The Price of Better Coffee

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

We are a group of women of color baristas based in Oakland, California who are former employees of the company Equator Coffees. One month ago, we collectively resigned our employment by walk out. On the day of, we issued a brief statement to our local regular customer base, out of respect for the ways they have supported us and the ways we have been able to support them.

Since then, we have felt the pressing need to issue another statement, this one to the specialty coffee industry specifically. We speak as coffee professionals. We care deeply about all that specialty coffee is and are hopeful about where it can go. But the industry has many challenges, particularly around racial equity and inclusive culture. While this statement is grounded in our experiences in retail, the problems we highlight go well beyond what happens on a cafe floor, be it at Equator or at the many other coffee companies already named by those who have spoken out. Creating a more racially equitable and inclusive industry is collective work. It requires collaboration and accountability from multiple entities in our field. This is for all industry members — including retailers, publishers, importers, roasters, trade organizations, educators and trainers, equipment manufacturers, quality assessors, product reviewers, nonprofit groups, and guild collectives; no one is exempt.

Our purpose is to draw attention to the well-intentioned performances that gesture toward diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging but for a moment; and to name these actions as insufficient, harmful, and detrimental to the progress of our industry as a whole. More importantly, we want to emphasize that creating a more equitable and inclusive industry does not fall under a separate “race” or “diversity” initiative. It is not a supplementary project to our “normal” jobs and responsibilities. This work requires reevaluating our everyday operations, the structures and practices we set up for business sustainability, and the ways we think about company growth.

This statement is organized around the issues of inclusion, diversity, expansion, and accountability. We highlight the ways these four areas have shaped our experience at Equator and present several takeaways for how we, as industry members, can be more intentional and proactive in this collaborative project to make coffee better.

We left Equator because in addition to their lack of racial and ethnic diversity, they demonstrated little to no concern for inclusion based on the ways they engaged their few employees of color. As people of color, we did not see ourselves at other cafe locations, across departments (such as wholesale or production), nor in leadership positions. We could not see ourselves growing into other roles because we were not present elsewhere in the company. The single BIPOC in a leadership role, the general manager for the Oakland store, was expected only to execute instructions from the retail director. We repeatedly witnessed his contributions be disregarded, placated, or dismissed up until his resignation. Additionally, as the single retail store in Oakland for a Marin County-based (read overwhelmingly white and wealthy) company, our sense of belonging was never considered by retail leadership. In our time there, we repeatedly experienced being regarded as outsider and an afterthought for retail operations decisions. We have experienced, on multiple occasions, stereotyped language used in reference to us and the Oakland store. We have been described by retail leadership as “wild,” “loud,” and “always resistant.” Most egregiously, we have repeatedly experienced Equator placing on us the burden of its lack of diversity and lack of evidence supporting its claims of being an antiracist organization. We have been told repeatedly by senior leadership, “What are we going to do to make these things happen?” whenever we would ask, within appropriate context, about proactive works in progress to address inequities within the company.

Some ideas & questions for us, industrywide, to think critically about concerning inclusion:

Attempting to have our teams reflect greater diversity means little if we neglect intentional attention to creating inclusive culture. Opening up hiring is an important step but severely limiting by itself. What are we doing to retain employees, particularly employees of color? In what ways do our biases affect even our informal retention practices? Are there things we will do for some employees and not even consider doing for other employees?

What roles are companies opening up for BIPOC? In an industry that runs on a high amount of low-wage and part-time labor, how much do diversity efforts extend to leadership and decision-making roles? To diversify entry-level, low wage staff while reserving leadership roles for those who look and think the same is dishonest inflation of workforce diversity.

The idea that it is difficult to find qualified leaders of color is a myth. A lot of midlevel and senior leaders need to be more accountable in expanding their network. Even still, how well does leadership know the employees of color already in their organizations? In what ways can our companies create opportunities to be supportive of employee development in order to allow them to advance and thrive in leadership positions?

What allowances are made to seriously consider input from perspectives and points of view other than preexisting policies or the current leadership’s viewpoints?

The first step toward greater inclusion and equity at our companies and across the industry is not finding more “diverse” people. Neither is it social media celebrating BIPOC coffee professionals, nor hiring them, nor even allowing them to “sit at the table.” The first step in creating a more inclusive and equitable culture is radical internal evaluation. It is taking inventory of just how much we are invested in the status quo. It is reevaluating how much our best practices for management or sales or operational efficiency are rooted in the closed circles of our own experiences and passed-down business practices from previous employment or education. This includes BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, immigrant, and other minority-owned companies as well. Personal identities give no passes for corporate cultures in need of repair.

We left Equator because Equator sells itself as a champion of diversity when, in reality, their actions in the name of diversity are exploitative for branding purposes. We have witnessed Equator tokenize BIPOC staff, capitalizing on our looking different while expecting us to conform to white-washed standards of service and hospitality. But what speaks the loudest about Equator’s relationship to diversity is its retail presence in Oakland. Equator liked the idea of opening a cafe in Oakland but was completely unaware of what it meant for a Marin-based company to open in Oakland. They failed to consider the ways that approaching the Oakland location like the other stores in Marin County (except with less attention) is disrespectful and harmful, not only to the existing community in Oakland but also to employees in Oakland. They pay lip service to the idea that each cafe “is its own snowflake” as they cobble together cafe programming for Oakland as a lesser version of Marin programming and bring in staff that do not reflect the communities present in the area of the cafe. When these points were brought up to leadership, they were disregarded. There is a complete unawareness of the recent history of gentrification and displacement in Oakland, particularly in the neighborhood of the cafe, and how they are contributing to the problem. We left Equator because while they broadcast their good intentions and even acknowledge their blind spots, they have repeatedly shown little desire to understand the ways their intentions and performances for diversity devoid of changes in behavior and practices actually create harm for us and our communities.

Some ideas & questions for us, industrywide, to think critically about concerning our relationship with diversity:

Are actions done in the name of diversity merely for show? Are they performances we hope will prove our good intentions are meaningful? This includes gestures like putting a “Black Lives Matter” sign in the storefront to disproportionately using people of color for brand books and company profiles to looking to expand into new markets because it is in vogue or it will boost brand identity.

When we take steps toward diversity, to what extent are we willing to open up our procedures and practices in favor of the difference we say we are supporting? Particularly around hiring, are we proactive in opening up how we think about company culture and the experience of our operations as our team composition diversifies?

Especially for companies aspiring to be antiracist and who pride themselves on being “local,” to what extent do we think about how to serve the communities in the neighborhoods where we operate? What kind of attention is given to thinking about who will represent your company in the new location? How much does learning the neighborhood’s challenges and changes, and how they impact the communities present factor into our decision making?

Location opportunity cannot only mean opportunity for potential consumer base and profit. It also has to mean opportunity to identify our biases, address our limitations, and serve where we are.

Individual intentions are not the same as corporate positions. Good people with sound politics can work for, and even lead, companies with problematic practices.

Operating in places with no connection to the area, being oblivious to the needs of surrounding communities, and being unaware of the ways business practices can further marginalize minority staff are not only Equator’s issues. Many businesses succumb to these problems when they pursue aggressive expansion, particularly in retail, without careful attention to addressing the details of the who, what, where, and how of scaling.

Is it possible for companies to expand on the scale they want and still meet, or at the least, seriously listen to the needs of the people working for them?

We acknowledge that growth has been frustrated for many industrywide in 2020. Yet, the dual pandemics of antiblack racism and the coronavirus have provided an occasion for some to assess how to keep the doors open, and maybe even reassess our purpose in doing so. If we had mission statements or company values, this year’s events have been opportunities to see just how much we have developed in who we say we are and what we say we stand for.

We left Equator because we could not advance there. We had no access to professional development. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed the coffee education and training program be backburnered until it was largely eliminated in order to make room for aggressive retail expansion. During COVID-19 operation, we witnessed the former Oakland manager’s emphasis on performance development be shrugged off by retail leadership, even as the quality and consistency of products and hospitality at Equator’s other retail stores suffered.

Concerning company values, we left Equator because they claimed to be an antiracist organization but refused to demonstrate serious interest in listening to the points of view of its own staff in Oakland — again, the highest concentration of BIPOC staff in the company. When we suggested small action steps to promote antiracist education internally, they used COVID precautions to reject our ideas and claimed that individual self-education was all that was possible. Weeks later, a watered-down partial version of one of our initial ideas was promoted throughout the company.

Ultimately, we left Equator because, as a company, they are far more preoccupied with brand image than with care for its people. Equator is quick to promote equity-oriented initiatives that have no impact on company culture nor create a more inclusive environment for its most minority employees to feel like they belong.

Some ideas & questions for us, industrywide, to think critically about concerning development:

How much do we value investing, upfront, in developing staff who do the legwork of the business — especially when we are looking to grow — rather than treating professional development as an afterthought?

To what extent do we allow space to hear from our staff and, more importantly, to listen seriously enough to improve our policies and procedures?

What are the ways we choose brand identity over people, including the larger and more unskilled sections of our labor force, when we are focused on growth or aggressive expansion?

Conversations about racial equity are still happening on the sidelines in the coffee industry. For the industry to be more equitable, our companies and organizations have to commit to not carrying on business as usual. Especially for those who aspire to be antiracist, the issues of equity and inclusion cannot remain accessory initiatives. These are core developmental problems that must be addressed at the operational level, right alongside professional development, quality control, product rollouts, and growth strategies.

One of the bigger challenges to developing into a more inclusive and equitable industry is that so many of us are allowed to be unaccountable for our actions. Equator being quick to promote they are an anti-racist organization with no evidence of being antiracist in action is but one small example.

Some ideas & questions for us, industrywide, to think critically about concerning accountability:

It is easy to make the press release statements that will hopefully place our brand on the right side of history. But to what extent do our statements reflect our corporate behaviors (and not personal beliefs or intentions)? How important is it to us that our verbal commitments be action oriented?

The small acts we do take cannot be approached as afterthoughts or with no critical effort. It is not enough to donate to the NAACP when something horrific happens to a black person. If we make claims to being a local business or a B-corporation or an antiracist organization, we have to do the work of thinking critically about the best ways we can make an impact fighting racism, or supporting the people who make our work possible, or being a positive force for the communities we serve.

We must think deeply and proactively about how we can create systems of accountability within our industry. Social media call outs by individuals and small groups have been productive in highlighting deplorable behavior and emphasizing employee rights. However, the industry changes necessary cannot be brought about by companies scrambling to not be the next one exposed or by manicuring a politically-correct brand identity.

The problems plaguing the industry around racial inequity and non-inclusivity are systemic problems. Practices that marginalize are able to thrive still; new professionals joining the industry are able to perpetuate these problems too easily, sometimes without even being fully aware. Even as we are just beginning to acknowledge the truths behind the severe underrepresentation of BIPOC in the industry, it is not enough to go to the past and read about coffee’s colonial history. This underrepresentation is sustained by a culture that continues to exclude and is supported by the everyday business practices we rely on for operation.

Systematically, there needs to be a change in corporate culture across our industry. This includes everyone from the two-person staffed startup business, to the regional guild group, to the company with national and international reach. We must be proactive in identifying what we are missing rather than be reactionary in cleaning up what we have missed.

We are group of non-White coffee professionals prioritizing our emotional well-being and speaking truths to power. @signedtbf