Action, Impact, and a Dose of Serendipity

Raw beans, raw book

From the trajectory of its debut month, 2015 seems to be the year of serendipity. One such example came yesterday in the form of an email from a high school student in Maine who had read “When Coffee Speaks” and wrote, “I’ve read your book and am intrigued and impressed by your work. I love that you presented each person’s story as their first-person account. I think that doing this gave the stories much more power and impact. I also appreciated the many varied perspectives that were presented, representing all parts of the coffee production process and demonstrating many different sides to the coffee story. I am still not sure what conclusions to draw, as to what kind of coffee I should buy here that will be sustainable, for the people and the earth. I can see that the lines get very tangled and that there isn’t necessarily a succinct answer to that question.”

She’s every bit right that there is no succinct answer to the question of what coffee to buy and that the threads that might lead you to a choice of what to do very quickly become tangled. One of the most intentionally infuriating things about “When Coffee Speaks” is precisely that it doesn’t tell the reader what he or she should do next. But just because there is no list of directions at the end of the book doesn’t mean that there isn’t a call to action.

The collection of stories people tell in “When Coffee Speaks” is extremely varied and opens up a host of issues related to everything from the dysfunction of the commodity market to the imperial roots of trade to the best and worst iterations of what co-ops can be and do. I didn’t want to trivialize all of the messiness and nuance and all crucial, arching questions raised by interviewees in their conversations through reducing their stories to a summative “buy brand X and give to non-profit Y and everything will be fine.” No one company or group can “fix” all of the imperfections interviewees identify in the industry.

My hope is that the book will inspire coffee drinkers (and even non coffee drinkers) to ask more questions of the products we consume and not just be satisfied with some little logo or think that everything is dandy because a package makes a happy claim. The summary-less-ness of the book is intended precisely to make readers squirm. I want the uncomfortableness to stay in the back of your mind and make you pause before you buy coffee, to maybe prompt you to read other books or other blogs or have conversations with other people to ask them how they reconcile their ethics and values with the vast injustices that too often accompany the practice of importing foodstuffs from abroad.

I don’t tell anyone what coffee to buy precisely because buying something isn’t the solution to everything. We often want to shop our way to righteousness because it feels like it should be possible, when really we have to remake the system for buying and selling if we want to improve the fairness of even our most regular (and seemingly mundane) transactions, like buying a cup of coffee.

“When Coffee Speaks” doesn’t give a bullet-pointed plan for action, but it’s already been having an impact. I didn’t know what people would make of the book or do in reaction to it once I sent it out into the world, and the past year has been a fascinating learning experience of slowly discovering how people have developed their own plans for action in response to the stories people shared in “When Coffee Speaks.”

The most elegant example I’ve heard of so far is Sound Coffee Collective. Sound Coffee is self described as, “a collaboration of coffee lovers who want to use their creative resources to help coffee farmers in developing countries and bridge the gap between consumer and grower.”

Sound founder Miah Idema emailed me from Costa Rica almost a year ago, when he (serendipitously) found a copy of “When Coffee Speaks” at a hostel in Turriabla and that same day met one of the Turrialbeño interviewees. He emailed me again this month, writing, “I wanted to acknowledge your influence on my perspective on coffee. Reading your book last year while visiting coffee farms myself assured me that this is a real movement alive in other parts of the world.”

I immediately visited the Sound Coffee Collective website, where Miah has uploaded a podcast related to Sound’s first project with the Montero family in Tarrazú, Costa Rica. The 7 minute recording is a conversation with Manuel Montero, who talks about coffee, but really talks about the importance of land to generations of families and the complex and startling realities of Central Americans who migrate to the US, the motivations behind these dangerous journeys, and the unexpected ripples created by global trade.

The team at Sound Collective is in Costa Rica this month working with the Montero family and selling their coffee online to help fund future projects. I’m sure that they will be able to take action that generates positive financial impact for the Monteros and their community, but hearing the tone of Manuel’s voice reminded me of a core aspect of “When Coffee Speaks,” one that I understand and I guess have been taking for granted because I listened to hundreds of hours of interviews for months on end, and perhaps this impact is only understood through audio and doesn’t quite come across through words on a page.

Regardless of whether or not readers take any action, the impact of “When Coffee Speaks” is already felt by the book’s very architects, the interviewees, in ways that are not monetary but have everything to do with value. By sharing their stories, interviewees have done something empowering. Last weekend I attended a workshop at the Center for Oral History at Columbia University, and program director Mary Marshall Clark opened her session by reiterating that, “the sharing of oral history is a dignifying act.” As soon as you take the time to tell your story you realize that it has weight, that your individual tale of survival has intrinsic and limitless value for others who read or hear it.

Marshall also noted that, “We uncover needs through testimonials; we can only address needs once we’ve established what they are.” Narratives can illuminate an issue that needs to be addressed, but the act of telling is itself a dignifying experience. The act of listening to people communicates that you value them for who they are; parents know that kids would rather you listen to and talk with them than hand them a present and walk away.

When you listen you also learn that people change their minds. In her workshop Marshall raised the importance of longitudinal oral histories. What do people have to say when you continue the conversation over months? Years? I was lucky enough to revisit many interviewees and to stay in touch with many more via email and social media. I shared what I could of the changes they shared with me in Updates from Coffeepeople and Another Year Later (también en español, Otro Año Después).

For several reasons I’ve had to take a step back from coffee and focus my time on a slightly more traditional teaching role. I do plan to return to all interviewees at some point and to eventually put coffeepeople and the coffee industry back at the center of my professional life. But I don’t have to rush; I’m not the only person who can travel, listen, and share stories.

At the beginning of her email the high school student from Maine said she still wasn’t sure of what conclusions to draw in terms of buying coffee. Later in the email she says she is planning on taking a gap year and WWOOFING (volunteer farming) in Colombia. She answered her own question and arrived at a powerful conclusion without giving herself credit for it. Deciding to pick up and go and learn about the process of tropical agriculture, meet the people who practice it, dig in the soil, listen to the birds, smell the smell of rotting guavas, and fully immerse herself in the daily activities that constitute producing coffee—or any crop—is the ideal action I wish every reader could be able to take in response to “When Coffee Speaks.”

I recently listened to a podcast of Malcolm Gladwell speaking at the New York Public Library. He says that an obligatory part of the university experience should be for every student to live someplace totally outside of his/her culture for a year or two; not take a semester abroad in a fun city, but to really be someplace that is different from what you know. Doing that is an experience you can’t unlive and can’t unglue from the way you will look at everything you ever do afterwards.

In addition to being a self-taught anthro/ethno-journalist I’m always part teacher, so of course I would love for “When Coffee Speaks” to inspire readers to go do something and learn something, and then for that firsthand knowledge to help them form their own opinions such that they don’t need me to write an epilogue listing what and what not to buy.

MLK day just passed but Selma is still in theaters. This is the one time of the year the media reminds us that inaction is often the most powerful form of action. What if, because we don’t really understand the majority of what we buy, we just stopped buying so much stuff? What if we exercised moderation, and instead of drinking five cups of coffee a day and sucking it down like it was meaningless, we waited until we found a coffee we really knew about, and approached drinking it as a special occasion, a delicacy? Is it possible to unshop our way to some sort of meaningful impact?

Since I’ve come back to New York I’ve started drinking less coffee. It was admittedly a habit that initially began organically for financial reasons, but as I cut back on my caffeine and stopped buying so much coffee at cafes, started very selectively buying coffee to make at home, and occasionally making outings to get a special coffee from a certain shop, I found I started loving coffee even more. Drinking it wasn’t rote. I was excited when I made a monthly pilgrimage to a café or it came time to choose a new bag of beans to buy to make at home.

Overexposure devalues anything. Even though I will never be able to sit still and will probably take a few decades to learn how to not do dozens of things at once, this year my New Year’s resolution has been to do less. I’m starting to approach that giant task buy working on buying less of everything, specifically the things that I love the most. This way, when I do finally get them, I can appreciate them even more, and then take the time to express to the makers my sincere joy and appreciation, because doing so creates an invaluable impact that—in our hurry—we have a tendency to overlook.

Now that you’re done reading, what should you do?

  • Ask a question
  • Don’t buy something
  • Choose thoughtfully then thank the maker when you do

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