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Gottlieb: Freedom Café: Durham’s hidden, humanitarian gem

The Durham 500

By Greg Gottlieb

Perhaps you’ve strolled by the small easel placed on a sidewalk outside a residential-looking building just a few yards up the street from Mill Road Plaza: the modest roadside advertisement reads “Freedom Café.” Is it someone serving coffee and tea out of their living room? Is this part of some exclusive student organization? Is it affiliated with the university in some way? For a couple semesters (since its opening in Fall 2013), I had wondered these things each time I had passed by that small sidewalk billboard. This place was sort of a mystery to me and unfortunately, I’d only heard of it referred to as “that place up the street from the DUMP with the sign out front.”

The mystery was solved for me thanks to a friend, Lauren, who had found her way into a marketing internship with the small Durham business. A tune-up in marketing to the student body could certainly be beneficial; I had never seen fliers posted around campus nor had I heard it the topic of conversation around Durham. Lauren convinced me to come in for a drink and she ensured me that a coffee or tea experience at the Freedom Café is “donation-based.” In keeping with any broke college student’s spending habits, I was quick to accept that offer.

While enjoying my donation-based, organic, fair trade hot tea (just in time for autumn’s first chill), I had the chance to sit down with Bryan Bessette, who explained a little more about his operation and its cause.

The Freedom Café, which has a sister operation at UMass Amherst, has set out to help end human trafficking, which is considered one of the fastest-growing activities of transnational criminal organizations.

“We don’t want to cheat our competitors just because we have a great cause,” Bessette said. “We want to respect the other businesses in town while still working toward our fundraising goal.”

The café, the space for which is entirely donated by the apartment building it is located in, gives off a comforting, serene vibe with its low ceilings, comfy couches and welcoming mural-adorned exterior walls. The café even hosts open mic events, “Perform for Freedom” musical evenings and local artists’ work.

Amidst this tranquil environment, which is rather unfamiliar to such a lively college campus, I found it hard to believe that all but one dollar, which helps cover the operating costs of the café, would be benefitting the fight against such a cruel, inhumane defilement of human rights. How could I be benefitting something so noble in the name of humanitarianism by taking a coffee or tea break from my busy week and for only a few bucks? It was an inexplicably wonderful feeling and certainly mutually beneficial.

It’s heartwarming to know that the operation has been graced with enormous amounts of favor on the part of its benefactors. A carpet cleaning company offered Bessette free services every six months; numerous members of the UNH and greater Durham communities volunteer their spare time as Baristas or “Freedom Workers.”

Maybe it’s the hasty routine of a typical college student that kept me from looking more intently into what this mysterious café actually was. I figured that, one day, thanks to the tactful marketing strategies often used by hospitality operations on college campuses, the answers to these questions would simply come to me by way of a Facebook invite or word-of-mouth. As it turns out, I was right and I couldn’t be happier that they did.

But now it’s your turn: Log on to to learn more or make some time to drop in for a coffee or tea, all in the name of a wonderful humanitarian mission.

Greg Gottlieb is a senior hospitality management major who comments on noteworthy topics in the UNH and Durham communities. Follow Greg on Twitter @gottliebgregory

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