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Mentors and youth forge strong ties, but struggle to bridge racial divide

Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When you see Naje Taylor behind the counter of The Monkey & the Elephant cafe, his face shows no signs of past scars.

But they’re there.

Taylor, who grew up in neighborhoods across South and North Philadelphia, was put into a foster home about a decade ago and has shouldered his way through adolescence with a weary air of indefatigable hope.

"I really honestly didn’t know why I was in foster care when I went in," he said. "Only thing I was worried about was getting home."

Taylor, now 20, has never known his father, who he believes lives somewhere in the city. He was separated from his two siblings and sent into foster care at age 11 when his mother could no longer handle the pressures of parenthood.

"She kind of exploded mentally, and it kind of took a turn for the worse," he said, choking back tears. "One thing that I was scared of was her not knowing me anymore."

Taylor lived with his mother again for a few years in his late teens, but the relationship has been complex, and often tortured. He admires her greatly for her strengths and proudly wears her name tattooed on his forearm.

But the sting of her abandonment still lingers, and he struggles to imagine a future where the past ceases to haunt him.

"I’ve had some very, very terrible moments," he said. "But I just try to stay positive, always tell her I love her, send her pictures, try to see her when I can."

Despite his rocky upbringing, Taylor managed to graduate high school, and since then he’s been working a mix of jobs and living in a transitional shelter in Kensington.

One of those has been as a barista at The Monkey & the Elephant in Brewerytown. There, the scent of roasted mocha rises thick in the air, the hubbub of warm conversation bounces off the exposed brick, and the whir of the bean grinder intermittently drowns out the indie rock.

But it’s far from your typical coffee shop.

"No, not at all. The goal is to give youth who have been in the foster care system an opportunity to break the cycle of system involvement, whether that’s reliance on public assistance or having their kids end up in the foster care system themselves," said Lisa Miccolis, who founded the shop.

Miccolis runs the operation with two managers who have years of coffee experience. The rest of the employees are former foster youth — most have been African American young men, like Taylor.

Through an eight-month program, mentees get help with life skills like opening a bank account, finding stable housing, learning how to budget, and connecting with counseling services if interested.

"So we’re really looking at the whole individual, figuring out what their needs are and figuring out how we can address them using the coffee shop as the vehicle to do all of that," she said.

Miccolis, 31, a white woman raised in the suburbs, is upfront that she comes from a very different world than her mentees.

"I think every day I attempt to figure out how, as a young white female, I can connect with a bunch of young black men," she said.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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