ORANGE, NJ — Orange Board of Education member Fatimah Turner, a licensed clinical social worker, has created a community center for residents of Orange and surrounding communities in her cafe on South Essex Avenue. Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Turner realized the community was lacking a space where all members of the community could come to network and receive support from area leaders and teachers. From this need, the Inner City Cafe was created.
“There wasn’t a working space for me,” Turner said of the early part of the pandemic, when she was working to complete her doctorate in family science and human development at Montclair State University, which she has since completed. “I used to work in Starbucks all the time, and, if they weren’t open, I just didn’t have a place to work. I was listening to members of my community and my friends, and I was listening to that voice inside myself, and I decided we needed a place where we could come together — a place where we could gather. We needed a place where we could study, where we could work, where we could network — a place where artists could go.
According to Turner, when the space for Inner City Cafe first became available, it was offered to her to be a boutique, but she knew she wanted to create not a boutique, but something that could benefit the entire community.
The cafe offers tutoring, GED classes, etiquette classes, college admissions support and counseling, as well as writing circles and an event space to showcase local artists. The cafe serves as a safe place for community members of all ages to learn new skills and meet new people. All the services are sponsored by community members in order to make them free or offered at an incredibly reduced price.
Recently, the cafe hosted an event with the township and school district officials, providing a casual place for residents to meet with leaders. Turner felt it was important to have a place to “gather for a conversation where everyone felt like they were on equal footing.”
For Turner, the cafe is about giving back; she is now offering to others the resources that were once offered to her.
“I’m a single mom, and, looking at the state of the community, I was able to see a need,” she said. “Once, someone looked at me and took a chance on me and offered me the opportunity to make something of myself. And look at how far I’ve come with my doctorate. I felt it was my job to do the same for others.
“I grew up in public housing myself, I’m divorced, and for people to look at me and say, ‘Look at her, she opened a cafe while she was finishing her Ph.D., while other places are closing. If she can do it, I can do it,’” she continued. “I feel it’s my job to give back and show the community what others showed me and I am my brother’s keeper. It is my responsibility to take care of all these kids in the community, all the elderly and marginalized, and let them know that someone is there for them.”
Turner believes that having this space available encourages neighbors to support one another.
“I meet a plethora of people, and I make it a point and priority to be heavily involved in my community and let people know what we have going on at the cafe, what we’re building here,” Turner said, adding that she draws on her experiences as a former vice principal and as a licensed clinical social worker to provide what is needed to the community. Similarly, her friends and others “offer their skill sets for financial literacy and interview skills, etiquette, etc. I believe the space and what we’re doing here really lends itself to people offering to help and contribute once they get to see what we have going on here.
“People want to help,” she continued. “It lends itself to people saying, ‘I’m going to do my remote work from here. I’m going to make myself available in case I can contribute in some way.’ And they do. The connections I’ve seen so far are the ones that let me know what I’m doing here is going to have long-lasting positive ripples throughout Orange for the long-term future and success of our community.”
For more information on volunteering opportunities or upcoming events, visit theinnercitycafe.com. Community members can also drop in and meet with Turner most days.
“You can always give away things, but the biggest gift is knowledge and support,” Turner said. ”That’s what I’m trying to teach — the power of know-how.”
Photos Courtesy of Fatimah Turner