The Freedom Cafe: A Pillar of Community Change


Photo from The Freedom Café.

Phoebe Mulry, Contributing Writer

The Freedom Café offers the perfect study spot for a peaceful environment and local treat. It also  becomes a hub for aspiring and accomplished creatives during its weekly open mic nights. But in addition to delicious coffee and a scene of talented students, Co-Founder and President Bryan Bessette created the café with a mission: to end human trafficking and the commercial exploitation of all people. 

In 2013, the Café opened its doors in Durham at 10 Mill Road, but nowadays you can find them at 37 Main Street. They made the move in May of 2021, and Bessette expressed that it’s been nothing but exciting changes.

“The old space was closed off and in a basement behind a dorm building,” Bessette said. “The local community didn’t know if it was open to them.”

The new storefront is centrally located in Durham’s downtown, and in the past year they’ve expanded their service from 20 patrons a day to between 60 and 90. The increase in business has allowed Bessette and the board to expand existing programs and develop new opportunities to share their mission.

“When we were at Mill Road, we weren’t sustainable on a day-to-day basis,” Bessette said when asked about the most significant adjustments.

The new space has allowed them to make in-house changes that impact all aspects of the café. The hope is to encourage students to spend meaningful time at the café outside of school or work. The food menu has also been expanded, so students hunting for their next ethically sourced breakfast sandwich, crepe, or baked goods will find many choices to satisfy their craving! 

The café is also run almost entirely on staff volunteers. The café has resumed their monthly volunteer team meeting, and Bessette says this is a big step for curating community in the wake of Covid.

“Volunteers seem like they’re having a good time,” Bessette said. “They know they’re here for a reason.”

The past year has allowed for more volunteer hands-on training and involvement. The involved application process ensures that applicants are passionate about the mission. Volunteers can look forward to increased advocacy training and helping to expand the educational aspects of advancing the café’s mission. Educational outreach is at the core of working towards the end of human trafficking. TEDx-style quarterly events, monthly trivia and coffee tastings with supply chain conversations are some of the future endeavors Bessette is excited to develop. 

Amidst the changes of expanded business and a new space, the heart of Freedom Café remains the same and is encompassed by the café’s open mic night. The café offers a weekly meeting place for creative and passionate people to come together and share joy in the face of a devastating problem. The energy is generative, inviting and collaborative, said Bessette and performers and attendees recognize the collective responsibility of fostering a safe and inspiring space.

Jake Gagne, Pat Fitzgibbons, and Kevin O’Brien of local band Sneaky Miles, found acceptance, creativity and each other at open mic. Since seeing one another perform solo at Freedom, they have gone on to play venues together all over New England. 

“The freedom cafe gives space for all types of musicians in different circles to come together and share their music,” Sneaky Miles said.  “You start to see regular performers, friends you didn’t know were musicians and people passionate about music. Everyone is so accepting and friendly that you’ll feel right at home even if it’s your first performance.”

The musicians of Sneaky Miles became intimately familiar with the Café during their time at the University of New Hampshire, and vouched for its ability to create community and do good.

“The owner, Bryan Bessette, and his family are very kind and welcoming…the freedom cafe and its volunteers make you feel at home. It’s reassuring to know that the money you spend there is going towards an incredibly important cause,” the band said. 

Every academic year brings a cycle of new performers–graduates leave and the incoming class is left to fill performance spots. Fourth year student David Milliken of local band, The Rock Dwellers gave advice for people who might be hesitant to get on the stage.

“To those who are nervous to perform, good! Feel it and play,” Milliken said. “Freedom is the best place to challenge yourself because it’s not the X-factor. You are playing with a safety net, people who support young artists and really want to see you win! So go out and play! What’s the worst that can happen? You make a band and have fun?”

But there’s no pressure to perform. Being an audience member is just as educational and energizing. Bessette takes time during sets to reinstate the mission and briefly educate attendees. 

“I want Freedom to be a place where people come together very differently,” Bessette said.  “It’s channeled to make one specific change.” 

Join Freedom Café in supporting an end to human trafficking–one performance and cup of coffee at a time. 

Photo from The Freedom Cafe.