Q&A: Roseland schoolteacher aims to revitalize her neighborhood one book at a time

Iesha Malone (second to left) stands with seventh-grade students at her book club at Chicane Collegiate Middle School in Roseland. (Photo Courtesy of Iesha Malone/Rose Café)

By Elisa Xu
Medill Reports

Iesha Malone, a teacher at Chicane Collegiate Middle School in Roseland, decided to open her bookstore Rose Café to help fill the book desert in Roseland — the Far South Side neighborhood where she was born and raised.

She operates as an online bookseller, also hosting pop-up events in the neighborhood and passing out books on the street. Rose Café, opened in June 2020, doesn’t have a physical store yet, but Malone said she is in the process of seeking rezoning from the city for a piece of property for a future brick-and-mortar shop in Roseland. Since she said she feels the neighborhood lacks resources to support the majority Black population, she wants people in Roseland to have access to stories about Black success. Her goal is to help create more spaces and businesses for the community, by the community.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is Rose Café’s origin story?

In 2020, George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the police (in Minneapolis), and it sparked a revolution nationwide. But more personally, it damaged my neighborhood, because my neighborhood responded with looting. When I asked, “Why are y’all doing this to the neighborhood that we need to get things from?” Everybody kept telling me, “It’s because none of this is ours.” I started thinking, “You know what, you’re right.” Not in a “you’re right, let me help you loot” way. But in a more solution-oriented mindset.

So, I’m like, “Maybe we should put (more) out here that is ours. Maybe that could possibly help us appreciate this community.” And it was during COVID, the schools were closed. Me and my son kept going to Printer’s Row to read or buy books. But you know, we live on the Far South Side in the Roseland community. I thought, why don’t we have a bookstore over here? So, I’m like, “I’m going to start a bookstore.”

I posted on Facebook, and then I got a call from Rebecca Silverman, who is now my co-founder. And she’s like, “So you’re starting a business, what are you doing?” I told her about it, and she got immediately excited about it. And I come to find out, her dad’s a lawyer. The next week, I had a LLC.

And what role has reading had in your life?

When I read, I get to become different characters. When I was reading as a child, I could always escape my life and become whoever I wanted to be. And I needed that growing up, because I’m from Roseland. It lacks so many resources. The school systems are horrible. Violence is everywhere. Drug addiction, prostitution, everything. It was named one of the worst communities on the South Side of Chicago. I never lived there, even though I lived there, if that makes sense. I was always somebody else, I was always somewhere else.

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I read “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Those are the stories that I needed to read so I could remain hopeful in our culture. I needed to do that, because other than that, I was always a decision away from being another statistic.

That’s really powerful. Is that what inspired you decided to start a bookstore in particular?

Yeah, because I feel like the community doesn’t know much outside of these four corners. They’re not reading stories about the Black struggle or Black success. When you’re trapped inside your house, with your mom who’s barely there, or your drug-dealing brother, or your abusive father, you can start thinking that’s it to life. And that’s never it to life.

But if we started reading, and we are drenched in literature that is inspiring and representational, we possibly start thinking more of ourselves, and we can possibly start communicating better.

On your Facebook page, it says you’re committed to bringing coffee, books and community back to the 60628 ZIP code. What does that mean to you?

You know, coffee and books pair well together. But if we have a space in this community that is pairing books and coffee together, you get the community. Like me, I’m urban. I still wear Jordans. And I need the girls and the boys in this community to see a person who looks like them, doing things that are productive and positive. If you see me in the coffee shop reading Nat Turner’s book, and you see healthy dialogue between me and a brother, me and a sister, or me and an ally. And we’re doing it in a respectful way, you get to see other ways to communicate. Now, we get the community!

How has the Roseland community responded to this bookstore?

I had no idea that there would be so much support. For Juneteenth, we had a march in the community. And when we were coming up the street, we were deep in numbers. All the elders were out there crying. They hadn’t seen this type of positivity and in a multitude of numbers. No one speaks up for Roseland. So, the community’s like, “OK, finally we got somebody that’s like trying to do transformational change over here.” And it’s with books, so they love it even more.

We’ve hosted things right in the 60628. It’s very intentional that we do it all here. This park called Palmer Park, there was a boy who got killed at the park about four years ago. So now nobody wants to go to that park. And understandable, I get it. But we cannot continue to live in the past. So, we hosted six events at Palmer Park where no one got killed, where everyone was a community. So, the community is loving it. They are buying books. And even me, I didn’t know that they were going to buy books the way they are. They’ve got to be responding now that they got access.

Since you started the bookstore, have you noticed a change?

We’ve given out 8,000, almost 9,000 books to this community. I tell everybody, “OK, so you’re not a reader yet, because it’s a growth mindset. My question is, do you want to become a reader?” These authentic conversations that I’m having with people, that’s the change, right there.

Having access to books, statistically, can increase your IQ. And when I say access, that means you got a book in the kitchen, in the living room. That type of stuff needs to be in every home. And it’s got to be a book that you might eventually finish. It could take months to finish a book. But if you read a little bit every day, I’m doing my job. And you can’t say you don’t have the books now because I’m passing them out in the middle of the street.

Have you had a strong response from your students as well?

I got a student who’s about to start a shoe cleaning business. And it’s because CBS came up here, and Block Club Chicago came the next day to take pictures. And when we had the dialogue about (the bookstore), my student was like, “Man, I’m gonna start me a business.” I’m like, “What do you like?” “Shoes.” “OK, I got a pair of Jordans, can you clean them?” And he started cleaning my shoes. He supposed to bring them on Monday, so I’m going to pay him. Everybody already entrepreneurs, but you got to make a way for yourself. And that’s the type of conversation we’re having.

My school allowed me to set up my bookstore in my classroom. So, when my students come in, they see all these books that look just like them. And they love these books.

Do you have specific authors or books that you’re trying to highlight in your store or at the school?

We are trying to make sure we highlight minorities and local (authors). So, anybody from Chicago that’s a minority, that’s a woman, brown or tan. Anything about racism and anti-racism. Anything that’s going to help the unity of Chicago. Because we’re one of the most segregated places in the world. But that’s because we’re not tapping into each other’s story.

How did you choose the name Rose Café?

Oh, that’s my favorite question. I’m a big Tupac Shakur fan, and he brought up one of my favorite books, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.” It’s just a symbolization of how you can go through like things that are very hard — figuratively concrete — but you still can come out beautiful. The rose is me, because I didn’t have the ideal upbringing, but I still came out swinging and successful. And now I have that vision for Roseland community. We are the roses. We are the rose that grew from concrete. And we’re like, OK, Rose Café. And Roseland. It just came together like that.


Elisa Xu is in the Magazine specialization at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElisaXu7