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Crowdfunding Your Coffee at Awaken Café

The popular Oakland shop gets creative in its fund-raising quest.

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When Awaken Café opened in Downtown Oakland in the spring of 2008, the consumer response was immediate and almost universally positive. Breathless Yelp reviews began proliferating even before the coffeehouse/cafe/performance-space/activist-hub officially opened. Once it did, the space seemed to be constantly buzzing with activity. Not surprisingly, when Awaken was evicted from its building and forced to close this fall, the outcry was similarly fervent.

So when owner Cortt Dunlap decided to reopen around the corner and was struggling to raise the money he needed, it was only natural that he capitalize on all that goodwill to finance the project. Inspired by web sites like IndyGoGo and Kickstarter, Dunlap conceived a series of creative "crowd-funding" stunts: He solicited online donations of all sizes, pre-sold $500 gift certificates at a reduced price as a sort of down-payment on future purchases, and has organized a fund-raising event for Sunday, January 23, at the World Assembly Multipurpose Center (410 14th St., 2nd Fl., Oakland) that will feature music and lectures. The idea is simple, Dunlap said: Places like Awaken, which offer high-quality food and coffee and adhere to strict environmental standards, are more expensive to operate and have shallower pockets than, say, Starbucks. If people want to be able to eat, drink, and socialize there, the logic goes, they might be willing to support it as they would a charity.

Although such efforts can't completely supplant traditional funding mechanisms like small business loans and private investment, they certainly supplement them. Moreover, they allow Dunlap and Awaken to stay rooted in the community even while the business is closed, and to make good on Awaken's mission to "bring people together and launch movements."

Saturday's fund-raising event, called "Creating Change, One Cup at a Time," will feature a slate of speakers and performers who will focus, in one way or another, on the impact individuals and organizations can make in the world. Dunlap conceived of it almost like a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, he said — a collection of "the best thinkers in activism and small business sustainability," all speaking in succession around a single theme. Poet and activist Julia Butterfly Hill will share poetry and artwork inspired by two years spent living in an old-growth redwood to prevent it from being cut down. Joel Makower, editor of GreenBiz.com, and Marcia Crosby, who runs the Burning Man festival's coffee shop, will participate in what Dunlap describes as Inside the Actor's Studio-style talks. Spoken-word artist Denise Jolly will read poetry, and author and performer Jeff Greenwald will share stories. Together, Dunlap said, the speakers will present an inspirational view of the state of small business and social change in Oakland and beyond. "This really is about how people can make change, in a lot of different ways." 5 p.m., $10-$90. IndieGoGo.com/AwakenEvent

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