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Michaela Bolotin ’16, one of the student organizers, serves coffee
at the Common Grounds Cafe.

Student-run café, new documentary renew Providence College’s presence on Smith Hill

Providence College increased its presence in the Smith Hill neighborhood this spring with the opening of the student-run Common Grounds Café at 233 Douglas Ave., located next to PC’s Smith Hill Annex, within a mile of campus.

On Sunday, May 4, the College’s ties to the community will be further strengthened when students, neighbors, and others gather for the premiere of Restoring Smith Hill, a documentary created by MBA student John Henry Smith ’13.

The annex and the café, located next to the offices of the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation (CDC) on Douglas Avenue, will be open from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. for the event, which is free and open to the public. The film will be shown under a tent. A shuttle bus will transport students from campus, and refreshments will be served.

The program coincides with the first public telecast of Smith’s documentary on Rhode Island Public Television at 6 p.m. Sunday. Smith, who studied social science and minored in film at PC, said it took him two years to complete the film, which features the work of the Smith Hill CDC in restoring two properties on Goddard Street.  

“I’m just really interested to see how people react to its premiere here and on PBS in their homes,” said Smith. “People who live in the community, it gives them a sense of pride —‘This is my neighborhood, where I live.’”

Café staffed by student workers

The café celebrated its formal opening on April 24. It is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Its dozen staff members include PC students and residents of the Smith Hill community, including those who attend other colleges.

The idea for the café began in 2012 when PC students traveled to Nicaragua for an Alternative Spring Break trip and learned about coffee production and fair trade. Returning to campus, they sought business advice from the newly formed PC Entrepreneurship Society. Meanwhile, PC’s Feinstein Institute for Public Service and the Smith Hill CDC were discussing an economic development incubator group that could bring investment to the community.

Last fall, when many of the student organizers left to study abroad, four sophomores took over the project: Amjad Talib ’16 (Hamden, Conn.), a management major; Michaela Bolotin ’16 (Whitinsville, Mass.), a global studies and art major; Kristina Campano ’16 (Clinton, Conn.), a health policy and management major; and Samantha Wagner ’16 (Coventry, R.I.), a marketing major.

The Feinstein Institute and the PC School of Business contributed the start-up funds, and the Smith Hill CDC offered rent-free space near the annex. But the project really got going last December, when the students agreed to hire a consultant, Thomas Zelano, to oversee the permitting process. He now is the café’s manager, scheduling workers, ordering products, and being there when the students can’t.

“A wonderful learning experience for students”

Talib said the students hope the café will serve as a model to bring small business back to the area and will pump money into the local economy. 

“It’s a wonderful learning experience for the students involved and for institutions in the area,” said Talib. “We were able to take classroom concepts and apply them to the real world. We’re thankful for a great education and being able to make use of it.”

The café sells fair-trade coffee from New Harvest Coffee Roasters, based in Pawtucket, R.I. Other Rhode Island-based suppliers are Granny Squib’s Iced Teas of Saunderstown; Bagel Express and Yacht Club sodas, of North Providence; and Farmacy Herbs of Providence.

Organizers now are trying to raise $50,000 through a GoFundMe online campaign. The goal is to eventually have retained earnings that can be reinvested in the community.

At the café’s opening, Dr. Keith W. Morton, professor of public and community service studies and associate director of the Feinstein Institute, talked about how many elements had to come together to make the café a reality.

“We really have a vision of the community that works for everybody in it, but especially for young people, that it’s a great place to grow up,” said Morton. “It provides an opportunity for people to meet and talk. Conversation is one of the most undervalued resources we have in our lives.”

Francis H. Smith, executive director of the Smith Hill CDC and John Henry Smith’s father, said that “every day, in the café, meetings are taking place between the community students, faculty, staff, and CDC staff, about what we can do to improve the area.” 

The Smith Hill CDC has renovated more than 160 properties in Smith Hill, a neighborhood of 6,000 people. Two-thirds are people of color, and 40 percent live below the poverty line. 

PC opened the Smith Hill Annex in November 2012 as an off-campus site where the College and the community could meet. It hosts pot-luck meals on the last Wednesday of every month. Student volunteers run game nights for neighborhood children with pizza and prizes. PC classes meet at the annex, and so do community groups.

“The café, like the annex, is a hub for people to come together, share their stories, and think about ways to make the community better,” said John Henry Smith. “That’s another reason why this is going to work. People like stuff like this that’s local and intimate and touches upon facets of what makes a great Rhode Island business."

— Vicki-Ann Downing


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