The Art of Creating a Special Place: The Ethnic Study Cowork Café and Bookstore
by Nicole Young-Martin
“Two Queer, Black women owning their own space is a form of protest,” says Marryshow. “Owning a for-profit business that is maintained by people who devote so much of their time and resources unpaid challenges authority…”
Celebrating one year since they first opened their doors, Stephany Marryshow and Simbrit Paskins continue channeling their love for the community through the hearth of The Ethnic Study Cowork Café and Bookstore (TES). Marryshow and Paskins have transformed their organizing and activism efforts into a brick-and-mortar space for marginalized people seeking a place to affirm their whole selves while being in the company of others like them.
Springfield’s The Ethnic Study Cowork Café and Bookstore is Marryshow and Paskins’ way of sustaining the momentum built through 413 Stay Woke, Stay Active. Beginning in June 2020, Marryshow and Paskins mobilized over 8,000 people via Facebook and led 15 protest marches in support of the national Black Lives Matter movement in various towns (both in-person and virtually) in the Pioneer Valley including Ludlow, Holyoke, Southampton, and Easthampton. The marches were also used as a forum to hold local police accountable across the region.
Though so generously giving of everything they had to the movement, Marryshow and Paskins each lost track of taking care of themselves. They poured so much effort into their activism, ensuring that others were safe, while forgetting to eat or sleep. “We can’t save Black lives while killing our own Black lives,” Paskins says. “Our physical and emotional wellness was not healthy during this time.” “We are so grateful for community care,” both commenting on the abundance of support they received from others involved in the movement. The term “community care,” adapted from the term "collective care" from disability justice and mutual aid spaces, refers to friends and family members offering help to make sure that basic needs are met during busy and trying times. People prepared and dropped off food for them and even made sure that their dog, Teddie (who you will see often at TES as he is the official mascot), was walked regularly as they led and spoke at rallies. Later that fall, Marryshow and Paskins funneled all of their energy into opening The Ethnic Study, transitioning their activist and organizing efforts into creating this nurturing environment for BIPOC folks.
The Ethnic Study hosted a soft opening in October of 2020 with BLART, a Black Art & Activism Exhibit and Fundraiser. The Café served its first craft beverage in March 2021 followed by the opening of the bookstore in May.
The Ethnic Study’s mission is to cultivate a collaborative working and learning environment that is inclusive and takes a radical approach to elevating the leadership skills, business opportunities, and voices of BIPOC in Western Massachusetts. The venue is available for rentals, specifically community events that align with antiracist practices and seek to uplift those of marginalized communities. Memberships are available for $25.99 a month.
Marryshow and Paskins, both Black, Queer, Trinidadian, Christian womxn, met over on Facebook. Marryshow, 30, reached out to Paskins, 28, after being inspired by a message she shared during a Facebook Live video. Marryshow “shot her shot” and private messaged Paskins. Their first date was over ice cream, despite both being lactose intolerant, however their romance blossomed and quickly evolved to include a business partnership. They have a lot in common including their love for working with youth and people with disabilities. Marryshow and Paskins each have their own unique stories.
A graduate of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts High School, Marryshow is a guitarist and vocalist who taught music for Longmeadow Montessori School and worked for Enchanted Circle Theatre. She’s also worked as a nanny for three young children and as a caregiver through ServiceNet. Marryshow also has a little sister named Stephanie who has been in her care. An educator, Paskins currently serves as a learning coach for Discover High School in Springfield. She has taught for the Ethnic Studies and ELA (what is that) program at Holyoke High School. It was their shared affinities and experience working in youth development, community organizing, and advocating for those with disabilities that brought them closer together.
The name “The Ethnic Study” honors Paskins’s time as a student at Westfield State University. Before meeting Ethnic and Gender Studies professor, Margot Hennessy, Paskins was almost out the door. Paskins had a hard time fitting in on the predominately white campus. Dr. Hennessy invited Paskins to sit in on one of her courses. After learning about prominent Black figures and pioneers, those omitted from the textbooks and curricula of her youth, from Dr. Hennessy’s lectures, Paskins found where she belonged. “Dr. Hennessy is who introduced me to Audre Lorde,” says Paskins. “I changed my major immediately and found what I should be doing.” She credits Dr. Hennessy for affirming her intersecting identities and for confirming the importance of studying about the cultures and histories of marginalized people who tend to be rendered absent and unworthy. Paskins graduated from Westfield State University in 2015 with a double major in Ethnic and Gender Studies and Spanish.
“We wanted to create a place where you’ll hear soca music (Trinidadian popular music infused with Afro-Caribbean influences and traditional calypso), see Black art on the walls, be fed and also loved for who you are,” Paskins describing the experience those visiting The Ethnic Study will find upon each visit.
Paskins and Marryshow want The Ethnic Study to remain a place where those who have been purposely marginalized can feel “certain and safe” as many places in Western Massachusetts make people of color “uncertain and unsafe,” as she offers when describing why The Ethnic Study is Black- centric.
“You can even find a drink on the menu called Black Girl Magic Lemonade,” Marryshow asserts. A house-made recipe, Black Girls Magic Lemonade is among one of The Ethnic Study’s social media followers’ favorites as multiple photos of customers holding the drink appear when scrolling through Instagram. One would also find revolving exhibitions on TES’s walls by local Black visual artists like Sheldon Smith and Erika Slocumb. “It’s so cool when I tell young people that the person who made that piece of art lives right down the street,” says Marryshow.
While it’s important for The Ethnic Study to be a welcoming place, it is imperative that white people visiting the space respect its purpose and the community it intentionally and unapologetically serves.
“We want to give voice to the underdog, to those who are underdogs like me,” says Marryshow. Given the nature and intention of the space, “white people must be ready, especially as allies and accomplices, to actively connect, learn, and support the work” says Paskins. “We get very few spaces that are truly ours,” Paskins continues, which is why the term “Ethnic Study” is situated so prominently in its name.
They want every person who enters TES to leave with learning something new, hence the rationale behind the bookstore.
As first-time business owners starting with just a space (acquiring the former Fat Cat nightclub), Marryshow and Paskins received an abundance of help from friends and people they met along the way over the past few years. “Every time I enter the space, I know whose hands painted the floors, rewired the electricity and fixed the plumbing,” Paskins humbly commenting on a core group of volunteers who graciously contributed their time and money to the renovation. They rely on their volunteers who assist with daily operations including facility maintenance, daily operations, and events management for no pay as they themselves have not been able to pay themselves. Over time, they hope to earn wages, pay others equitably for their time, and offer complimentary memberships to their volunteers.
Marryshow and Paskins also received support from other local small business owners. For example, Springfield-based Monsoon Roastery mentored Stephany through finessing her skills as a barista, and now TES proudly serves Monsoon Roastery coffee in their café.
“Two Queer, Black women owning their own space is a form of protest,” says Marryshow. “Owning a for-profit business that is maintained by people who devote so much of their time and resources unpaid challenges authority
as well,” she continues. Marryshow and Paskins remain grateful for everyone who has helped them manifest their dreams and continue the work of 413 Stay Work, Stay Active in the form of creating this beautiful community space called TES.