Whose Contributions Do We Acknowledge? On the SCAA 2015 Recognition Awards

For a moment, you may have mistaken the announcement of this year’s Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) Recognition Awards for The Academy’s announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees for acting – almost all white for the Oscars, almost all white males for the SCAA awards.  By now we are sadly accustomed to this homogeneity of representation and acknowledgement that dominate and define industries, including entertainment, finance, and technology, to name a few.  Yet, why in an industry whose diverse participants are spread around the world, are mostly white men from the Global North acknowledged for their significant contributions to coffee?  Many of us in specialty coffee have much larger aspirations for our association, and I believe that the diversity of our industry demands we recognize and represent this in all aspects of our work.

My critique is not directed at the individual recipients of this year’s awards. Kudos to them for the recognition they’ve received for advancing the industry.  Nor is it criticism of the great staff at SCAA or individuals on any selection committees.  Rather, it is a call to question the broader systemic issues regarding race, gender, and national origin in the coffee industry.

During my decade in coffee, the majority of my work has been with people of color, mainly at origin, and with women from across the industry.  Therefore, when I read the announcement, I was reminded that the coffee industry I know, respect, and admire is not reflected in the homogeneity of this year’s awards.  I am asking, along with others, for us to reflect and act on this as an association.

  • Whose voices are represented?
  • Whose work is recognized and valued?
  • Whose contributions are acknowledged?

While engaging these questions will necessitate we take a long, hard look at elements of our industry that reproduce the status quo, this is related to ongoing, broader sustainability efforts in the industry to ensure coffee farmers and workers’ voices are heard and their labor is fairly valued.  This is critical to guaranteeing they receive a share of the industry’s benefits that is proportionate to the indispensible contributions they make.  Without coffee farmers and workers, the rest of the industry would not exist.

We should be hopeful that at the end of the awards list, the SCAA Sustainability Council* chose to honor and highlight the courageous work of coffee farming men and women in Western Uganda who are building a more inclusive community that promotes gender equality and values the contribution of women in the coffee industry. Their approach has been so successful that other coffee communities across Eastern Africa are learning from and building on it.  I hope our broader specialty coffee industry can learn from them as well.

*Disclosure: the author is a member of the SCAA Sustainability Council

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