Brandon Cosby isn’t interested in what is — he only sees what should and can be. He is the Executive Director of Flanner House in Indianapolis, an organization originally designed by Booker T. Washington to lift Blacks in Indianapolis from slum conditions. Flanner House has a variety of programs that support families in the area but also runs the largest urban farm in the city. After the last grocer in the community folded, residents began organizing for a new one. When they asked for healthy foods and fresh produce in a community meeting they were told, “beggars can’t be choosers.” Cosby immediately threw the man out of the meeting and declared that they’d build the store themselves. It just opened last month.
Cosby has a track record of doing the impossible. Once upon a time he was tapped to resurrect the worst and most violent high school in Indianapolis. In 180 school days, the students there were engaged in 256 fights. After Cosby took over, with 70% of the original students still in place, they had just 5 fights in 4 years. That school became the only in the district with a waitlist to get in and the Indiana Bar Association recognized Cosby as Educator of the Year. When he took over Flanner House the organization was in shambles and $500,000 in debt. It was so bad that he asked the Board if he could start the very day he was hired — he thought it would only get worse if he left the office that afternoon. He did start that day and hasn’t looked back.
“You just sold basil for more than you can sell weed”
Cleo’s Bodega Grocery and Cafe sits in the Riverside neighborhood area of Indianapolis. The cafe offers complimentary wifi to customers, an assortment of drinks and snacks. Before it opened, there was no place locals could actually sit down to eat or work in the entire neighborhood. The Bodega is a grocery with a small square footage but high density of products. The store carries all locally sourced produce, about half of which is grown on the Flanner House Farm. The farm is used to teach at-risk youngsters urban farming and how to negotiate contracts with local grocers and other destinations where the produce is sold. After seeing Mr. Cosby negotiate a sale of basil to a store, one teen was amazed that the price was better than that of weed, without the risk of jail time.
Cosby had to raise over $1 million to open the store. Not an easy task. Even with funding, however, he delayed the buildout an entire year to make sure it was right. Flanner House partnered with a Black owned development company to do the buildout when the time came. He said the he wanted it to be of such high quality that people from more affluent neighborhoods would walk in and ask, “Why don’t we have this in our neighborhood?” Still, the most expensive item currently sold there is $6. People from the community also have the option of leaving a little behind when they shop, just so those in need can also be serviced with dignity, even if they happen to be low on funds.
We can do the impossible and supply our own needs. But we have to, according to Cosby, stop measuring our progress and success by what we see in other neighborhoods. What works in some communities may not work in ours, today. Cosby believes we should, instead, focus on the things we need and want, then figure out how to marry those things. Cleo’s Bodega Grocery and Cafe is an example of just that.