Vancouver's Rhizome Cafe: An activist living room

What do you do in cafes? Catch-up with old friends? Finish your homework?

Form radical activist movements?

Community organizing doesn't have to take place in cramped office spaces or basement pubs. In fact, if we really want to reclaim public space as a spot in which to congregate and form movements, it's imperative to form inclusive community spaces. And catching up with old friends doesn't have to exist solitary from social justice events. We can be social as we organize. There is beauty in that.

This is the sort of space the Rhizome Cafe is fostering.

I spoke with Lisa Moore, co-founder of the Rhizome, located 317 E. Broadway near Kingsway. It's a spot in Vancouver where art, activism and social organizing all meet. 

Lisa explained how the space was founded by her and partner Vinetta in 2006 after they moved to Vancouver and recognized a noticeable gap between the various groups in the activist scene there. The space was formed with the goal of providing an "activist living room" for progressives to come in and cultivate the intersecting of issues as well as form relationships and trust.

Lisa pointed out that the Rhizome was always going to be a community space before a restaurant. Vinetta had past experience working in a family restaurant and the Rhizome needed a way to sustain itself. Its mission was (and is) to operate as a place to support organizing and social justice work, provide a meeting space for activists and to host a multitude of related events. 

A critical component of the space lies in its acts of solidarity with all community members. Its pay-as-you-can lentil soup is an "act of community not charity," says Lisa. She went on to explain how the space is both formal and informal, so that folks can drop by without necessarily having a reason at first, only to have that curiosity bloom into active participation in local activism. 

"It's important to get to know each other on a human level..and know who is beside us when enraged," she said. 

And what better way to connect community members than through the blending of art and social justice work. The Rhizome has played host to everything from indigenous hip-hop shows, to queer-oriented board game nights, to fundraisers, and community forums. The fact social justice takes different forms is etched into the space and "different modes of expression are woven throughout." 

Recognizing the beauty in everyone's unique skills that they bring into organizing and appreciating the variance in a safe, inclusive, non-oppressive space is effective in heightening the scope of both community and activism in our cities. 

The reality that 150 community members came out to support the Rhizome, when they had started a method of financial support, "friends of the rhizome," due to the increasing cost of operation, is an example of how public space is the responsibility of everyone. 

While being underground may be important in a time of severe state repression, re-claiming public space as a place for the people to meet and form the type of neighbourhood, lacking in corporate-infused urban planning, is fundamental to a healthy activist community. 

Like the coffee shop meetings of radical organizers from my parents' generation, the Rhizome successfully aids in the formation of both cultural activism and human connection. 

If you're in Vancouver this week come out to the Rhizome's Anniversary Events. There a Day of the Dead Celebration tonight, Nov. 1, starting 6:00p.m. And there's a Party and Community Supper, Nov 3 at 6:30p.m. For more information, visit their website. Have a social justice oriented cafe/space in your neighborhood you'd like to talk about? Email at tania[at]rabble[dot]ca

Tania Ehret recently joined rabble as a contributing editor. She's been involved in all sorts of fun organizing around Vancouver, from participation in the anti-war movement to opposition to the Enbridge Pipeline. She finished Langara College in Peace and Conflict Studies and has had reports published in Socialist Worker. She believes deeply in melding the worlds of social justice and multimedia/arts, making activism accessible to as many people as possible.

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