Naropa University Envisions Community Cafe

Naropa University may be the first higher education institution to join a global movement that is transforming how people eat around the world.  Over the last ten years, over 60 pay-what-you-can community cafes have opened in the One World Everybody Eats network in the United States alone.  This alternative model addresses concerns of food service labor, environment, hunger and community.  While partnerships with universities provide many cafes with a key source of volunteers, no university has created its own cafe.      

On Sunday, January 24, 2016, a group of 13 Naropa community members gathered for a workshop facilitated by community cafe experts from the nonprofit Unity Tables.  Participants included students, staff, representatives from the Office of Facilities and Sustainability and community members.  Many students were from Naropa’s undergraduate and graduate environmental studies programs and one Buddhist divinity student.  The group celebrated ways that Naropa’s campus cafe already embodies the university’s core values of Sustainability, Contemplation and Diversity and envisioned ways that it could do so more fully.  

Unity Tables was invited by Naropa’s Sustainability Council, which recently took interest in the campus cafe after the cafe changed management to the nonprofit Bridge House.  While the group is pleased with the quality of food and service at the recently reopened cafe and they are inspired by Bridge House’s social mission, they hope this new beginning can also provide an opportunity to explore aspirations such as partnering with local farms, meeting various dietary needs, composting, a pay-what-you-can cost structure, and student participation.  

Unity Tables and Naropa University share common roots in the Buddhist tradition.  Unity Tables was created by Ari Pliskin, a Minister ordained by Roshi Bernie Glassman in the Zen Peacemaker Order.  Bernie’s Japanese teacher Taizan Maezumi Roshi was friends with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Naropa University.  After living on the streets for a few days for a retreat in his spiritual community, Ari and his colleagues started promoting community cafes as an alternative to the indignity they discovered in soup kitchens.  He soon learned that the way we eat is deeply connected to a variety of issues.  One of the starkest examples of the relationship between our food system and ecological concerns is the estimate that up to a third of carbon emissions can be attributed to how our food is produced, transported, prepared, consumed and discarded.  

True to the engaged Buddhist tradition of blending inner work with social transformation, the workshop at Naropa started reflectively with guided meditation and a council circle.  Ari and his colleague Alex Gilman shared the three peacemaker tenets of not-knowing, bearing witness and loving actions, as well as the seven core values of the One World Community Cafe model.  Small groups developed visions for pay-what-you-can and volunteer possibilities, community engagement, food sourcing and waste management.  The meeting ended with the group eagerly setting an agenda for its next meeting, with group members brainstorming and committing to concrete next actions.   

The group started to explore what it could look like to partner with Bridge House to create a business plan over the next year to make their dreams a reality.  Some students committed to talk to faculty about opportunities for research and service learning.  The Cafe Committee of the Sustainability Council will meet soon to continue this work.

Unity Tables hopes that more universities will join the Community Cafe movement. Many universities are already engaged in service learning and deeply committed to social justice issues. Opening a Community Cafe on campus gives universities an opportunity to integrate their principles and values with the way they operate on a day-to-day basis. Giving students a chance to learn how to plan and execute a social enterprise project is an invaluable lesson for bringing education into making an impact on the world.