Why Not Coffeehouses in Latin America to Support Cooperatives and Organizing

Why not ACORN International / Fair Grinds Coffeehouses" in large Latin American cities?

Miami              The more we talked to coffee producer cooperatives in the Marcala and San Juancito mountains of Honduras and tried to piece together a plan to directly trade coffee to the USA and Canada and especially our own Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans and its monthly support of our offices in Central America, the more it seemed a natural to think about opening our own small mini-coffeehouses in places like Tegucigalpa and perhaps Lima, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City.  The notion would be to open café cooperativas for ACORN & Fair Grinds that would only serve coffee and other products directly obtained from cooperatives operating in the home country.  The proposition would to reverse fair trade into the home countries and keep the “buy local,” “buy organic,” and “buy fair trade” right there rather than something that happens in rich, developed countries.

Would it work?  Could “coffee cooperatives” work and compete, especially with the local market?  Not sure about that.  Ironically in places like Honduras where great coffee is grown the local market, like so many places is driven by price.  A lot of what is sold in places like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula is coffee beans cut with a variety of other substances to lower the costs.

But, we don’t have to compete with Starbucks, just duplicate the “mission-driven” ACORN International / Fair Grinds model sufficiently to pay the coffeehouse bills, support the cooperatives by opening up a better market, and do well enough to support the local organizing with a local self-sufficiency plan.  Why not?  Could work!


Life in the Coffee Mountains with Co-ops Big and Small

Sorting at RAOS

Marcala    Thanks to our friends at the small women’s coffee and aloe vera cooperative, COMUCAP, we usually stay at their cabinas high in the mountains.  There’s no water or electricity, but the setting is beautiful and the bunks work fine for us.  They hope someday eco-tourism will come their way, who knows?  We started driving up before dark and a light, intermittent rain quickly turned some of the clay and rock road up the mountain into gumbo.  We were almost there and two large multi-ton work truckers were stuck ahead of us.  One got through, leaving deep ruts wounding the road and bleeding red clay.  The other backed down the rise, forcing us over to the shoulder.  We tried to climb through twice, each time lacking enough clearance in the small rental car to make it, and ended up backing down ourselves.  We found a $20 hotel in town with hot water, then jumped a ride with a 4×4 diesel Toyota pickup first thing in the morning to recover our gear, none the worse for wear.  Life in the coffee mountains!

COMUCAP and its hopes for eco-tourism

The late morning and early afternoon were spent in productive meetings with COMUCAP about plans to buy coffee and to sell aloe vera.  They are now fair trade certified by FLO in Germany, so we believe we may have potential customers for them in Canada, if we can figure it all out.

The trick for us in coffee is now bringing back crop samples to New Orleans so that our roaster at Fair Grinds can test the quality of various crops and see if we can get others to join us in buying a larger lot of coffee to directly ship to the city.  Before this trip is over we will lug 30 pounds of green, dried coffee beans back for roasting to see if we can organize a buying cooperative from the cooperatives, as it were.  The devil is in the details though, and we are struggling to get the pricing in line.

Cupping some of the coffee for us at RAOS

We had run into a fellow I had originally met at COMUCAP on my first visit three years ago, who was now working at another, larger coffee cooperative in Marcala called RAOS.  He invited us to take a look at their operation.  Wow!  We were impressed.  It was huge comparatively.  Two shifts of workers, including rows of women sorting out bad beans to ensure the quality and gangs of young men bagging the beans, including fair trade and multi-certified beans, as well as rakers to keep the beans dry, and other workers cupping the coffee in the lab, working the drying machines, and altogether adding up to probably 100 workers employed not as producers but in the final process after the beans left the coffee plantations.  RAOS produces enough coffee to ship 30 containers to various markets.

Filling a Fair Trade quintal at RAOS

It was encouraging to see how producers could come together to get to the next level!


Fair Grinds Dialogue: Dialing Back to Desire and the Panthers

Orissa Arend, Keith Medley, and Bob Tucker at Fair Grinds

 New Orleans  My old friend and fellow labor activist, now retired from the postal workers union, Stanley Taylor, late in the 4th ,Fair Grinds Dialogue, reminded the assembled, rapt crowd, that “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.  Some nodded approvingly, but for most his comment was simply more sound in the Fair Grinds Organizing Roundtable Room without any special significance.  In truth for most people around the room, around the city, around the country and the world, history simply does not exist at least in any real sense of finding the facts, exploring the past, and coming to grip with lessons along the way.

Stanley Taylor

All of which has begun to make these experimental “dialogues” at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans more and more interesting and, frankly, more and more valuable.  The topic this session had drawn a healthy crowd of 30 packed tightly in the room not only because of a better organizing and outreach job from the coffee bar, but also because the subject  was compelling to a mixture of both the committed, who tended to be older veterans of the time, and the curious, who were younger, fresh faced and intrigued by the incongruity of the New Orleans they were trying to understand today and the New Orleans of leather, guns, and Black Panthers serving breakfast in the Desire Street project.

I had asked Orissa Arend, author of the book, Showdown in Desire, which covered in detail the gunfight between the police and the Panthers in the fall of 1970 at the project, to come and present to the dialogue.  She wisely recruited Bob Tucker, one of the people who she said was a “hero” in her book, and another old comrade of mine when he was consigliore to Mayor Marc Morial, to tell the story from the vantage of his own participation, which he did so engagingly and passionately.  She also recruited local filmmaker Royce Osborn and historian Keith Medley, who had written his own book about the famous Supreme Court “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson case that originated in my Bywater neighborhood only a couple of blocks from where we used to live.  Add another more than 25 folks, and we had an amazing evening as you can tell from the website and the taping that we have now posted up on YouTube.

Watching and listening from the doorway was interesting.  The 70’s veterans wanted to make sure the 20-somethings understood what a “pig” was and what the phrase “off the pig” might mean.  Others who barely missed the period with the benefit of a generation gone by had trouble understanding why the Panthers seemed so dangerous and threatening when they were serving up breakfast in housing projects.  To say it was a different time is simply talking to oneself.  The time meant everything to some and to others was as foreign as a tale from India or the South Seas.

Orissa told a dramatic story, as she read from opposite accounts of being the target of the long gun battle and the miracle that no one was killed.  The fact that these young late teens and early 20’s Panthers upon surrendering to their sworn enemies in the police, who only hours before had guns blazing, found themselves talking about the prospects for the fledgling Saints, let you know you were hearing something that was totally true and typically weird in the way that only authentic experience can be.

Somehow as miraculously as the Panthers escaping with their lives was the feeling, seemingly unanimous among the crowd, that a bridge had somehow been built in the dialogue that had value for whatever reason.  The Panthers may have been an example, as I argued, of the organizing where the “tactic devoured the strategy,” as their guns evaporated their butter, but for those that were there it was simply magic in a bottle with value in its own right.  Worth continuing to see if this was luck, or we just might be getting something right.

Orissa Arend reading from her book Showdown in Desire


Civic Footprint

New Orleans  Here’s an interesting idea worth some thought:  creating and measuring a civic footprint.

I had an interesting meeting on Saturday (www.mylifecity.com) about the “green footprint” of the coffeehouse, which involves everything from measuring carbon usage, utility utilization, composting, and whatnot.  On Sunday at an all-baristas meeting at Fair Grinds , I listened to one worker raise a question about corn-based cups that we used to use, and three other workers push back about the carbon footprint involved in bringing the cups in from California followed by a highly sophisticated set of points that they then made about the condition of New Orleans landfills and our inability to handle the methane problem these cups and similar issues created.  I’m not sure I completely followed all of the points, but they were quickly made and deeply felt, and spoke to the high level of appreciation and concern that younger people have gained for the environment.  I found myself both proud of them and, frankly, depressed.

What can we do to inculcate the same deep understanding and involvement with the civic life, that is at the heart of any hope for democracy, that now has become commonplace in terms of the environment?

I found a hint of it in the beginning effort of a group to help individuals measure a personal civic footprint.  I hate to even mention that I found the group in Canada.  Every time I write about something involving Canada, an issue, campaign, or idea, it seems half of the people reading run for the hills, but, nonetheless, that’s where I found it, so truth be told.  Unfortunately, the group, Framework, which seems lavishly well funded is just beginning to sketch this out, and unfortunately (for me) sees this as an individually based barometer, where, if anything, our desperate need is to connect the individual with the collective in the conversation about civic participation and footprint.

In these days when technical skills seem to be everywhere, I can’t believe it would be hard to develop tools and comparisons that create a benchmark for a civic footprint.  We could start the list easily.  For a business and its employees it would include:  number registered to vote, number who actually vote, number who participate in campaigns, number who donate to campaigns, number who read the paper or follow civic events, number who volunteer in the community and how they volunteer, number who sign petitions, number who have ever been a part of a protest, etc, and the same for the business, and so on and so on.


Pulling Shots in the Service Industry

2 Mardi Gras Costumers Get their Coffee at Fair Grinds Before Hitting the Streets

New Orleans   Getting up at 430 AM to go to work reminded me of the days worked in the oil fields and offshore after high school where the clock started at 6AM and I had to be in the field or on the boat, or at Luzianne Coffee Company when I was 19 and 20 and had to catch a couple of buses to make it for 7AM.  Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday and all of the baristas were hitting the parades and partying down, and I was going to open until noon to support our regulars and those who might be in need of a good “cup of coffee for a change” until noon.  A couple of hours playing with the cash register months ago and a quick couple of hours of training on Saturday and another hour on Monday, and I was ready to try and open up, pull shots, pour java, and make it work in some form or fashion.   I was counting on some Mardi Gras good spirits from customers willing to be more patient than usual perhaps, and the fact that the tip jar was going to support ACORN International organizers in Latin America as well as anything we cleared on my time and effort.  Of course as I told more than one customer, I was also in that rare position where I couldn’t get fired!

In the almost 6 hours I kept the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse open, believe me, it was hopping.  I never had a break, not even a cup of coffee, from the time I poured the first cup for a tired regular that had been cleaning up her family’s parade watching spot.

Here’s what you notice behind the coffee bar, sometimes with a bit of surprise:

  • I was surprised how few people I saw in costumes?
  • It was embarrassing how happy – and patient – most people were at seeing that we were open!  One young woman blurted out how happy she was in the thick of a long winding line, I thanked her, and it turned out she had gone to school with my nephew and was another Little Rock girl!
  • Standing there working the bar gave a fair number of people the opportunity to mention ways in which they knew me or someone in my family or supported the work or one thing or someone we knew in common, and that was especially nice.
  • I did more than 100 tickets and got raves for my espresso drinks (maybe I have a future!), and I bet some 20 or 25 actually thanked me for being open on Mardi Gras, which didn’t make me less tired at the end of my 8 hours there, but did make me feel at least as smart as the average bear for doing this crazy thing.

As an organizer it can be easy to forget while crunching the numbers, evaluating job classifications, and emerging formal and informal work settings, that the service industry, growing so rapidly as a job source throughout the USA and in many places beyond, really is about service.   But more than that, embedded in that relationship when it works is not simply a master-slave hierarchical situation, but a sense of shared community, a recognition of commonality that counts as currency both need and mutual dependence.  Who knows where the widgets go, highlighting some of the alienation of production, but it seems in the service industry if we embrace it more fully and deeply, we have to be able to use this sense of community in both organizing and, ironically perhaps, delivering better service.

Perhaps my favorite customers were a younger couple, perhaps pushing 30 or so, that came in around 11 or so.  It came out that both of them were bartenders working at different places in uptown New Orleans and they had both pulled double shifts the night before.  The woman might have been pregnant by 5 or 6 months, though I’ve never been able to tell age or such conditions worth a darned.  She wanted a “vampiro,” which is a beet-ginger-etc drink we make that is our most popular new, health juices addition and he wanted a cappuccino, which ended up at 4 shots, 2 of which I “comp-ed” him as it developed.  My son, Chaco, had showed up to help me at the tail end of my shift and had two great quiches in the convection oven for them, and while I was pulling his shots, they kept looking at the brownies and chocolate chip cookies, and before it was all done, I had rung up their first order and their second order, and he had thrown $8 or $9 bucks in the tip jar to support ACORN International.  They were service workers, too, so when we pulled the quiches out too early, they had quietly gone around the coffee bar and gotten Chaco to put them back in for another couple of minutes.  As I move out to lock up the patio door, I saw they were still sitting at a table, food and drink long gone, bent forward to animated and serious conversation.

I’m rootin’ for them and a lot of other folks who shared a minute of conversation, needed their coffee and appreciated getting it hot and strong, joined our community in a quiet spot on a beautiful New Orleans day, and found a piece of peace as the parades rolled on.

Back-atcha and thanks! Fair Grinds Regulars Get the Conversation Going Early on Mardi Gras