Zenat Begum’s Playground Coffee Shop Is All About Community
The Brooklyn-based entrepreneur & organizer talks about feeding NYC and the WMNS Air Jordan III “Laser Orange.”
Words: Elle Clay
Photography: Ant Blue, Jr.
Background Mural: Electro Magnetic Studios
All of Zenat Begum’s efforts begin and end with community. In 2016, the first-generation Bengali-American opened Playground Coffee Shop, in the former location of her father’s hardware store in Bed-Stuy. From the beginning, Playground has been a breath of fresh air amongst gentrified businesses that have rapidly emerged in the neighborhood. As a Brooklyn native, Zenat has championed her young staff and neighbors by listening and adapting.
Creatives of all types, including the freelance workforce, are welcome to work at and with Playground, as they’ve expanded to Playground Annex (a bookstore and shop), Playground Radio and Playground Youth (a nonprofit). Through the nonprofit, Zenat and her team have further leaned in to serve the community by hosting chess classes, financial literacy workshops, community dinners and more.
In some ways, entrepreneurship can be compared to endurance sports. Like most small businesses, Playground has experienced setbacks and has also been hit hard by the pandemic. With the future of the shop hanging in the balance, Zenat turned to her community. Volunteers and neighbors stepped up, offering their time and resources.
Most recently, Zenat and her peers have joined forces to set up refrigerators with free produce throughout the borough. Even amidst a global health crisis and social unrest, Zenat has been unwavering in her mission to serve her community.
Timed to the release of the Air Jordan III “Laser Orange,” a shoe designed with strong women and celebrations in mind, we asked Zenat to give us a glimpse into her life as a small business owner and food justice advocate.
How did growing up in your father’s hardware store impact your work ethic?
Well, I’ll start from the beginning. My dad’s been a contractor, a construction worker. He’s built houses before and has a lot of skills. He’s been able to use them to get family members hired and bring them into the American workforce.
Sometimes, the dream that’s perpetuated on us in this country is that we get all the things we want if we work hard. My dad was very forward-thinking in manifesting the economic power that he never had before.
All of that inspired me to work hard, because I know that I’m not a person who does just one thing. In creating Playground, I wanted to pay homage to my dad and all of the opportunities he gave me as a child, just passing down the torch to me, including allowing me to be a part of a storefront. Now, I’m able to create space and give opportunities to other folks.
You mentioned “passing the torch.” What was it like transforming your dad’s hardware store location into a coffee shop?
At the time, I was enrolled in a liberal arts college, and I was studying at coffee shops, as many young people do. It’s a place that supports creativity. A lot of my best ideas have come while I was just sitting in a cafe, meeting people and shooting the shit.
I wanted to provide that experience for other people, too. We don’t have a lot of sober spaces, where people can hang out during the daytime and get some work done. That was my primary focus — a place for people to utilize during the day, so that they can make advances in their own careers.
In terms of the transformation you mentioned, it was really hard. Turning it into a place where people could get work done, instead of a place where people were getting supplies to build homes, was a challenge. My dad never gentrified his own business, if you get what I’m saying. It was always a mess, and there was always stuff all over the place.
Seeing the shop get neglected over the years made it easier for me to transform it. I saw a light on Bedford and Quincy that could be an open space. When we were constructing the coffee shop, I wanted it to be the complete opposite of a dark, gloomy hardware store with tight aisles. Now, we have so much light coming in. It’s a very airy, open space.
Did you consider any other type of business, or was it always going to be a coffee shop?
When I first promoted it as a space for youth to hang out and create in, it was a hard sell. The coffee shop aspect ties it all together, because food is something that’s so essential and universal. People have conversations around it. If we are able to activate a space like this, there also need to be other parts of it that are nourishing and replenishing for our community. That’s the energy that’s been transferred over to me, where I can then take my insight and build this.
You’re from Brooklyn, and basketball is woven into the fabric of New York City. Growing up, how did you connect to the game of basketball?
Honestly, just being in school. I always thought that women’s basketball in New York was way better than men’s. I think that, as we move into doing anti-racism work, there are a lot of powerful black, lesbian women who play the sport. I’ve had the great honor of learning how to play basketball from a lot of them. These women, who have been in my life for so long, play such a pivotal role, because they go against the grain. They show up as they are while playing a very masculine sport. They introduced me to sneakers, too.
I remember just being a kid in New York, seeing who had the best sneakers and noticing who was on the court wearing what. New York is all about basketball and ball-oriented games, even handball. It’s something I’ve never had to explain. I don’t even have a favorite team or anything. Seeing kids play basketball, particularly in public school, is a really inspiring way for kids to come up on sports.
What were your earliest memories of MJ and Air Jordans, in general?
My earliest memory is from my first day of school, in sixth grade, when I met this Bengali girl. She was the first Bengali peer I’d ever met in middle school. Her brothers were super big basketball fans. She’d always come to school wearing all these jerseys. I remember looking at her feet compared to the shoes I wore. One day, when I came to school, this girl was like, we’re going to help you. We went to Footlocker a month later, after I had saved up, and we got my first pair of Concords. It was my first pair of Jordans. I wore them out.
From then on, I just started collecting Jordans. My sisters and I would get every other drop, including the cards, scratching the numbers off the ones we had and keeping them in mint condition. It was always interesting to see how people would dress up their Jordans. I remember people using rubber bands to roll their pants up.
Today, you’re rocking the Air Jordan III “Laser Orange.” The Air Jordan III was the first time that we saw the Jumpman logo on a sneaker, and it also marked the debut of those now-famous commercials. What do you think about this fresh take on such an iconic sneaker?
I think it gives kids the freedom to dress it up. The possibilities are endless. Obviously, every time we see a new sneaker, it’s a part of culture over and over again. Every time there’s a new color, it’s like a new flag. It’s a new representation of the shoe.
Sometimes, the colorways that come out can inspire the colors we bring into our own lives, if that makes sense. They can help guide what you wear. Every time there’s a new shoe or a new color, it has the power to attract a different person or crowd. I think this colorway is going to reinstate a new love and appreciation for the shoe.
You’re used to working in a coffee shop, on your feet. You’re also the owner of the shop and thereby the face and spokesperson. How does your work inform your style?
I mean, I work in the food and beverage industry, which is still seen as blue collar. A lot of my workwear is essentially work gear. I wear things that can withstand activity and messes. When you go into a business, you can usually see the separation between the people who own it versus the people who work there. Maybe the owners look a little bit more done up, and the coworkers look like they’ve been through it. I like being able to implement this idea that we can all look the same.
Being able to dress up my sneakers at work can be hard, because I don’t really dress up at work. Obviously, wearing Jordans to work is a privilege, but I don’t ever want to mess my shoes up. At the drop of a hat, I’ve got to get into some messy stuff. Whatever I wear, I’m going to make it look good, but I might have a few stains on me here and there.
How has community outreach always been a cornerstone of your work?
Just to start Playground, I had to do community outreach. I reached out to people who are sign painters. I reached out to people who were making chairs. It took a village to make Playground, and it still does to maintain it.
When you think about community, you have to do it from the foundation up. Since Playground has been open, we’ve listened to our community, and we’ve had some shifts. We’ve held town hall meetings to ask our neighborhood and community members what they want to see. From there, we’ve activated our space and become a place where kids can play chess. We’ve had movie screenings, we’ve had drives, we’ve done bake sales, we’ve had self-defense training and we’ve taught financial literacy. We have radio shows. Everything we do raises the bar in how you can get your community involved.
We are young adults running this business, so there is a lot more of a trendy appeal to it. We are making community work look easy, but that’s because it should be easy. It shouldn’t be an afterthought. It’s so fundamentally ingrained into how Playground is run. We’ve always been a responsive organization, rather than a reactive one. It’s something that I will keep fighting for, because if there isn’t a synthesis between residents and business owners, then what is the point of having a business in a residential area? What are you adding to it? Are you going to make lives better?
Knowing you’ve always done community work in the shop, how have you pivoted out of the shop by setting up the free produce refrigerators during quarantine?
We started doing mutual aid work not long after quarantine started. It occurred to me that we needed to do something else. I was approached to do a community fridge by my friend, Priscilla Aguilar, who was a middle school peer of mine. She’s done a lot of food justice work with us in the past. They got the fridge and gave it to us the same day. We were immediately able to get produce from a friend of mine. Things fell into place so naturally. We’ve set up a total of five fridges. We’re doing our best, keeping them up to protocol and cleaning them. It’s something that doesn’t require anybody to come into the business to be involved in.
Having it right outside shows that it’s going to be protected by Playground. We’re going to make sure it’s maintained. Aside from that, take as much as you want. Take what you need. This is a free resource that has to be available. For as long as it’s in front of coffee shops like Playground or storefronts like Sincerely, Tommy or Beauty Strike, we’re going to keep this going. It’s the only thing we feel is right to serve our community at a time when we can’t really be around each other. It alleviates that stress of congregating around it.
What has been the response from the community since you set up the refrigerators?
A lot of it has been really, really positive. People are really stoked. Other people are confused, because they don’t know if it’s going to increase their chances of getting COVID. Obviously, we are in a huge public health crisis, and there is that fear, but we’re working really, really hard towards eliminating the possibility.
We’re heading in a direction that’s comfortable for us, and we’re trying to service as many fridges as possible within our own bounds. As an organization, you also have limitations with funding, how much you can do and how many volunteers you can get. It’s been fruitful, but I think that, even for my own sake, knowing that we also have limitations as a nonprofit can be a little disheartening and discouraging. At the same time, we are working with what we have, and I think that’s enough.
And the nonprofit you’re talking about is called Playground Youth?
Yes, Playground Youth, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that we founded in 2017. As a person who owns a business, but also has a nonprofit, obviously transparency is something that people are hyper-aware of. In conducting this operation through our nonprofit, there’s going to be a lot more operational steps. We, as an administration behind this nonprofit, have so much power to leverage in making sure this something that’s safe for everyone.
As a nonprofit, we’re also trying to expand our horizons. For the first time, we’re seeing organizations like Playground get the recognition we deserve for the things we’re doing. But it doesn’t stop there. I hope our nonprofit grows, and obviously, as we live through this pandemic, I hope that we can solve more problems for people. We have more projects on the way. It’s an honor to be able to create at a time when people really need it.
What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a small business owner, surviving through this social and health pandemic?
What I’ve learned is that if you don’t have community, you don’t have anything. I was in a really rough spot at the beginning of quarantine, and I’m naturally a person who freaks out early on, just because I know that I want to tackle something before it actually becomes a big problem. Something that I’ve been struggling with for the last four years of being a business owner is trying to tackle a lot. When it came to my attention that Playground couldn’t be a part of the future due to monetary costs, it broke me. In looking for government assistance, it’s something that didn’t actually happen for us. We applied to a lot of places, and we weren’t getting the proper funding that we needed to see another day.
When we started doing mutual aid, it made a lot of sense that places like Playground should exist. Our community started helping us. People who were getting stimulus checks and people who were on unemployment started helping us out. For the first time, I’m realizing that my own community is going to keep me afloat. I’m very inspired by the people in my orbit, because they’ve shown me that I’ve got to keep going, that the fight is not over and I’m not going to be alone.
I’m very appreciative of the people who’ve kept me sane during the last few months, because this is not easy work, especially during a pandemic and a global resistance movement. Playground is a place that has to be around forever, because we’re doing the work. We’re always going to continue to do it, no matter what. If the government is not going to help us, then we have a ton of other folks in our movement who are willing to make sure that we exist and that we are a living, breathing organization.
The WMNS Air Jordan III “Laser Orange” is available starting August 21 on SNKRS and at select retailers.