But at the same time, these are only important in the abstract. I can’t walk around each day, ruminating on my various values, and expect to be a functioning member of society. Those abstract values—say, for instance, justice—must be applied in the concrete. That is the only point of having values; that is the only way that they will matter.
So as I walked through Mitchell Park on a crisp, recent Sunday morning, I was confronted by a question: What, and who, do I value? And, as a follow-up, How will I act on those values? The thought broadened as I turned it over in my mind, like the sun coming up over the horizon just a few hours earlier. Who do we value, I wondered, now thinking of Palo Alto, and how will we act on those values?
As I continued walking through the park, I eventually came to a stop outside the Mitchell Park Library. It was nearing 10 a.m., and my early morning breakfast of nuts and Icelandic yogurt had left much to be desired. I walked into Ada’s Café, directly adjacent to the library, and paused for a moment. The café was waking as coffee brewed; and Kathleen, the owner, directed a battalion of employees through the final morning setup. Yet the scene was wholly different from that of a drill sergeant and her plebes. The chaos had a calm to it as well—a sense of purpose, and deep, sated joy.
Amidst this storm before the storm, one image wrested my gaze from all the others. It was Charlie, an Ada’s employee, putting the final touches on the counter-side display. He delicately maneuvered his scone-laden hand through a maze of breakfast goods, completed the job, and continued his work with a resolute smile. It was like a translucent outline had formed into solid reality.
One might wonder (and rather reasonably) what any of this has to do with the deeper questions of our beginning. If we can entertain the notion that status, looks, and so on, do not define a life, why waste time talking of scones and coffee? What could be more important than our values?
As it turns out, coffee and scones are more important than our values. Actually, let me rephrase that: coffee and scones are emblematic of our values. In the specific context of Ada’s Café, baked goods and roasted bean water represent one of the most important aspects of our Palo Alto community.
I remember feeling a strange conviction when I returned home from college in the summer of 2017. As an aspiring physician, I had arrived at Stanford to pursue the kind of research and writing which might bolster my medical career. I had dreams of impact, visions of a lifelong vocation filled with meaning and purpose. By serving the sick, by seeking knowledge, I would live out my values of self-giving love.
A laudable goal, no doubt. But as I soon realized, a naïve one as well. You see, topics like suffering, justice, and the human condition had been—and largely still are—mere abstractions in my life. If I had a heart for the poor, if I cared about the suffering around me, I certainly wasn’t showing it. All these things were indeed true, but what was I doing about it? How was I acting on these ideals? My values were clear in the abstract, but fuzzy in the concrete.
This conviction to serve—to live out my values, really—was reframed as Charlie went about his work. Watching him was like gazing into a strange country which, for all its newness, felt more like home than home ever had. Charlie is a joyful, charismatic, warm-hearted young man with a deep passion for his work at Ada’s. He is also one of many Ada’s employees living with intellectual or learning disabilities. As I watched his dedicated and contented work, my conviction came to life. Here was the manifestation of my values: the concrete reality of service, justice, equality—and love. Here was something which, in our modern world, we see all too seldom: a person with disabilities empowered to live a meaningful life.
The first insult I ever remember delivering was towards a classmate of mine in kindergarten. I had been teasing a young boy with glasses, for the egregious act of being a “four-eyes.” My teacher at the time, a young man named Patrick, knelt down before me. He also wore glasses (as did my parents), and calmly quashed my budding bully-hood: “Would you call me a four-eyes, too?” he asked. I was stunned, stymied. That wasn’t the end of my youthful ignorance—not by a long shot—but I never again mocked anyone for their glasses-wearing.
Which is to say, the Palo Alto community is upheld by loving, tolerant, and progressive people like Patrick (who, I believe, is no longer in the area). I’ve spent most of my life in this city of energetic, driven individuals, who have preached diversity, inclusion, and equality from my earliest days. We in Palo Alto care about the environment; we celebrate a wide range of ethnicities and cultures. But I wonder if we are missing something. I wonder if, as a city and community, there are ways in which our values have yet to materialize. Specifically, I wonder if we are truly dedicated to that deep, all-encompassing ideal which has colored so much of our national history, and was mentioned in the introduction to this essay: justice.
Now we return to the roasted bean water. As I sat in the back corner of the café, nestled among pillows and pressed against a large window, I was struck by what I had seen of Charlie. It seemed the embodiment of my personal values on the one hand, and of my desire for a justice-seeking community on the other. I had spent the dawn dreaming of a Palo Alto where people lived out their ideals in fresh, meaningful ways. Where the marginalized were empowered and uplifted. Like the sun at high noon, Charlie’s actions illuminated that vision. Charlie showed me that those values have already materialized; that this community is already seeking justice. And thankfully, for all of us, he pointed to the place where all this is happening: Ada’s Café.
Ada’s is, as many will remember, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit café located in the Mitchell Park Community Center. Yet it is also much more than that. The café is a beacon, a source of meaningful work for people with disabilities. Founded by Kathleen Foley-Hughes, the café employs people with a diverse range of intellectual differences, learning disabilities, and personal histories, uniting them in one common virtue: love.
Now you’ll have to forgive me for my cringeworthy clichés, because they’re the only way to express the fullness of Ada’s Cafe. In my numerous conversations with Ada’s employees, I’ve heard difficult tales of life before the café. I’ve heard stories of ignorance, condescension, discrimination at work. Employees have been undersold, underestimated, and otherwise misunderstood at their previous jobs. They have been talked down to, pitied, or simply ignored. This is not the universal experience of people with disabilities, but neither is it an uncommon one. It is a narrative taking place in Palo Alto; the Bay Area; and countless sectors of society.
How has this narrative been able to continue? In a place like Palo Alto—with its progressive and humanistic values—how have we not uplifted those who need uplifting?
The human condition is, it seems to me, one of constant tension. And I think there is a unique sort of tension surrounding modern perceptions of those with disabilities. Even as one-fifth of the U.S. population faces disability, these individuals are often viewed through a different lens. A vague and unsettling lens which, in many, produces and odd mixture of sympathy and unease. Sympathy because one sees the difficulties faced by people with disabilities; unease because one cannot understand those difficulties. The resulting sentiment is one of tension: a discomfort in that lack of understanding, in that perceived distance. But even more so, a tension in realizing that the disabled person is no different than oneself. Regardless of ability—physical, intellectual—we are all disabled. We all have limitations, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. We want deeply, perhaps more than anything, to be known and loved for all of these flaws. Yet we insist on hiding them. We think love requires perfection, and we are too broken for that. So we fake perfection: we mask our physical, mental, and emotional brokenness. We hide our anxieties, our mental illnesses, our physical imperfections. And we do the best we can.
But this is not an option for those with disabilities. The man in the wheelchair needs physical accommodations, and the girl with Down Syndrome often needs special education. Both exist on a spectrum of human ability; both are so much larger than that spectrum. Neither one is fundamentally different from the rest of us. Though they are different in this: they must be honest about their limitations. The tension which one feels when thinking about disability—that hazy, uncomfortable feeling—is thus the reminder of our very selves.
Discrimination, condescension, bias, and bullying all result from that tension—from a brokenness which refuses to acknowledge itself. But what if we, as a society, did not idolize perfection? What if we were honest about our limitations? What if we empowered those with disabilities, instead of marginalizing them? Individually, these scenarios seem unlikely. Collectively, they are outlandish. But at Ada’s, they are made real.
Ada’s Café is important for its great coffee and delicious food. But it is necessary as the embodiment of our values and virtues. By hiring people with all sorts of disabilities, the café has discarded perfection for authenticity. By helping employees navigate their limitations, it has given them challenging, yet fruitful work. And by empowering those people to contribute to their community, Ada’s has provided an inspiring model of justice.
Western culture may owe its philosophy to the Greeks, but its morality is of Jewish descent. And in the ancient Hebrew, one prominent word for “justice” has a rather peculiar meaning. Tzedakah, which also means “righteousness,” is not simply the administration of equitable legal codes, but a duty which permeates all of life. It is an obligation, an ethical calling to charity and fairness. Tzedakah is often used to describe a sort of primary justice—different from mishpat, rectifying justice—where the needs of the marginalized are met on a regular basis. Though Western societies may differ in the practice of tzedakah, this concept is ingrained within our modern moral framework.
But in daily interactions and structural institutions alike, tzedakah is often lacking for those with disabilities. Where our values call for dignity and independence, we—and here I mean society writ large—have failed to live out our principles. Whether legislatively or interpersonally, we have shirked a millennia-old humanistic obligation.
Take, for instance, federal support for disabled persons. Many people with disabilities require some financial assistance, and this typically comes through one of two programs: social security disability insurance (SSDI), or supplemental security insurance (SSI). Both are operated by the Social Security Administration, though the latter is available to individuals without disabilities as well. Regardless of program, however, recipients are hamstrung by eligibility requirements: not by what they must do to qualify, but what they cannot do.
To qualify for SSDI, one must have a disability which (a) interferes with basic work activities; (b) lasts for at least one year; and (c) precludes one from performing “substantial gainful activity.” If all three requirements are satisfied, one qualifies for what the federal government calls “severe, long-term, total disability.” (Note: The full picture of disability-related aid is much more complex, involving an interplay of federal, state, and community-based programs and assistance for a wide variety of purposes.) But what about that last eligibility requirement—substantial gainful activity? As it turns out, the tzedakah of SSDI is perhaps lacking in chutzpah. In 2018, the majority of SSDI beneficiaries will lose their support if they earn more than a meager $1,180 per month. Social Security considers such persons “gainfully employed” at this level, meaning that they are no longer “totally disabled.”
At first glance, these standards are quite logical—protective, even. They guard against unnecessary payments. But try to imagine the implications of such policies. On a practical level, these standards restrict the financial independence of persons with disabilities. And on a deeper, human level, they send a demeaning message. They are asking people to forsake “substantial” and “gainful” work, or otherwise risk financial turmoil. Freud believed that “work and love” were essential to the flourishing human spirit; but it seems our national policies have, for those with disabilities, driven a wedge between the two.
That is why Ada’s Café is so important. Communities and legislatures have made great strides for people with disabilities, but justice, dignity, and respect have yet to fully materialize. Work and love have yet to fully coexist. Amidst that ambiguity, this unassuming café has done things right. Ada’s has succeeded in living out our deepest values.
Ada’s is not unique in wanting justice for the marginalized, or having compassion for those with disabilities. Ada’s is not unique in the abstract. But in the concrete—in the real-life, day-to-day manifestation of those values—this coffeeshop is absolutely singular. Kathleen and her team have been tireless in their pursuit of empowerment and justice. They have given people with disabilities a joyful, purposeful work environment. An environment framed by unconditional acceptance. Sitting in the café, there is a deep sense that things are right, that love and justice have won for those with disabilities.
Today, as I ponder the image of Charlie on that Sunday morning, I find myself drawn outward, into the stories of all the Ada’s employees I’ve spoken to before. I find myself washed by frustration and hope.
Frustration because we, both locally and nationally, have not fully empowered our brothers and sisters with disabilities. Many of them still struggle with structural barriers to happiness and equality. There are legislative and social walls yet to break down. But I have hope, too, because I have seen the people of Ada’s Café. I have witnessed the humble ambitions of Jazmin Toca; the infectious joy of Jeremy Teter; the knife’s-edge wit of Erin Fishman; the tremendous passion of Anna Rubinfien; and many, many others. I have heard all these people express the deepest gratitude for a place like Ada’s. In all this, I have seen the concrete reality of our humanness.
There are still countless stories to tell about Ada’s, and the future will not be trivial for the small, nonprofit café. But things are never easy for culture-changers. Things are never simple for those who, like Kathleen, seek to bring justice through love. What I implore to those in Palo Alto, then, is this: support Ada’s Café. Go on the weekends; on your morning coffee runs; on your late-afternoon sandwich binges. Participate in this act of self-giving love, which has already impacted so many lives in the community. Bear witness to the joy of that place, the unremitting mirth, of which Charlie’s smile was but a microcosm.
We, in Palo Alto, are people of tremendous and loving ideals. Many of us are working to make those ideals reality. But when those among us have done the hard work, have made justice and love as real as coffee and scones, let us honor them. Let us enter their space, absorb their warmth, and treasure the value of what really matters.
To donate to Ada's Cafe, please visit http://www.adascafe.org/donate.html. More information can be found on their website, http://www.adascafe.org, or in previous profiles of Ada's employees on this series.