A Space for Us, Black queer co-owners share plans for new venue coming up in 2024.

This story has been updated to reflect the Take Up Space, LLC has pushed their opening date back to February 2024.

PrideIndex had the pleasure of interviewing Chicago based Take Up Space, LLC Co-founders Kolbey Garner and M. Rashaad Barnett.  

Take Up Space, LLC is a venue that centers Black and LGBTQIA+ identities. With a coffee bar, coworking space, event space, and retail space. 

“In addition to the co-working space, we’ll have a retail portion of our business, which will center on black and queer-owned and produced products. We will have our everyday mainstays, and we’ll also regularly update our products regarding categories of lifestyle. We’ll also have books, as well as grooming products,” said Rashaad.

M. Rashaad Barnett

PrideIndex: Hello, gentlemen. I thank you for agreeing to discuss Take Up Space Chicago with me. How are you both doing today?

Rashaad: We’re good. How are you?

Kolby: Hello and thank you for having us.

PI: Let’s start by getting some background information on yourself and what Take Up Space Chicago is. How did you start it, and what makes you qualified to create and run a space like this?

Kolby: My name is Kolby Garder, one of the Co-founders and CEO of Take Up Space Chicago (TUSC). I currently serve as the managing director and owner of a political fundraising firm called United Strategies Group. We are located in Washington, DC. I got my start in politics well over a decade ago, working with congressional candidates and folks running for school board. In 2016, I had the opportunity to work for Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine’s presidential bid, and even though we couldn’t get the result we wanted, that set me up on the path of my firm where we are now. I took my talents back down to Georgia. I had an opportunity to work with leader Stacey Abrams and turned Georgia blue. We put in a lot of hard work over several years, laying the foundation and electing folks to Congress like Congresswoman Lucy McBath. After that, we again turned Georgia blue for President Biden in 2020 and Senator Warnock in 2022. All that work is centered around justice and social justice for marginalized identities. We worked to empower them and give them the tools and skill sets to become advocates for themselves. And as I think about the best way to enable folks, empowering them economically is vital. As we look at the last portion of Dr. King’s life, many of his works talk about economic justice and ensuring that folks can care for themselves with dignity. As I think about the work we’re doing here at TUSC, I want folks to come in and collaborate with their fellow Canadian members to start the next big thing and be in community with one another. And I look forward to seeing how our community will grow and thrive on North Halsted and all over the country.

Think of Take Up Space Chicago as a premier venue that centers on Black and queer identities. We are a co-working space, a coffee shop, and an event space. Our first location will be in Chicago, but we plan to open sites all over the United States within the next several years.

Rashaad: My name is Rashaad Barnett, the other Co-Founder and CEO of Take Up Space Chicago. I am the Diversity and Inclusion Assistant Director at Northwestern University’s Graduate School. My work focuses on retaining graduate students and postdoctoral fellows of underrepresented and marginalized social identities. That would be the students of Black, African American, Latinx, American Native-Indigenous, and Queer identities. My office works to support the recruitment and retention of these students. My role specifically is for retention. My background is in education. I was a high school teacher. I have a degree in higher education with a significant focus on social justice and multiculturalism. As a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional, I take that into my work. I’ve been looking for opportunities to enact my expertise outside of education because there are many opportunities in the for-profit and private sectors, and companies need to be built with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind. That is my qualifier.

In addition to the co-working space, we’ll have a retail portion of our business, which will center on black and queer-owned and produced products. We will have our everyday mainstays, and we’ll also regularly update our products regarding categories of lifestyle. We’ll also have books, as well as grooming products. We’re excited to offer these products from Black and Queer-owned businesses to economically empower our community. We’re modeling our vision on the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Unity, Self-determination, Collective work and responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.

TUSC is definitely a passion project in being mindful of how we censor Black and Queer identities. We want it to be open for everyone. All are welcome. If you are coming, you celebrate our identities by just being in the space and supporting the business. We’re also creating opportunities for nonprofit companies and people who want a small event to host something and feel like it’s done with dignity, class, and elegance. We really want to communicate that you have space here, and we want you to fill it to take up that space.

Kolby Garder

In addition to our expertise, we invite others we respect in their respective fields and expertise, such as Shawn Gadley, an award-winning creative director and creative consultant. He/They are the mastermind behind all the graphics for TUSC on the website and anything we put on social media. He/They have been collaborating with us from the inception. He/They provides the vision and visuals for what we’re doing, as we want art to be a part of this. We have Cindy Thompson, who has expertise in creating spaces specific to the needs of businesses. One of her ventures was at Northwestern, where she developed research areas specific to the studies. Because that’s our focus, and she’s really good at breaking things down and managing those operations. She will be in charge of operations. She also has a background in communications and will be invaluable in how we move forward with our communications. We will also partner with some other people, which I do not want to name because we still need to put that into our current fiscal plan. But we’re already in talks with the event-based consultants, as well as mentors who are in the business world so that we can ensure that we’re putting our best foot forward. We really want this to be successful. We’re making sure our team and plan are in place.

Kolby: I’d also be remiss if I didn’t add that we will use our status as a 501c3 nonprofit to allow us to do some quarterly programming to empower business owners and entrepreneurs around Chicago with unique and innovative programming. The goal here is to ensure that these impactful initiatives can foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and social change. These will mainly be workshops that allow the community to hear from the most powerful and impactful entrepreneurs in our community.

Rashaad: Regarding your question about how Take Up Space Chicago came to be, I give you a quick throughline that can be followed. There have been a lot of ups and downs. There were a lot of different turns and different iterations. TUSC came to be because I live in the North Halsted neighborhood, I was going on a trip. I asked Kolby to watch my place and dog. When I returned, Kolby said that he was very thankful to have stayed in the area to get the feel, rhythm, and beat of the community. He then said he would also like to open a co-working space in the neighborhood. In addition, I thought of ways that we could dimensionalize the space. In the wake of us returning outside after the pandemic, I noticed many remote jobs were available. Most of our friends where either not going into an office or were in a hybrid and seeking ways to get out of their apartment. Our goal was to identify the needs we could meet within our capacity. We understood that co-working spaces require a space that centers on Black and Queer identities. We needed an area within the North Halsted community to host small events so, we took that plan and put it into action, and we’re really excited to see how it has manifested.

PI: When will the TUSC space actually become available?

Kolby: The space will open in 2024. We have secured the location on North Halsted Street. We’ll begin renovations to prepare for our opening.

Rashaad: In the interim of getting into the building, we hosted a booth at The North Halsted Market Days earlier in August. We wanted to get information about our pending opening and do as much as possible to get the community more involved. It will be a great venture for the community.

PI: You are describing a space that would have shared work and event space with a coffee shop. Is that correct?

Rashaad: Yes. We envision having free public space with paid rentals for the private rooms. We’re working towards ensuring we have booths that people can reserve to make or host singular and/or conference calls or even schedule interviews. We want workstations where you could do private work or use a conference room. The goal is to be able to accommodate as many situations as possible that arise when working remotely. We are putting a plan in place so that we can develop that. In addition to that, as I said, the public spaces are free, while the private areas are for rent. We’ll also work on sourcing the best technology and apps to make sure that we can make this easy and accessible for customers using the private spaces in a scheduled manner. We are working to remove any barriers of entry that any other co-workspaces may have for our community.

PI: What were some barriers to getting this venture off the ground, and how did you overcome those barriers?

Kolby: I can speak to finding the location piece of the business. As we’re specifically centering Black and Queer identities, our goal was to be located in Lakeview and the North Halsted neighborhood. It was a minimal market for finding spaces that would accommodate but were also available. Being one of the first African-American businesses on the street often presents challenges; we looked at our network, and it needed to be more readily available. But through the power of community and an excellent realtor, we found a space on the market for just six hours. The realtor called and said, “Hey, this space is on the market; we need to put in an offer.”  That day, we put in an offer for the space, and we were so excited to be able to close the deal and have a lease in hand. We worked closely with attorneys to ensure there was no room for doubt, providing all the T’s were crossed, and the I’s were dotted at this point.

Rashaad: Something really awesome about that process. As this was a very challenging aspect of getting the business up and running, the landlord and many people involved made this all feel collaborative. We are blessed with a community that seems just as excited about our vision. I was taken aback because this was my first time doing a personal business venture besides my professional work. I felt very welcomed by our current landlord and how excited he was for us in our new business. It has already set the stage for optimism and hope toward what we are doing.

PI: Regarding the work and event space, you mentioned multiple cities. Do you have a plan or something you can speak to on how you plan to duplicate what you put in place in Chicago in other places?

Kolby: We would use a different word than duplicate. Each city that we plan to open up a Take Up Space venue will be very much rooted in the history and traditions of those places. As an alum of Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia, is one of my second homes. We’re looking at sites with large populations of both Black and Queer identities. Atlanta is on our list of places like New York City, Washington, DC, Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California. As we’re taking an initial look at these markets, what will be key for us is whether there is a market for co-working spaces centered in those identities. Whether there is the ability to build community around that, like we have done here in Chicago, and finally, the ability to make it profitable in those cities and spaces. So, we look forward to doing this slowly but surely, with a huge emphasis in our first year, getting Take Up Space Chicago to be the best it can be before we venture out into any other markets.

PI: Hypothetically, if I were an event organizer with a client who needs a space for a book signing, or panel discussion group could your venue accommodate me?

Kolby: Absolutely. As soon as we open our doors, we’ll happily accommodate events like that. Working with our events team, we’re preparing a one-pager about those types of events and the amenities our event space will offer. Take Up Space Chicago will have about 2,400 square feet. We’ll be able to meet with you and go through the specifics of the number of individuals allowed in the venue and what we can offer regarding tables, chairs, and setup.

PI: Why did you go the nonprofit route or use that model?

Kolby: We are a for-profit business but have a nonprofit arm. We work in a unique way that allows us to do some of our programming from the 501c3 arm. Our co-working, coffee, and retail space is for-profit. It’s a combination of both.

PI: Does that mean you will have branded products with the Take Up Space Chicago logo?

Kolby: Yes. We have that right now. We have T-shirts that have been our bestsellers on our website, takeupspacechicago.com. People love our T-shirts as well as our coffee from a local coffee vendor, Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange.

PI: Where would you like to see yourself five years from now? Where would you like to see your business?

Rashaad: It would be wonderful if people learned that Take Up Space is a place to get things done. I want to see people regularly taking meetings, having coffee, and being able to work on their projects. I want to see happy hours with Black and Queer professionals. Have people looking forward to our events. Creation and development of our own in-house programming and once a quarter programming. I want people looking forward to booking signings and book panels with discussions. I would like to see and hear important dialogues with great guest speakers. I see a stage for the development of live performers who want to do spoken word and live music. Our app and technology are evolving with greater utilization on and off-site for booking our private rooms and event spaces.

Kolby: In five years, I want to see us open the doors of a second location with plans to open two to five more. I would like to see a heavy emphasis on having one other space open within our first five years. I would definitely like to see us grow. We’re starting our first location with approximately 2,400 square feet, located here on North Halsted Street, but we know that our community can do so much more. There are larger locations in the area that, over time, Take Up Space could expand to more locations in the Chicagoland area. We have a high probability of being able to do that. It will require hard work, teamwork, and sweat equity. That is the only way we’ll get across the finish line.

Rashaad: I also see us being very innovative in creating a co-working space. We’ll learn a lot in five years and continue to have many iterations and evolve. I really look forward to that. I also think that in five years, we could be a leader in the professional lives of the Black and Queer community, and certain industries will seek us out to facilitate and service their professional needs.

Kolby: We want the community to know that we are excited to meet and partner with them. We look forward to seeing them as we open this new space this fall.

PI: What can we currently find on your website?

Rashaad: You can sign up for our TUSC newsletter. You can find a brief overview of what Take Up Space is and how we came to our vision for the space. You can also see who’s on our team with our LinkedIn professional pages and other social media links. The community can also continue to donate to our crowdfunding campaign as we continue to work toward our grand opening. Yes, we are still fundraising; every dollar counts, even if you only give one dollar. Give as much as you can. We want to open as soon as possible, but we would like to remain open, and the community will be our greatest resource in seeing that come to fruition. We are mindful of how much we spend in our budget. Our crowdfunding campaign will be beneficial in the beginning stages of offering free public space to the community and renting private rooms for those individuals or businesses who need them. Our Take Up Space online retail shop has big plans to upscale with collections of curated books and items for our grooming and lifestyle categories. You can also buy our branded Take Up Space coffee through a partnership with a local neighborhood coffee shop, Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange, just down the street from our new location. We’ll support another local business by selling cups of coffee, which is very important to us. We hope to have branded coffee mugs soon as well. Can I say one more thing?

PI: Sure.

Rashaad: A huge impetus for this is, as a 35-year-old man, I’m going through this world and realizing that adulting is really tough. Then you turn around and realize that the support systems for your development have dissipated. There is an expectation that we just figure it out on our own. I found solace and growth in the community I formed in the gym, the bars I go to, and the adult recreation sports league I’m in within the gay neighborhood. We collectively find these ways of connecting. Through those connections, I’ve become a better man, person, and human as an adult. I would love that development to be increased in my professionalism, or just how I can, or we can have spaces for people to be in business, in the same space, share stories of plight at work, or share successes. I want people to produce creative ideas and decide to work together on something while using our space as their hub, their main location where they can do all their business together because they can’t afford a physical space. I hope that the people in my generation and others alike will find this space an opportunity for their development.

Kolby: Well said, very well said.