We had the pleasure of speaking with Keith Hawkins, founder of the Color of Coffee Collective. We wanted to host this conversation to shed light on the many ways in which the coffee industry must adapt to live out true racial equity. In honor of Black History Month, we would like to reflect on and recognize the racist and colonial roots of coffee. The topic of racial equity in the coffee industry is one that we value highly at Fellow and we aim to integrate more equitable practices into our business everyday, not just ever February. May we collectively take time to consider and digest the importance of this topic and band together to improve our industry.

Interview Questions:

Fellow: Please introduce yourself and share about your role and organization in the coffee industry.

Keith: Thank you so much for this opportunity! It really means a lot so thank you! I have been in the coffee industry for 27 years and I absolutely love coffee.

Fellow: What inspired you to start The Color of Coffee Collective?

Keith: Not sure if we are ready to have this conversation right off the top but here we go. I started CoCC in 2021 because after having some really hard but important conversations with a few bipoc coffee professionals about their experiences in the industry, it became abundantly clear that something needed to be done. In addition to that, I had my own personal experience in 2021 at a coffee shop in which the shop had announced that they would like to have some open discussions about how to engage more minorities, specifically African Americans, to work and or patron their establishment. Their callout may have come from a place of authenticity but when I volunteered to be a part of that conversation immediately, I was met with a response of, they would reach out. It is now 3 years later and I am still waiting for them to reach out. All of that to say, I began CoCC because I knew that if I wanted to really see more people of color in specialty coffee, I needed to be the change I wanted to see and do the work and challenge the industry to do an introspective look. And let’s just say that this journey, as I truly imagined, has not been easy nor is it for the faint of heart.

Fellow: Would you tell us a bit about some of your events and programs, such as the symposium? How are these programs tools of empowerment?

Keith: Symposium was birthed out of the idea that we could host coffee trade shows that highlighted amazing coffee professionals of color and in the process at a really affordable cost. We really wanted to make coffee accessible and more importantly we wanted coffee to feel like a family reunion for people who had never met but were all social media friends simply because we shared a couple of similar interests. We were all people of color. We loved coffee. We wanted to be in a space where we could be ourselves and not have to feel like we are being closely watched and/or questioned because that is what happens in the larger coffee trade shows. Just being in a space where you hear people who look like you and who can share inspiring information for your business without wanting anything in return but your success is extremely empowering.

Fellow: Why is representation important in the coffee industry?

Keith: Representation is very important in coffee because as in the case of our Symposiums, when people can see themselves through others in a space it’s encouraging and it’s inspiring. It is important because it shapes how we see the industry.

Fellow: How do you think the history of coffee affects the way we consume and perceive coffee today?

Keith: Honestly, I don’t think we really honor the history of coffee because it would mean that most of us would have to address the colonization of coffee from Ethiopia. Or we would have to address the horrible atrocities of slave trading to Haiti by the French to build one of the wealthiest empires in the world. More than 800,000 Africans were captured and brought to Haiti to be slaves and work the farms to grow both sugar and coffee. Or when I sit and think about how Rose Nicaud, an enslaved woman in New Orleans in the early 1800’s, worked as a slave all week and on Sunday’s was allowed to brew and sell her coffees to people going to and from Mass at St Louis Church in New Orleans. And with her money she was able to buy her freedom from slavery. That gives me chills just to think about how hard she must have worked but also how much love and care she must have given to her coffee curating that made that many people come and buy her coffee. When I enjoy my cup of coffee every day, I honestly think about the struggle that black people had to endure for me to enjoy that cup of coffee. And I don't take that for granted so I want to make sure that I leave this industry in such a way that my kids and others will be able to say, they can enjoy a cup of coffee in spaces that are a little bit better because of some sacrifices that were made for them through this work.

Fellow: How can we create a more equitable coffee industry?

Keith: Resources. Not just financial, but we have to stop gate keeping information and we have to make coffee more accessible. That’s our mission and that is what we are really striving to accomplish more so. I am confident it will happen but it won’t happen with companies that are in the industry because most of them are just like the coffee shop I spoke of in 2021, a lot of talk and no action. They don’t want an equitable coffee industry and that’s ok because they won’t have a choice. It will be if we have anything to say about it. One cup at a time.

Fellow: How can we respectfully observe and acknowledge the roots of coffee in today’s industry?

Keith: Support black coffee professionals in a real and authentic way. That is an organization and individual call as to what that would look like but I ask that it is honest and that is genuine and without some ridiculous expectations.

Fellow: What impact have you and your team observed throughout your programing?

Keith: Wow, this is a good one! It’s been a varying degree of impactful changes throughout the industry but I think some of the most meaningful and heartfelt emotional changes come from people whose shops we have sat in and they have shared their appreciation for our work but also that they are terrified that they won’t be able to keep their dream business open if they can’t get the support or the education for their staff and how them coming to symposium or our Coffee for All events has given them hope and or even better resources to continue. The other and probably one of my most meaningful and impactful moments was when I took an origin trip to Guatemala and visited the young ladies at Chica Bean Coffee. When I walked in and saw those young ladies and the work they were doing with coffee and how they embraced me as if we had been family members our entire lives was incredible! And to think, coffee did that! It gets no better than that!

Fellow: What is the current state of the coffee value chain and how does each stage of the value chain interplay with societal norms or inequities?

Keith: “A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect” W.E.B. Dubois. The coffee value chain is certainly in need of immediate change as it is like most of the industry led by companies and or individuals who have become complacent with the system. The problem with this thought process is that it doesn’t address the fact that most of these systems that are in place are underpaying and or devaluing the people who are doing the majority of the work to ensure that the consumers are satisfied with the end product.