This post comes from my colleague Griselda Barraza. She just attended her first SCAA coffee show.
Preparing for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) show was a lot of work. We spent several hours getting all the logistics ready for the group of farm workers and independent small farmers that we brought from all over Latin America.
We arrived to Boston early in the week to pick up everyone at the airport. Most of our guests had never left their communities before and certainly never been on a plane before. They were all coming to Boston to participate for their first time in the biggest coffee event in the world.
After many flight delays, eventually everyone made it to Boston. The experience to be there with all of them at the same time was amazing. Everywhere we went our new friends insisted on making “one more” stop to enjoy the moment, or getting in a picture, or seeing the different coffee-brewing machines and how those baristas were making espressos. Everyone wanted to capture every moment.
Their eyes grew bigger at the scene of tall buildings. Things like salad dressings, curly French fries, root beer, donuts with filling, were such new and exciting things for them to experience….and remember. It was also their first time in a coffee show and they were seeing a different side of coffee than what they knew before.
I was very fortunate to have experienced this show with them. Listening to their stories about working in coffee fields, seeing their reactions to so many new things, being able to support them and answer their questions made me realize that for the first time I was connecting to my work at a very high and personal level.
Language was no barrier when there was a deeper connection. Maria Concepcion, a farm worker from Brazil, shared her story about her husband and kids. She told me that her husband died two years ago. She is a widow who has worked hard to buy houses for her children. Maria said to me “You know, I might not have much in life, but I try to make the best with what I got. In life, you can either sit down and cry or get up and start working. In my case I worked and I worked very hard to bring up my family, but whatever you do, remember to do it with love. ” I promised Maria that next time we see each other I will talk to her in Portuguese.
There were many instances in which farm workers and small farmers were able to express how they feel about the work they are doing in Fair Trade. For example, during Fair Trade USA Producer’s Forum, some people exposed their ideas as to why Fair Trade “shouldn’t be for all.” I remember then the words from Eliover, a farm worker from Colombia part of our group, and asked him to go up and tell everyone why he thought Fair Trade should be open to everyone. And he did. As I saw him walk up to the microphone I could see a humble man but a great leader. He was nervous, but he spoke slowly and calmly as he said “I’m a farm worker, I work for a farm that is not certified yet. Therefore, we have not collected premium yet. But once we receive the first premium, I recommended to the FairTrade Committee that migrant workers should be the ones who receive the benefits first. I am not a migrant worker, and we all need help, but some need it more than others.” I thought “well said Eliover”, I wanted to applaud his words…I did. Eliover identified what was important and relevant during the producer forum: “Every farm worker needs support” and he pinpointed something that many of us miss, “the less fortunate ones are more likely to be the ones forgotten.” His words were also historical: it was the first time a farm worker had spoken at our producer forum.
I have worked for Fair Trade for almost 6 years, and learned about the “heart” of Fair Trade in less than a week. My experience at the SCAA show in Boston has enriched my life. Often I think about a comment that one of the workers made at this particular dinner “What we are eating right now represents more than my monthly salary.” It is sad but real. This is a reality faced by many farm workers around the world. To think about this reality hurts deeply.
I know that each and every one of my new friends experienced the SCAA show in different ways. Some overcame their fears and were able to express their thoughts, some engaged in new relationships for future business, some were able to see and express that Fair Trade should be available to all farm worker and small farmers.
All through SCAA I was trying to be as professional as possible. After all, it was my first business trip as part of the Coffee Innovation team. This was my first time directly involved with farm workers and farmers, and I wanted to make good impressions. However, when listening to so many powerful stories from them and saying goodbye to my new friends, I couldn’t act all professional. My feelings gave up on me the night we were saying our goodbyes. I couldn’t even say bye to them, tears started to come out and I couldn’t stop them, I couldn’t even articulate a single word.
Miguel told me something that helped me. He said “Gris, just remember, these are real people and real stories and these stories touch even the toughest people. We are here performing a job but it doesn’t mean that our feelings will be disconnected.” I had learned a valuable lesson. I’m glad I went and shared time with the entire group. I heard their stories, some made me laugh, some made cried, but overall they made me even more committed to my job.