Nearly two months have passed since the curtains closed on the 2016 SCAA events in Atlanta, but like the great Ray Charles, I still have Georgia on my mind.
Three Ps stand out in my reflections: Policy, Progress and Paul Katzeff.
The Re:co Atlanta presentation that resonates most with me from the event is not the one I thought it would be when the agenda was announced. It is the presentation given by National Coffee Association Executive Director Bill Murray.
As the curators of Re:co Symposium know well, a great speaker is more essential to a successful talk than a compelling message. When a great speaker delivers a compelling message, well, that’s magic. And I found Bill Murray to be a great speaker — humble, humorous and engaging — with a very compelling message.
He began his presentation in Hollywood, where he used to work on government affairs for an entertainment industry trade association. He won over the audience by explaining some of the trials associated with sharing a name with another Bill Murray who is decidedly better known in star-crazed Los Angeles.
He explained how hard it was to be the source of endless disappointment to studio hands who were on the other end of his phone calls. You can imagine how those exchanges went. Breathless studio officials asking time and time again with excitement, “THE Bill Murray?!?” And the NCA’s Bill Murray letting them down gently over and over. He started referring to himself in Hollywood in the way he signed off in Atlanta, as “The OTHER Bill Murray.”
From Hollywood, Mr. Murray went to Washington via the heartland, explaining how he helped the film industry press its agenda in Congress by demonstrating its economic value to millions of people in big cities, small towns and megaplexes across the country — the people who elect our Congressional representatives.
His humor was self-effacing and his style easy and conversational, but there was no mistaking the razor-sharp thinking behind the strategy — a strategy he has brought with him to the NCA. The climax of his presentation was the unveiling of the NCA’s research to quantify coffee’s impact on the U.S. economy — research that suggests coffee is responsible for $225 billion in economic activity each year. I suspect that was the most-Tweeted moment of his speech, but not the most important.
The most important messages were these: (1.) being responsible for more than $1 of every $100 spent in the U.S. economy gives you leverage in Washington, and (2.) the NCA is committed to using that leverage to influence policy related to the coffee sector. If and when that leverage is brought to bear to make the coffee trade more transparent, inclusive or ecologically sustainable, it may be the greatest sustainability tool of all.
In my own presentation to Re:co Symposium, on labor protections in Brazil’s coffee sector, I contrasted the country’s reluctance to abolish de jure slavery in the 19th century with its eager campaign to eradicate de facto slavery in the 21st century.
Then, the country dragged its feet on abolition, implementing a series of gradual measures over a period of nearly 60 years that forestalled full freedom for slaves.
Now, Brazil has one of the most progressive working definitions of slave labor in the world.
Then, it was on the wrong side of history. Now, it is ahead of the curve. To me that sounds like progress.
Not that progress isn’t messy or painful. It is often both. Brazil’s definition of slavery is polarizing. Opponents argue that it overreaches, and indeed, no other country I know of characterizes debilitating workdays or degrading working conditions as slavery. But progress is often measured by our intolerance — by our refusal to tolerate today what we were willing to tolerate yesterday.
The history of advances in human rights and civil rights is filled with courageous bar-raisers who have challenged us to become intolerant—to reject the vestiges of bigotry, exclusion and oppression latent in our economies, laws, social systems and politics. This is an eternal process precisely because our collective conscience continues to evolve, mostly toward less tolerance of affronts to human dignity. As a result, we are freer today — and less tolerant of unfreedom — than at any other time in human history.
Our progress has not been harmonious or linear — it has been decidedly conflictive and uneven — but the trend line is clear. To paraphrase an ancient article of faith in the abolitionist movement, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.
I have served as a volunteer on the SCAA Sustainability Council since 2012, a space where Paul Katzeff, the founder of Thanksgiving Coffee, former SCAA President, unrepentant radical and catcher in an over-75 baseball league, still casts a long shadow.
Paul has arguably done as much as any other single individual to thrust issues of social justice and sustainability into the industry conversation. By all accounts, his leadership of the SCAA was transformational where sustainability is concerned, and the roasting company he has run for more than 40 years embodies the principles for which he has advocated tirelessly within the industry.
As SCAA President, Paul helped to create what was then called the Environment Committee. Today, it is the Sustainability Council. Paul joined a small gathering of current members of the SCAA Sustainability Council at the close of The SCAA Event and offered high praise for the way we have carried on the work he helped to start.
He said that the industry’s sustainability conversation today far surpasses even the most ambitious aspirations of the sustainability pioneers who convened the Environment Committee many years ago. Then, the term “sustainability” had little traction at the annual SCAA gathering, today, in Paul’s estimation, the entire event is “suffused with sustainability.” His comments are reprinted here with his permission.
Working for sustainability can be a tiring and thankless endeavor. The the stakes are high and the odds are long. It is easy to get discouraged. So every once in a while it is helpful to step back and take the long view. If there is an arc to the moral universe, or to the sustainability movement in specialty coffee, then Paul and the newest, youngest members of the Sustainability Council have surely walked different lengths of that arc. Bringing those perspectives together can help confirm that the arc is bending the right way. That is the source of some satisfaction, but the concern remains — is it bending far enough, fast enough?
Michael Sheridan has worked on coffee for Catholic Relief Services since 2004. He currently directs the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia and Ecuador and advises other CRS coffee projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is based in Quito and publishes perspectives from the intersection of coffee and international development for the CRS Coffeelands Blog at coffeelands.crs.org.