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GET FAMILIAR: ZENAT BEGUM

Posted by Vaibhavi Vanvani on

When we met Zenat Begum a few years ago, while she was studying in Amsterdam, we quickly became homies, as Zenat is just plain good peoples. After moving back to NY, she started Playground Coffee Shop, in the space that formerly housed her father’s hardware store. Zenat really defines the term “social entrepreneur”, and when Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the US and abroad, she provided protesters with supply kits. Zenat also started a community fridge initiative earlier this year, making fresh produce available to the Bedstuy community for free. 

Playground Youth is Zenat's community organisation, supporting BedStuy by ensuring a safe space to exchange art, cultural knowledge, and strategies. They tackle a range of community needs including literacy, food equity, and arts & culture through a range of accessible programs and events. Donate to Playground Youth here!

Find out more about Zenat and the organisation through our interview below.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Playground Community Fridge Initiative you started during Covid?
During the pandemic Playground pivoted its programming to better serve our community.
Committed to bringing free and fresh daily produce in direct protest to food insecurity, the Community Fridge is part of our food equity programming making healthy nutrition accessible to all. Today, Playground operates four Community Fridges in Brooklyn being restocked every day of the week, providing over 840 weekly meals for families and residents by a network of over 50 monthly volunteers.

This space housed your father’s hardware store before Playground.... Can you speak a bit about gentrification in Bed Stuy / NYC and the importance of small, independent businesses?
Small businesses are the pulse of New York City. As COVID-19 disproportionality affects businesses owned by BIPOC with 1 in 6 businesses projected to close in this next year, it is difficult to address the idea of sovereignty with independent business all across the city. Legislative structures don’t protect business owners from economic disasters such as the one perpetuated by COVID-19 however, we have now become essential workers to feed and serve all New Yorkers. Where is the compassion for business owners like myself and others trying to bring a sense of normalcy to our lives, making sure folks are fed and taken care of. Gentrification favors the fate of transient people who leave behind no impact to preserve stories of residents, just to increase the price of living. Now that so many people have left New York, so is going to implement the structures to save and catch businesses before they fall? New Yorkers protect New Yorkers because we are all we have.


Most coffee shops are content with making specialty coffee and not much else. Can you explain what led you to doing so much more than most coffee spots? Does any of that relate to your Bengali roots / Bengali culture?
Playground is so much more than a coffee shop, ofcourse we serve coffee and food but we always have community in mind. The structural makeup of this organization adheres to the community needs of our neighborhood. After the results of the 2016 election, Playground held a town hall to address any programming to help people navigate through this difficult time. Since then our extensive offers of events and classes are accessible to everyone and anyone looking to acquire and knowledge from our arsenal of practical radical tools. My lineage and heritage plays a huge role in how I conduct the day to day of Playground. Family and community is integral for survival, that's all I have ever known. Playground is my way of extending gratitude to a community that has done so much for my life.

You run a non-profit community based organization called Playground Youth... can you tell us about the classes and readings you host there?
Playground Youth is a 501 © 3 non profit organization that operates out of Playground Coffee Shop. The founding pillars of our organization are rooted in providing our neighborhood with a safe space to exchange art, cultural knowledge and strategies to build positive lasting social change. We tackle community needs including literacy, food equity, arts and culture through a range of open-access programs and events for all.


What are your favorite aspects of being a small business owner? What are the downsides?
My favorite aspect of Playground is greeting everyone on my way to work. The downside is that we do not have enough resources to achieve the things that we need to keep going!

Could you see yourself opening up a Playground Coffee Shop location anywhere else?
Considering the roots of Playground in BedStuy, it’s hard to imagine that this vibe can be recreated but I think with the proper conversations, Playground can be the blueprint for businesses to come!

What made you want to start Playground Annex and what are some essential reads that are available there?
Radical theory and text is not readily available in our neighborhood. The Playground Annex serves as one of the only bookstores in Bed-Stuy whose offerings prioritize literature, zines, art and more from BIPOC authors, artists and organizations. Currently we house titles such as Freedom Dreams, Blessing the Boats, Citizen, Black on Both Sides, and so much more available on our website.


What is the idea behind the Take One Leave One library?
Inspired by Playground Annex, our Take One, Leave One Library provides free, thoughtful and radical books for all ages by BIPOC and LGBTQI+ authors to our community. The premise of taking a book and leaving one is an act of care to share stories, spread resources and amplify marginalized voices that are overlooked. Our purpose is to provide free education around a myriad of topics and encourage the joy of reading.


What’s the soundtrack to Playground Coffee Shop?
Our soundtrack is typically determined by our emotions. Whenever someone is on the bar for the day, we get an understanding of their emotions just by the kind of music that is played. It ranges from techno, house, jazz, RnB, hip-hop, trance, dembow, bailefunk, the list goes on!

Playground Annex also houses an online radio station, Playground Radio. Can you highlight some shows and its hosts?
Playground Radio is our online, independent radio and open-access platform with efforts to create and share space for DJs, musicians, artists and storytellers within our community. In this abundant digital era, our radio’s dynamic range of original programming acts as a digital archive of sorts, recording, collecting and memorializing the diverse stories of our extended family. My favorite shows right now are Spicy Trax by DJ Cardamami and the club tracks on Yung Bugarron’s show.


What are some of your favourite things about NYC?
My favorite thing about NYC are the people, the parks and the food. Everyday you change the course of your life by choosing a different route to get to work and that ultimately shifts your experience here. Anything is possible and I stand by the idea that your community will guide you through rough patches just like mine has!

You studied in Amsterdam, what was that like coming from NY and do you feel in any way connected to the city still? What did you learn there?
Amsterdam is one of the most magical places on Earth. It is similar to NY in so many ways, gives you the essence of a small town but in a large city setting. Amsterdam was the city I studied abroad for the year of 2013-2014. The experience changed my life as I met so many people that shifted my level of consciousness for me to become the empath that I am. Collectives and collaborating was so prominent in Amsterdam such as the family of Patta, The Vrankijk, HutSpot, SMIB so many other forces that really exemplified that need to work together for a better future. Coming from NYC, I was exhausted by working in service and looked at this experience to give me a new perspective. I walked away with the lens of being from NY and applying to my time in Amsterdam, helped structure my thoughts to create the necessary space that is now Playground. I wanted to build towards a community that was compassionate just like the one I had in Amsterdam and if it wasn't for this year away I don't think it would have occurred to me that my roots in New York are necessary and that I am important and integral to the fabric of this society. Amsterdam helped me shape my focus and intention to provide for my community.

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