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Amaris Gutierrez: «The industry can only survive if we work together for the common good»

Amaris Gutierrez, credit Kathryn Sheldon and Joe Coffee Company

MILAN — Amaris started at Joe Coffee Company in 2015  and in 2016, she joined the roasting team as a Production Roaster and quickly moved into the Director of Roasting position. She has also established herself in the larger coffee community by creating the Women in Coffee Project, a volunteer-run project aiming to highlight the voices of women throughout the coffee supply chain. In her “downtime” from work at Joe, Amaris try to make the coffee community a better one, by encouraging transparency and creating space online and offline for women to share their stories and experiences.

Amaris, how has your professional relationship with coffee started?

“I started working in coffee as an undergraduate college student in 2009. I didn’t intend for it to be a serious life option, but I became more and more intrigued by all the complexities within the world of coffee. By the time I had finished my master’s degree — I had worked almost full-time in cafés throughout my whole academic career — I was hooked, and immediately searched for pathways to well-rounded roles. I managed cafés for a while, but I was searching for more coffee knowledge, and luck landed me in a role at a company that imported, roasted, and brewed coffee from Nicaragua.

I’m biracial, half-Nicaraguan, so it was just what I needed to dive headfirst into a passion that felt personal and became more professional over time. I learned how to roast with them, and after a time I wanted to know more about the rest of the world, so I moved to the company where I work now, Joe Coffee Company. Since starting here I’ve worked
my way up through the Roasting Department through hard work and an endless pursuit of
equitable representation of the infinite and diverse voices along all supply streams. I’m now the Director of Roasting, though my role involves green sourcing, managing our small team in production, quality control, and roasting.”

Have you always wanted to become a roaster?

“It was never the one thing on my horizon, actually! In some ways, I think I have always been curious because I have always loved to read, and seeing the breadth of voices from writers from different countries always inspired me. Language and how we use it has seemed to me to mirror botany and terroir — the textural experience of something can tell you a lot about the place it came from. Because of that, I was interested in learning more about flavor difference in varieties, and the history and context of coffee itself within each producing country. That led me to learn some of the hard truths about coffee and how the industry was grown by the powerful through the exploitation of others — and after that, I saw roasting as a way to actually engage in the supply stream.

Positions in retail felt a little removed to me at the time, and it’s heartening to see that in recent years there have been so many efforts to increase accessibility for all in order
to invite more critical minds and collaborative efforts for social justice and tangible change in the sector. I think this trajectory for me was healthy. I am the kind of person to always struggle between wanting to act now, do something now, but being given the chance to think through context and learn more taught me a valuable lesson. Learning about the current financial infrastructure, how terms and contracts are set, what organizations are truly doing good work, and the nuances behind how different people talk about and assign value, it was all eye-opening and prepared me for my current role.”

What are your proposals to gain the equity in the coffee chain?

“This seems like a complex question from the outside, but I am hopeful that it can be achieved in our lifetimes. Equity can be accomplished with actions that are difficult to define, such as active listening, genuine professional respect, internal audits to define your values so you can easily express them, and a commitment to action when your blindspots come up. The actions that are easier to define, but are no less important, are paying more for coffee, choosing to work with specific logistics partners who are passionate about the same values, never shying away from a conversation because it is too difficult, and creating checks and balances for our own unintentional or complicit racism. All of these things can be created within an organization with time, although it is much more difficult to outline exactly how it should look for each person or company.

Also, before I sound too self-assured, I fully believe it is an active and ever-evolving
journey. Certainly at Joe, we have had to slow down when something should be examined and given intentional thought and attention. It takes time, and it takes collaboration, another aspect of compassion and respect – contributing and listening to others makes it possible for the work to continue and ripple out to positively impact everyone in the supply stream and industry.”

What about the QA/QC systems: how could it be possible to improve that in the coffee sector?

“To me, this has everything to do with mutual respect and communication. Knowledge sharing has historically only flowed one way in the supply stream, toward the end-user, and it has sometimes been an unintentional power dynamic, too. I think the information should flow both ways, and talking to the other people in your business relationship honestly and openly can teach you how to make that happen, and what information should be shared to be mutually beneficial.

They are sometimes complex conversations, but even when challenging they are so
rewarding. Be prepared to learn that you may have to pay more for coffee, or share about your own financial position, or experience accountability in a more equitable way. It’s healthy. By nature, business and intimate relationships evolve and grow by how well you tend to them. In my own work, I aim to utilize communication year-round, so that we have the opportunity to speak at different stages in each of our business planning. By doing this, we can learn about various challenges, celebrate successes, and track growth, all of which allow for a greater comprehension of how to be a better business partner when it comes time to talk about contracts or terms.

This applies to all actors in the supply stream, and I think can certainly improve quality and calibration, that is a hugely important aspect to supply stream

Can you talk about your personal Women in Coffee project?

“Yes! I started the Women in Coffee Project at the end of 2018 with a vision to create a space for better representation of women’s voices in supply streams. I first started looking for information about female representation in the labor force in coffee, and found that over 70% of the work in producing countries is done by women, though that majority group wasn’t reflected anywhere. I saw an opportunity for a nonpartisan space for women to tell their own stories, share their lived experiences, and collaborate on gender equity issues that exist on the macro and micro levels.

We started a plan to interview women, translate those interviews as often as possible to
guarantee accessibility, and invite a group of women each year to come to New York City for a panel event and knowledge-share (usually involving a cupping or tasting experience). We also wanted to highlight the work of other gender-focused organizations, so we started to weave in a program to raise awareness and funds for those groups outside of our own programming. It has been hugely successful in my opinion, and I believe we’re still only just getting started. There was a lot to learn in the start up process, and we still have quite a ways to go, but the journey has been more rewarding and meaningful than I ever could have anticipated. It’s brought me so much humility, passion, and encouragement to have gotten to know just a small handful of the incredible, brilliant women who are working so hard in their positions in the coffee world. They’ve inspired me to keep going and keep celebrating their ethics.”

How things are going during this difficult pandemic and what changes do you imagine will come to the coffee industry?

“I have been very grateful to keep my job during these past few months. Overall, I am grateful for the work we’ve maintained. Being in the roastery, our small team was able to roast, pack, and ship coffee directly to consumers in their homes, and it was our lifeline for many months when we had to shut down our 20 retail locations in the city. But it was a struggle, for sure — we went from a company of close to 300 employees to a company of about 10 or 12 overnight. It was hard to see so many colleagues and peers in positions of anxiety and helplessness. In New York City, we were hit the hardest at first in the States, and it took a toll on so many! It prompted so many of us to sit still with ourselves and look deep inside for the strength to face it all.

It was a palpable shift for this city when so much of what we used to do was hustle and work and put our heads down and stay busy. This year has brought flux and chaos, many opportunities to learn how to find peace despite it all. At work, it’s helped us hone our values, and learn our true strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. And, necessity is the mother of invention — it has opened the door for new products, creative collaborations, and other avenues for the business that we hadn’t put much energy into before, and I think we’ll come out stronger. I sincerely hope that on the producing side, there is no long-lasting damage — I often worry about constraints that can have an outsize impact and hope everyone is doing everything they can to stay committed to contracts and longlasting partnerships.

The industry can only survive if we work together for the common good. Now is the most critical time to put effort into equitable practices, because these are the times when the most vulnerable parties shoulder the most risk, which is an unfair position for them to occupy in the first place.

As for the Women in Coffee Project, I have had to be a little more gracious with myself
throughout the year. I originally had big plans for this year, but with everything that has
happened, and the strain that so many of us are under both at work and in our personal lives, I haven’t been able to accomplish as much as I’d hoped by this point. Also, the radical shift in the cultural consciousness to push conversations about racial justice has been crucial to my growth this year. It feels like previously I was wearing the wrong prescription glasses or something — I saw equity as being an important aspect of coffee only at one of the sector, which included a lack of community resources, or poor representation on our part that wasn’t a reflection of actual lived experiences. It made it so clear that gender justice can’t happen without racial justice, and that conversations about racial equity involve the entire Latinx/Latinidad lived experience and complex history, as well. It will take a village to engage with these hard subjects, but we’re here,
and I’m ready to collaborate and do the work.”

Have you some next goals to achieve?

“For the Women in Coffee Project, we are slowly picking things back up. I have an online coffee exchange planned, in order to celebrate coffees produced by women, and in the future, I’d like to try to host some webinars as panel events since it will be quite some time before we are able to meet in person or host public events like we used to. So, my vision is shifting and I am still trying to adapt to a new structure that can serve us as we go into the “new normal.” At work, I stay committed to upholding our values even when we are operating under such serious constraints due to the lockdown — we still have so much we can do to stay honest and open with our business relationships. I’m also participating in the (Un)Learning Club, which is an online class on Coffee and Colonialism, and it’s my hope that the learning/unlearning journey that we undertake will inform a lot of what we do in the future, so I’m looking forward to that. I just started reading the book “Black in Latin America” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and I’m already learning so much about the dynamics behind race in Latin America that was largely influenced by the coffee and sugar trade and the multitude of enslaved peoples who built it and made it
possible for us to be where we are today. It’s a lot to process but it is so worthwhile to be
engaged in it!”