Breakfast Club

W hat can you do with one little waffle iron and a whole lot of determination? Just ask Steven Cotton. One of the cofounders of a grassroots movement in the Hill called Building “It” Together, Cotton and his partners Thomas Richardson, Jason Dorsey and Reggie Bell have been in front of Lane’s Barbershop and Mel’s Market, on Congress Avenue, every Saturday since last May. Serving up a homemade breakfast, they’re bringing together the community in the hopes of building a stronger network of neighbors and a better shared future.

When they first decided to commit to the weekly breakfasts, Cotton and Richardson surveyed Hill residents to find out what was needed. They learned that people wanted a place where they could go “to find out where the resources are—all the resources in New Haven, and nobody knows where any of this stuff is,” Cotton says. And they wanted to learn about money.

The first step for Cotton was to educate himself. “African-American people and a lot of minorities and people who live in inner cities, including myself, [are] not groomed to think about generational wealth,” he says. “You’re living for today, you’re living for your next paycheck. You’re never instructed or taught from the ground up to think about how to build generational wealth. That’s not even… in our vocabulary.”

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Building “It” Together’s hope is that gathering the neighborhood around food will ultimately bring them together to learn about important topics like how to open a bank account, save money, build good credit, purchase stocks, even run a small business. The aim, Cotton says, is to “empower [people] to do more than just be everyday workers.” Breakfast is just “the vehicle to get that done.”

Inspired by a similar project in Newhallville in 2016, Building “It” Together draws support from a few local businesses that routinely donate syrup, cups and other small items. But most of the money comes out of the pockets of Cotton and his partners. Serving up waffles, scrambled eggs, sausages and bananas from a folding table on a recent balmy Saturday were Cotton’s sister and niece, as well as a colleague and his mother, whom he calls “the ambassador on Stevens Street,” where Cotton and his mother both live.

Also in attendance was Chip Anderson, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in the Hill on nearby Davenport Avenue. Every week he brings an insulated jug of hot chocolate, the church’s contribution. “The Hill belongs to the people,” Anderson says, “and over the years it’s slowly been taken away.” He points to neglect, unwanted development, the loss of factory jobs. “Steven and this group… this little block here, [are] just trying to take it back,” Anderson says.

There are good signs: A locally owned restaurant named Patty’s Caribbean Cuisine has just opened on the block. And resulting more directly from Building “It” Together, at least one Hill resident is building his credit and planning his financial future. “Everything we talk about, he’s been putting into action,” Cotton says. In addition to working full-time as a behavior specialist at Achievement First Amistad High School, Cotton has also started a small business of his own, partly in order to “show them how these things are possible. We don’t want to just tell them…”

Another step in Building “It” Together’s long-term plan is to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. And Cotton and his partners have big ideas for summer neighborhood events: movie nights, cookouts, a wheelie bike competition for the kids. Among their even bigger dreams is a building where people could gather to socialize and attend weekly meetings on financial literacy. “This is what we’re reaching for,” he says. “This is the big, grandioso dream in our head is that this breakfast, this little breakfast that we started, is going to turn into this financial literacy movement.”

The Hill, Cotton says, is ready. “Out of all neighborhoods in New Haven, I think the Hill section of New Haven has the most potential for change right now… There are dudes who are stuck in a rut right now, but if you showed them a way to get out, they’d take it gladly. They’re tired of doing the stuff that they’re doing. They want to change. Nobody’s giving them the opportunity or showing them how they can get out.”

This Saturday morning, all the food is served in about 10 minutes—quicker than usual, reportedly—to about two dozen people. Cotton stands off to the side and delivers his weekly Facebook Live post, cheerleading for the Hill, inviting neighbors to come on out: “This is Hill love, this is hood love, this is community love, this is what we do.” When he’s finished, he stands up on the steps and announces that next week, there’ll be chicken with waffles, eliciting cheers and applause.

“People tell us we’re crazy,” Cotton says, “but a lot of people were told they were crazy—until the job gets done.”

Building “It” Together Breakfast
Outside 552 Congress Ave, New Haven (map)
Saturdays, late morning or midday, give or take
Facebook Page

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 depicts diners mid-meal and Steven Cotton mid-broadcast. Image 2 depicts Rachel, Serenity and Stephanie Cotton and Francette Morant serving. Image 3 depicts neighbor James Pringle and Steven Cotton.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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