘Brandeis Cafe Undergrounds’ would allow them to show their commitment to student enterprise and would even be something exciting to show off to incoming students.
However, Brandeis has vetoed practically all attempts I have brought to the table for becoming sanctioned. I offered that Cafe Undergrounds become a fundraiser, that I form a club, that I pursue obtaining insurance, that all of the proceeds go to a fundraiser. However, all the administrators I met with shot down these ideas. What is perhaps most frustrating is how they will not respond to emails unless I re-send them. I took action to bring my ideas to life, but the university did not live up to their expectations. Equally as irritating is that after in-person meetings, the administrators always respond with the same, “I’ll get back to you” phrase, which has hardly happened.
Sabrina: All in all, it is seems clear that Brandeis does not value their promise to help student initiative. In fact, their actions show that they are opposed to it. Why do you feel they are targeting Cafe Undergrounds with so much push back?
Ben: I don’t know. It is clear Brandeis is in support of organizations that explore spirituality. The administration gives support to Jewish prayer groups and gatherings on campus. This is great and needs to be applauded. However, I wish that Brandeis would be more supportive of other religious groups on campus.
Sabrina: So we know the administrator aspect of the entire situation with Cafe Undergrounds, how has the student body reacted to it? Personally, I love the coffee that you make and always have prayers to put in the prayer box. It is always great to have a group on campus that prays for others. It is extremely heartwarming, and I am extremely thankful.
Ben: Thank you, Sabrina! Your support is so appreciated. I am extremely fortunate that Cafe Undergrounds has so much support from my fellow classmates.
When the news about shutting down Cafe Undergrounds initially came out, I called to my friends and fans of Cafe Undergrounds to support me through this time to sign a petition to demonstrate the support of the student body with Cafe Undergrounds. Within less than 24 hours of notifying students of the petition, over 100 students came from around campus to sign this document that said “they supported Cafe Undergrounds and wanted to see it grow.” This really shows both the student support of Cafe Undergrounds and the power of the student body. If there’s something that the students are passionate about, they act on it and will undeniably support the cause until actions are resolved.
Sabrina: The theme of social justice is something that the university pushes so heavily on the student population. To fight for what you believe in and keep fighting until some change has been enacted.
Student initiatives are at the heart of the university, created and executed by people that make up the university. And they deserve the backing and support of both the university and the student body to help their initiatives take off.