Pittsburgh Changemaker: Tara Sherry-Torres
By Trevor Miles
Kelly Strayhorn Theater is presenting local leaders that have been changemakers in Pittsburgh. Mentors, teachers, artists— KST acknowledges these pioneers. This is Our Story: KST Recognizes Pittsburgh Changemakers.
Tara Sherry-Torres, Owner and Operator of Café Con Leche
1- What do you do for the community now and why is it important?
Well I like to think that the community does a lot for me. I never ceased to be amazed at how wonderful people can be to each other when given the chance to celebrate. I think it’s important that as a community we build relationships for the sake of building relationships. This is the base of an organizing effort – whether it’s a high level policy issue or working against institutional barriers or event just planning a neighborhood potluck – it’s the quality of the relationships which determine the quality and success of the efforts. By knowing each other, by having empathy for each other, our capacity to grow and thrive is multiplied. Café Con Leche focuses on food, music, dance, art, identity and culture to bring people together. These are the things that are the essence of being human. Allowing for people to have a safe space to express themselves, make a new friend, learn about a new culture is the little bit I can do to make Pittsburgh a more welcoming place. I like to think that long-term these positive relationships can impact the conversation and efforts happening to make this city a more equitable and livable place for everyone.
2- What is one defining moment of your life? (When you decided to do what you’re doing now).
The concept of Café Con Leche has always been in mind – probably as early as when I was 16. But it took years—a lot of living and some serendipitous opportunities—to get me to where I am now. It’s funny because you think you know what you want, but life gives you what you need when you need and brings you along your path. Someone once said to me “you can’t run from your destiny!”. Living in Pittsburgh for seven years made me really miss Puerto Rican culture. I missed diversity. Being from New York it’s all around you – the whole world is at your fingertips. So I used to host house parties and feed people to fill those needs. And I would talk about culture a lot. I was also a community organizer in Oakland which taught me a lot about how to bring people together. Then one day my interests, skills and experience came in contact with opportunity—out of the blue I became a Most Wanted Fine Art resident artist in 2014. This was the platform that forced me to think bigger. Most Wanted supported me both with resources, but also emotionally, they always said “you can do this, we believe in you”. And as I did one Café Con Leche event after another I realized that this was not only something I needed, but that so many others wanted. As humans we want to connect, communicate, express ourselves and have our experiences be validated. That is the need which Café Con Leche is built on. Café Con Leche really came out of something I needed to feel completely at home in Pittsburgh. It also filled my desire to build relationships and feed people good food. I hope it’s the little bit I can do to retain a diverse population in Pittsburgh while also impacting the inequity in the city – forcing people to think about communities and neighborhoods outside their own. It’s a two-way street.
3- What advice do you have for youth that want to become a changemaker in their community?
JUST DO IT! This is not unique to me. We all have perspectives and visions to share. They need to be shared. Our skill sets and strengths are all different. The more we share with those around us, the stronger the relationships, the healthier the community. Being active in the world around you is the most direct way to make the world a better place.
Photo Courtesy of Pop City Media
Whatever it is you want to do, however you want to do it—just do it! Start small. Dream big. Take it one step at a time. Remember that Café Con Leche started with a really simple thought when I was 16. 16 years later I am doing things that I never thought possible and I am not stopping here. I always am planning. I ask myself: “what can I accomplish with the resources and skills I have in three months? In six months? In once year? In three years? Where do I want to be in five years and how will I get there?”. Humans have an amazing capacity to love and to create.
That is where your energy should be focused. I love the youth and it always blows me away at how perceptive they are. For better or for worse, they deal with a lot, way more than what adults give them credit for. But they are resilient and that is where the future lies. I also would say that youth need to know they can run for political office someday and to learn about that at a young age. This is especially important for communities of color. We need to vote, teach our youth to vote and start teaching youth about what it means to run for political office. That way when they are at the age where that
is possible they have all the information they need and can start the process. Communities of color and poor communities need more political representation at a city, state and national level.
That will only come when we start to be intentional about that. I say all that and just to add on—use less plastic! (We need to protect the environment too if we want all our advocacy efforts to be successful). I know that’s not Café Con Leche’s direct mission, but like I said I hope to have a farther reach.
4- What is a song on your playlist? (A song that motivates and drives you).
This is such a hard one! I love Beyonce! But that being said it I had to pick only one song that really motivates me (this is really killing me) I would have to choose “Carnaval” by Raul Paz. He is a Cuban musician that lived in France for years and has just moved back in the past seven years. Raul is young and represents “the new Cuba”. A lot of his music is about exploring what contemporary Cuban music is. I love him. Carnaval is just such a fun and uplifting song – the beat makes me want to dance whether I am at home, on the bus or walking down the block (like really, I am always ready to break out in the coordinated dance I created in my head). And the lyrics are about moving you forward to be the best person you can, not to let negative forces and influences get in your way. It’s just so positive it makes my heart sing. It also reminds me of being in Cuba, I remember the first time I heard the song and how it made me feel. It was love at first listen. Raul Paz is very talented.
Below is a video link to Café Con Leche:
You can also read this Trib Total Media article on Tara and her work.
Be sure to read more about about Café Con Leche’s upcoming play Yo Soy Latina, coming to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater Saturday, March 14!