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An Open Letter to U.S. Coffee Industry on Racism: One Year Later

Phyllis Johnson

Phyllis Johnson

June 11, 2021

Today, marks one year since publishing the open letter to the U.S. coffee industry on racism.

The letter was a call to action. During ongoing tragedy and racial unrest, I asked for your consideration of the underrepresentation and state of Black individuals in the U.S. coffee industry, as well as an examination of their current day and historical contributions.

This generation rightfully stood up, rejected empty solidarity, and called out actions that were performative or meaningless. I’m grateful to those of you who called out companies that attempted allyship without having a leg to stand on, holding up past records of harm and complicity. You demanded receipts for claims of ownership.

Although difficult, such actions were necessary. They placed our industry on notice, and the message was clear: Racial equity is a must.

What I Am Doing

Over this past year, I hope that you’ve gained greater insight and accepted opportunities to stand against anti-Blackness and racism. We can all do something, and together we can do much more.

We made some changes at BD Imports: I carved out a few hours in my weekly schedule to mentor entrepreneurs, many of whom are Black individuals. We became more intentional about engaging business opportunities and seeking out services and relationships from Black-owned companies, or those who exemplified diversity and inclusion in some meaningful way.

We considered racial equity in our supply partners, as racism and oppression extends beyond U.S. borders. While staying committed to working at home, we understand that it is a global challenge.

I continued to write and speak on the topic as much as my schedule allowed. My company’s greatest achievement was employing a talented recent graduate from a Historically Black College and University who happens to be my daughter, Maya. This young lady was my inspiration for writing the original letter, as well as this follow-up.

Last but not least, as a result of the open letter, I founded a nonprofit: The Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity.

What We Are Doing Together

I never planned to leave this work to you alone, my dear coffee friends. In the letter, I said that this work takes all of us, and many of you agreed. Fifteen incredible individuals joined me in taking on this challenge, agreeing to help build a foundation for the CCRE by serving on the organization’s board of directors.

The CCRE’s vision is simple and clear: We envision racial equity in the U.S. coffee industry.

Since our launch last October, we’ve been busy building a framework for a solid organization. This work is noncompetitive; it is collaborative with authenticity at its core. It has brought together some unlikely partnerships, resulting in some of the following initiatives, activities and reflections. These are things we can do together:

  • Though our webinar series, we dispelled the idea that Black and Brown individuals are missing and without interest in coffee. We engaged the young, the experienced and everyone in between in our discussions, and they all had valuable perspectives to share.
  • Black coffee entrepreneurs are entering the industry and expanding.
  • We have established a scholarship and received funding to showcase the contributions from the past while supporting efforts going forward.
  • Next week, we will be announcing a racial equity program with a large green coffee trading company.
  • There has been an increase in companies developing programs to support BIPOC entrepreneurs. Diversity and inclusion task forces are coming together; buyers are examining their supply partners; contributions are being made to support equity-driven programs.
  • We are reading new books, listening to podcasts and developing curriculums to unlearn what we’ve learned while gaining new perspectives on history.
  • We celebrated Black History Month this past February, and many more people are aware of the significance of the upcoming Juneteenth.

When we accept these actions and reflections collectively, we can begin to see that coffee refuses to be defined in one way by one group of individuals, and that there is great value in multiplicity. 

I urge you, my coffee friends, to keep the focus on you and your actions within this larger movement. Let’s continue to each take small, incremental steps to improve our own environments and workplaces. Taken together, these steps will advance all of us, and the coffee industry at large.

Thank you for giving me space in your heads and hearts. Thank you for your trust. We have a way to go, but I’m happy to be on this journey with you.



Phyllis Johnson



paul katzeff

I have worked long hours at the former SCAA to help the various Boards over the 20 years I served as both President and Board member to recognize the vast potential to grow our industry by reaching out into the Black Communities around the Country. It was not, for me , about Racism but about a trade wise stupidity. In looking back at my Board efforts and the ridicule heaped upon me by many who called me too much a 60’s Hippy Radical that eventually three white woman conspired to remove me from the board(pre Cancillation Culture). My point was simply , why are we not trying to attract a giant population that consumes coffee and is an untapped growth resource for all who sell coffee to consumers. Racial Diversity did not enter the equasion for me in my efforts to convince an organization to make dollar expenditures to enable the work . Back then the only committee of the Board was the Sustainability Committee and Racial Justice did not fit into that model of how to reach “Sustainability”.
As a White Guy it did not seem to be Racism that was holding the Bpard back, We had a diverse group of nice people so were not engaged in racial equity discussions as part of our Board strategies.
We missed seeing that the coffee supply side was almosrt , as it is today, Black, Brown and Muslim. The demand side was then , almost all White as it is today. Looking back 20 years to 2001 I believe the excuse given was we shoud not mis Religion and Politics with Business. A sad and shortsighted Trade Theory which came upo against my belief that in coffee , that was the only way to organize our Specialty Coffee Industry in the US.
It is heartening to read about the work you are doing Phyllis and I feel personally vindicated by your efforts as self serving as that may sound and be. But there are many ex SCAA Board members that I hope see your work and temember back to the time when they stood against Divesity and change , not because they were knowingly
racist , but because it was too hard to break away from the chains that held them to support the status quo.
Paul Katzeff
Co Founder
Thanksgiving Coffee Company

John Rippo

The least the coffee trade could do is call out the rank slavery that still exists among the cocoa harvesting parts of Africa. Ivory Coast, for example, where the color of one’s skin determines one’s blunt fate. As Katzeff above mentions, some people prefer not to mix biz with “politics”; such as they miss the point. Coffee trade is the result of politics and those politics enforce, uphold and enshrine racism, among other things. Sad to see it takes more courage than some people have to even look at that, let alone deal effectively with it.
John Rippo
Publisher, ESPRESSO Cafe News


lol…So you hired your own daughter and consider and it an accomplishment? More like nepotism. You should be ashamed of yourself. You are part of the problem.


I wish there were also some discussion, somewhere, of the constant complication of the barista job by whites with mostly useless college degrees. Black and brown coffee servers and baristas have been supplanted almost everywhere by white “barista champions,” and similar people, who generally studied law or engineering, etc., and couldn’t get a job. First thing they do, they add another piece of jargon and a few more steps to the process. It may not be effective, but the intent is to turn coffee into a career for educated white professionals, which it simply isn’t.

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