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The Coffee Equity Lab Launches at Vanderbilt with Free Speaker Series


An view of the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt University’s on-campus center for innovation and the home of the Coffee Equity Lab. (Credit: Vanderbilt University/Steve Green)

A new coffee-focused academic lecture and workshop series led by Vanderbilt University innovation center The Wond’ry is kicking off this week as part of the new Coffee Equity Lab.

The three-part speaker series is a pilot program of the Coffee Equity Lab, a new project designed to engage students and faculty across a broad range of disciplines while forging industry partnerships towards a more equitable coffee sector.

Speaker Series

The first of an initial series of three “Coffee Talks” titled “Third Wave Coffee, Maya Farmers and the Creation of Value” is occurring this Thursday, Sept. 17, from 4–5 p.m. CST.

The talk, which is available for free online, will be led by Dr. Ted Fischer, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Anthropology and director of the university’s Center for Latin American Studies.

Among other ongoing positions and projects, Fischer is currently at work on a book with the working title “Coffee and Values: Third Wave Tastes, Maya Farmers, and Determinations of Worth.”

4. coffee-trees-project-pyramid-guate-trip

Vanderbilt Graduate Students visited Finca Filadelfia in Spring 2020 as part of a coffee-focused project with the Turner Family Center for Social Venture’s Project Pyramid Program. TFC is a Coffee Equity Lab and Institute of Coffee Studies partner and has long-standing relationships with coffee organizations in Guatemala. (Credit: Arika Kayastha)

“Coffee is a wonderful topic of research and teaching,” Fischer recently told Daily Coffee News. “In many ways, coffee serves as a microcosm of the world. It can tell us a lot about the history of colonial expansion, the chemistry and neurobiology of stimulants, global trade and inequalities, and changing consumer tastes.”

The second talk in the series, “On Being Black in Coffee,” is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 15. It will feature BD Imports Co-Founder Phyllis Johnson, and Alicia Adams, director of coffee for Red Bay Coffee in Oakland, California. Registration is available here.

The third talk in the series, “On Coffee’s Interdisciplinary Intersections,” is slated for Thursday, Nov. 5, and it will feature an interdisciplinary Vanderbilt faculty panel. Registration is available here.

Coffee Equity Lab

The series comes as pilot programming for The Coffee Equity Lab, a new experiential learning and research lab housed in Vanderbilt’s center for innovation and design, The Wond’ry.

The Wond’ry’s Hanes Motsinger, who is also one of the co-creators of the Specialty Coffee Association’s Coffee Sustainability Program, told Daily Coffee News that the nascent Coffee Equity Lab has emerged to build upon the legacy of the Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies, which was founded in 2001 and is currently housed in the University’s Center for Latin American Studies.

5. visiting-coffee-farm-with-de-la-gente

De la Gente, a Guatemala-based coffee social enterprise, takes VU students on a tour of the San Miguel Escobar Cooperative near Antigua, Guatemala in Spring 2020. (Credit: Arika Kayastha)

Through the Institute, Fischer and Dr. Bart Victor have been working for more than 15 years with coffee communities in Guatemala, forming relationships that have allowed Vanderbilt students to participate in field-study programs and social enterprise projects.

Motsinger said the Lab is designed to create additional opportunities for students to engage in pressing issues facing society — such as climate change, racial and gender equity, and global trade — through the lens of coffee.

“I also envisioned a Lab wherein Vanderbilt students, faculty, and staff could collaborate with strategic industry partners to use systems thinking and human-centered design to develop innovative strategies and tools that might help coordinate sustainability and equity interventions in the sector,” Motsinger told DCN. “When I saw the SCA’s recent effort to use systems thinking to map the ongoing coffee price crisis, I was further affirmed that the time might be right.”

6. students-with-De-la-gente

From L-R, Sambit, Katie Foster, Julia Bridgforth, and Arika Kayastha visit De La Gente in Antigua, Guatemala, as part of their Graduate level Project Pyramid Project undertaken in collaboration with Hanes Motsinger at the Wond’ry. (Credit: Arika Kayastha)

Motsinger added that there will also be some opportunities to drink coffee, too, both for pleasure and for sensory exploration. A small group of undergraduate students will be participating in at least three tasting/sensory workshops throughout the Fall semester. The first will be led by Fischer, the second by Adams and Johnson, and the third by Tom Valentine of Nashville-based Crema Coffee Roasters.

“In the future, we hope to be able to offer these experiences to a broader audience,” said Motsinger. “We currently have a small space inside the Wond’ry [for coffee tastings], but the ongoing pandemic means that all of our activities for the Fall 2020 semester, and possibly Spring 2021, will be virtual.”