Community Post

Cortona Cafe goes nonprofit, focuses on youth, job training and, yes, coffee

In late 2009 Will Little and Brian Wells — who also owns Tougo Coffee opened Cortona Cafe at the corner of 25th Avenue and E Union Street here in the Central District. The little cafe has succeeded where others might not have even tried with a community focus that has always pushed beyond coffee and waffles. A little more than a year since its opening, Cortona is placing even more emphasis on community. As it begins 2011, Cortona is transitioning to a nonprofit focusing on building community, reaching out to youth and young adults, providing job training, and more. It will also have a new leader. But, no worries. It will also continue to bring you delicious coffee, gourmet waffles, microbrews and wines, and free wi-fi. More on the changes, below.


Will Little, Brian Wells, and Foxy and Jason Davison (left to right, Image: Will Foster, Courtesy of Cortona Cafe)


Here is Cortona’s stated mission on its Web site:“The Central District is a diverse community. Our goal at Cortona is to provide not only good coffee, beer & wine, waffles, etc…, but also a platform and meeting space for people of different cultures to discuss, teach, listen, learn, and build friendships.”  The mezzanine space is available to reserve for community events, seminars, group meetings, and more — all free of charge.  So the changes aren’t completely out of the blue.

Besides owning Cortona Cafe prior to the transition to nonprofit, Little also volunteers as a pastor at Mars Hill Church’s downtown location, but says there is no relationship between the new project and his position at the church. Cortona is also a CDNews advertiser.

Jason Davison, who has known Little since they attended college together at UW, now serves as the Executive Director of Cortona Community, the new nonprofit organization running Cortona Cafe. Jason and his wife, Foxy, both feel passionate about education and expanding youth opportunities in the area. Jason used to teach history at Cleveland High School and Foxy taught 4th grade at T. T. Minor, but they left teaching to move to St. Louis for graduate school a few years ago.  When they returned to Seattle, the Davisons knew they wanted to settle in the Central District because of the deep connection they felt to this diverse community.  As parents to small children they also felt strongly about establishing family-focused groups and providing opportunities for residents of all ages and backgrounds to come together and learn from one another. 

There are a lot of issues affecting teens in the CD, like gentrification, said Jason.  “We want to work with youth that are caught, sort of lost in this phase of transition that the neighborhood is going through right now.” Little and the Davisons also see a lack of positive activities and job opportunities for young people in the Central District. These holes in youth services and outreach led them to want to develop a job training and placement program. With that in mind Cortona Cafe piloted this program last year by hiring two teens to work in the cafe. The teens learned barista and other food service skills and both completed the program and have moved on to other employment opportunities with solid training under their belts. 

This spring Cortona Community will be working with other local businesses to bring teens on to their staffs for vocational training and internships.  They are in the process of building their board of directors and are pulling together community organizers and business leaders for this grass roots organization.  

In the meantime, you won’t see too many outward changes at the cafe. Though they will be adding a couple of youth to their roster in the spring, the current employees will stay on board.  “They have a vibe with the clientele that is important and we don’t want that to change,” said Little.  The mood and setting of the space will remain as well, but prepare to see even more community events, particularly those geared toward teens and young adults.  Foxy said they are planning spoken word nights and expanding their rotating art collections to feature young artists.  

Current established family nights and group meetings held at Cortona will also remain and some will be added.  There are family game nights held on Thursdays, which may be moving to the fourth Friday of the month, and a Sickle Cell education and support group meets on the third Wednesday of every month.  Starting on January 17th Cortona will also be hosting web development classes every other Monday night.  The classes will be geared toward young people and run through December, though students will be able to join the class at any time through the year.  Check out their calendar of events for more information and updates, and stop into Cortona to show your support for their expanded direction. 

0 thoughts on “Cortona Cafe goes nonprofit, focuses on youth, job training and, yes, coffee

  1. That’s great news for Cortona! As a former job trainer in a similar program, I enthusiastically support this new venture!

  2. I’ve actually avoided Cortona ever since it opened because I don’t want any profits from me being donated to the church. The nonprofit route sounds really interesting, great to see someone working to support teens in the area. They really need places to hang out that aren’t as uncool-feeling as a traditional community center.

  3. I also avoid Cortona, as I don’t want my money going to a church that preaches hate. I am very suspicious of them recruiting teens in the ‘hood and brainwashing them in their church. It also seems odd for a “for profit” busines to convert to a “non profit” stauts. What is the point besides making it easier for parishoners to donate money for the recruiting drive?

  4. I also do not patronize Cortona because of Mars Hill, although they are right down the street from my house.

    If you are going to identify yourself with a controversial church you should therefore expect to alientate some customers. Like me.

  5. Great angle on the photo, you guys look larger than life! This is a super cool endeavor. It is good to know that things are working out after years of hoping and dreaming in St Louis. I look forward to hearing how this goes. Peace!

  6. It was made clear to me in the interview with Will that the nonprofit will not be affiliated with Mars Hill, but I do not know if the new director and his wife are members of that church or not. In speaking with all the interested parties it was clear to me that their passion for the community is genuine and their concern for youth lost in the transition of the neighborhood is also a reality. Religion did not come up in relation to their mission.

    It sounds like most of the functions they intend to hold are secular in nature – family game nights, web programming classes, support groups, art installations – and their mezzanine room is open to be used by any group regardless of background or religious beliefs.

    On a personal note: I understand all of your concerns and share some of them. Prior to writing for CDNews I spoke out on this website in opposition to AME getting the MLK school because I do not trust their work to not involve religious indoctrination and I disagree with state funding going to a religious organization to buy a building that is already owned by a public school district. But in this situation I am choosing to believe Cortona’s work is not going to involve religious outreach.

    And since I feel I should remain fairly neutral as the author of this post, I am going to try to stay out of this discussion now.

  7. Time will tell. I am suspicious by nature as well, but it seems wiser to be suspicious and engage as opposed to avoiding. Everyone is driven by an ideological foundation. Whatever theirs is, it is motivating them to do something about what they see is a problem. That takes courage regardless of who you are or what you believe. Giving someone the chance to demonstrate and/or articulate their true motives as opposed to judging and condemning based on assumption and stereotype seems like a more humane and enlightened way to go. The corollary to suspicion that avoids without confirming seems to be immobilizing cynicism. Your comment on brainwashing kids in the hood unfortunately demonstrates a pretty low view of these kids. I don’t live there, but it is hard for me to believe that there is anyplace where young people lack the potential to be discerning. If someone offers a hand up, when you are down, you take it… I would be very surprised if there are strings attached beyond an honest hearing of what drives the vision and mission of the organization. As for a church that preaches hate… I would avoid that as well and certainly wouldn’t want my money going toward that. There is no place for hate in a religion that advocates first and foremost love. Does Mars Hill actually preach hate?? That is confusing to me.

  8. “Does Mars Hill actually preach hate?? That is confusing to me.”

    Michael – you’ll need to decide that for yourself. Do some research into Mars Hill and see what you think.

  9. Over the past few months I have had the priviledge of getting to know Will and Jason personally and I have to say I have the utmost respect for them. They seems like really sincere and nice guys.

    That being said – Mars Hill really disturbs me. I am personal friends with one of the founders (again, great guy personally) but the idea that women are second class people disgusts me. And their belief that being gay is a lifestyle choice and a sin? Repugnant.

    It is hard to reconcile a view of “reconciling” new and old CD residents when one sees all the new gays moving to the CD as sinners that need fixing.

    I am torn on this one….

  10. I’d be torn too Ian.

    How does one be personal friends with a “great guy” whose personal beliefs are “Repugnant” to you?

    I couldn’t do that. How is that possible?

  11. Of course it is possible. I have friends with totally different political/religious/everything views than me. We are still friends. Someone has to help straighten them out :)

  12. I understand people having different views, but if you find someone’s views “repugnant” – that’s a pretty strong word that means a lot more than just a difference of opinion, right?

  13. You must be more tolerant and patient than me, Ian. I try to respect other peoples’ views but there’s a limit and I can’t take any more. Something for me to think about.

  14. I would like to see Liz have a second interview with Will and ask the direct questions about why he has made this choice for his coffee shop. Other questions that should be asked from a community perspective are:

    1.) Do you have your own tax exempt government tax identifier number (TIN)?

    2.) If yes, what is the name of the entity that obtained or will obtain the TIN?
    2a.) If not whose TIN will you be umbrellaed under?

    3.) Do you have any plan now or in the future to allow the Non-Profit Mars Hill to be involved in any way?

    4.) Were you encouraged to open this space when the downtown Mars Hill non-profit coffee shop like the ones in other parts of the city was put on hold?

    5.) Will you be taking donations from individuals or groups?

    6.) Do you have any, or plan to hire professionals that have created these services before?

    7.) If not what is your theology for helping these students and young people.

    This is just a few questions that come to mind when you have a coffee shop as a tax exempt organization.

    So many great comments and questions in this stream!

    Thanks for making me think.

  15. Wow, Johan, tough questions! Now you’re making me wish I was a full time investigative reporter. I guess we’ll see if the editor wants to take it further…?

    EDIT: (ie: the other Mars Hill coffee shops question – I didn’t know about that. But I am sure they have all the tax paperwork completed and filed appropriately – Cortona Community is the name of the nonprofit entity. And they are bringing people on to their board who have done successful youth outreach already).

  16. lol you must know my family….

    actually that is what makes the CD fun. All kinds of people…all kinds of views.

  17. Yup, I’ve got some unpleasant relatives too.

    But we choose our friends and we’re stuck with our relatives.

  18. Hi All,

    To clarify, Brian and I are no longer owners of the cafe. A new Washington state NonProfit Corporation (w/ its own federal TIN & bookkeeping) that Foxy & Jason have formed called “Cortona Community” has taken over. They are currently putting together their Board from the community, and I’ll only play a role (as a CD resident who lives close by) if they want me to. I really like Foxy & Jason personally and their vision to serve the community and promote diversity in the CD.

    The cafe has never been associated with, or given any money to, Mars Hill. And Foxy & Jason are not associated with the church (nor was/is Brian).

    Regarding my personal views, I have a huge heart for the Central District and the people here. I see a lot of needs and I want to help. As you get to know Foxy & Jason, you’ll see why I donated my share of the cafe to the community under their guidance. By trade, I am a web developer and I’m looking forward to doing what I can work alongside other web/mobile/IT professionals in the neighborhood as we help teach youth at the cafe starting Jan 17th. Also, I’m excited to work with the Union Street Business Group alongside Jason, Ian, Tom, Jim, Merle, Jean, Kevin, Derryl, Gail, Ezra, and the other people mentioned in all the articles recently, as we hopefully receive funding from a grant we submitted to OED last month to help vitalize the neighborhood on multiple fronts. But, even if that grant doesn’t come through, there are plenty of opportunities for us to work together to positively affect the community.

    Regarding my religious views – I like Jesus, but I’m not a fan of religion. Religious people position themselves morally superior to others, demonize those who break their made-up rules, look down on those who are different, spoil scientific/cultural/political discussions, and kill diversity & community. In fact, it was religious guys that killed Jesus. Instead, Jesus served, walked-with, loved, and was genuine friends with people of different worldviews than him, even his enemies. And, he demonstrated that love by going through betrayal/slander/torture (even though he was innocent) and laying down his life on a cross.

    Other talking points raised in this thread, and especially theology conversations, are best had over beer. For those interested, let’s meet at the Twilight Exit soon to continue the discussion – I know Foxy & Jason are willing. They are also hosting a community dinner at Cortona on Jan 30th (partnering with the Metro Seattle Sickle Cell Task Force and Clean Greens) that is open to all.

  19. Will –
    Thank you for the clarification and donation to the community. I applaud your efforts and openness. It sounds like Mars Hill will have nothing to do with Cortona. I am personally glad to hear that. I am excited about all that is happening in the Central District.

    Looking forward to 2011 in the neighborhood.