Contemplations over Coffee

I love my morning cup of coffee. I used to be a tea drinker, but coffee is my current go-to daily indulgence. I didn’t drink coffee or tea until I had kids, but during those puffy-eyed, foggy-headed, sleepless baby years I developed a habit of going to a coffee shop for a latte. Yes, a latte. Because I am still a baby about drinking straight up black coffee. Going to a coffee shop served the dual purpose of being a treat for me (oxygen mask moment!) and a destination to get out of the house.

Finding a cozy coffee shop remains one of my favorite ways to see a new city or town. I will walk a great distance or drive quite a few miles out of my way with the lure of a local coffee shop as my destination. Some of my favorites include Reykjavik Roasters (Iceland – Icelandic folks really like their coffee!), Catalyst Coffee Bar (St. Albans, VT), the Kalaheo Coffee Company (Kauai, Hawai’i), and Café Loco (Panajachel, Guatemala).

In Guatemala, I had the opportunity to visit small-holder coffee farmers who are members of a cooperative called De La Gente. I loved this visit, of course, because coffee was involved, but also because it was my first chance to meet actual coffee farmers. I had seen large, glossy images of coffee farmers plastered on the walls of chain coffee shops – coffee farmers tending their crops; coffee farmers posing happily with freshly picked beans or with their family in front of a bright red, newly scrubbed jeep; coffee farmers staring across vast, idyllic landscapes. I had seen advertisements for Fair Trade practices, the happy smiles in the photos implying that life as a coffee farmer was good. But those images smack majorly of marketing campaigns, and I have always wondered: who really and truly are the people behind the coffee and what are their lives actually like?

As usual, the story is more complicated than a Fair Trade label and a sustainable living for farmers (known in industry lingo as “producers”). In the central Highlands of Guatemala, coffee grows in the folds of picturesque volcanoes. This area produces some of the best coffee in Guatemala because it is the perfect micro-climate for these shade-grown plants. Except when the volcano erupts, of course.

For these coffee producers, the commute is a walk up the hill to the higher elevations where the coffee beans grow. The cooperative model has had a positive impact on farmers in this area. With 28 coffee growers working together, they are able to get better prices. So that’s a good thing. Better prices should mean more money in the pocket of the farmers. Hopefully. As part of a direct trade cooperative, the De La Gente farmers are better off than many. But they still work 12-hour days, sometimes more. And they are still extremely vulnerable to the smallest change in circumstances out of their control – weather, infestation, global prices, health issues within the family.

Coffee is only harvested once per year, apart from in Columbia. This means that, for producers, managing cash flow is extremely challenging. All of their annual income is realized in a matter of one or two weeks. The farmers dream of more than just barely surviving. Stability and predictability are not yet a reality; margins are extremely thin.

How vulnerable are coffee farmers? Coffee plants rely on a temperate climate with a specific range of degree in temperature. Martin Mayorga, of Mayorga Organics, says, “If you doubt climate change, go talk to some coffee farmers. 1,000 meters was prime elevation for growing really high quality coffee in Central America. One or two degrees of climate shift, it becomes basically unsustainable.” Climate change is already impacting low-altitude coffee-producing regions because of increasing temperatures, making plants more vulnerable to insects and diseases.

In 2013, coffee rust impacted many coffee farmers in Central America. The result of this disease outbreak meant the producers weren’t able to produce enough coffee to meet their loan payments. I should mention that coffee farmers often rely on loans to bridge the gap between growing seasons. These loans come with high interest rates. If their once-per-year payment from that year’s coffee production isn’t sufficient, the farmers can’t pay back their loans. The cycle and insecurity intensify and deepen year after year.

In Guatemala, much of the coffee grows in the shadows of active volcanoes. According to Henry Wilson of Perfect Daily Grind, the world’s largest English and Spanish coffee publication (with 5 million page views), during the volcanic eruption of Volcan del Fuego in June and November 2018, coffee production decreased by 30%. How does anyone survive under these conditions?

The solution(s)? According to Mayorga and Wilson, the prescription for producers is diversification. Producers need to be adaptable to market forces, but also to the varied outside forces that impact their ability to produce high-quality coffee. Diversification enables producers to generate income from a range of products over the course of the year. Portfolio diversification equates to risk management. Both Mayorga and Wilson have begun to work with farmers to produce and market other crops that grow well where coffee grows such as chia, cacao, beans, and quinoa. According to Wilson, the coffee farmers near Volcan del Fuego survived their losses in 2018 because they had already diversified their crops.

On the consumer side, we can be more thoughtful about where the beans that fuel our day come from, how they are produced, and by whom. And we can demand better if it’s not good enough. It’s easy to forget where the supply chain that gets products onto our supermarket shelves starts, but it’s important to think about it. As Mayorga Organics notes in its purpose statement, “The solution isn’t as simple as paying farmers a few cents more. It’s about treating our farmers as EQUAL PARTNERS and empowering them through communication and cooperation. It’s about ‘trimming the fat’ in the agribusiness supply chain to create more value for farmers and for consumers–all while obsessively focusing on quality.”

The world is a complicated place. The problems in developing countries are often interrelated – the systems of export-based economies set up during colonial periods endure, keeping the poorest mired in cycles of hopelessness and poverty from which they cannot escape. In primarily agrarian economies, diversifying crops leads to greater stability for farmers on a year-over-year basis. The less vulnerable farmers are, the better able they are to weather the impacts of climate change, and the more likely they are to allow their children time away from the farm to pursue an education. The more educated the populace becomes, the deeper their understanding of the forces that impact their daily lives, from climate change to politics. It’s all connected. No one can pour from an empty cup.

I am not an expert on these subjects by any stretch. But they matter. Here are some further resources to pore over as you pour and enjoy a nice, warm beverage to start your day:

10 Reasons Fair Trade Coffee Doesn’t Work

Changing Challenges and Solutions for Guatemalan Coffee Producers

Small Coffee Farmers Need to Diversify

Acknowledging the Impact of Slavery and Colonialism in the Coffee Industry

Cultivating Change Podcast

PS – Check out the video below to further understand the conditions in which producers of various commodities the U.S. imports work, thanks to Martin Mayorga. He writes, “The farmers we typically work with are usually in remote areas, don’t have proper tools, and are most easily exploited by large traders. Our goal is to give them stable income and work with them to develop their skills, tools, and capacities so THEY can choose who they work with. It’s a long, challenging process but if we don’t go into those communities, those producers will continue to be exploited and consumers will be the unknowing tool used for exploitation.  (BTW, these farmers are separating chia seed from the husk. It’s the first of many steps necessary to get to pure, clean chia seeds and is done using tractors in industrialized farms)”.

 

 

 

Millinocket, Marathons, Momentum, and Moose

“Like a pebble tossed into still water.” This is how Gary Allen, the man behind the Millinocket Marathon and a Half, likens his efforts to create ripple effects of ever-widening positive impact and change. For background, check out this post about Millinocket and the marathon from November – Have you ever heard of the Magic City?

Here we are in August 2019, and while it’s hard to believe that New England could be cold at anytime – ever – from the vantage point of this summer’s heat waves, already Millinocket is on the mind and momentum is building for the December 2019 event. Check out singer/songwriter Jenn Schott’s tribute to the Millinocket marathon:

Another cool new fundraising initiative for the region is the virtual Acadia to Katahdin race that starts August 2 (you have until December 31 to log all 328.5 miles). More info on that here.

Interested in running the actual Marathon or Half on December 7, 2019? Sign up here. Remember, there is no registration fee – this is a race designed around showing up and giving back!

The idea of this marathon was bold, audacious, and selfless. The result has been large, broad ripples more like those that result from water cascading off a moose’s antlers as it lifts its head from the pond than from a small pebble.

Moose and Mountain
Gratuitous moose pictures, with the majestic Katahdin.

Bold. Audacious. Selfless. I’ll circle back to those themes soon.

Marathon Hat and Logo

 

 

Anaya Tipnis and Access to the American Dream

Independence and self-reliance are two of the most prized American values. We are raised in a culture where individualism is paramount. From an early age we are told stories about how anything is possible if you work hard enough. We are brought up on images of settlers coming to this country seeking freedom from the hierarchy of European society, and then of pioneers bravely striking out for new territories in the west in search of the American Dream.

One is left with the impression that success, then as now, is all bootstraps and determination, and that opportunity is equitably available to all. Facebook and Instagram reflect only the polished finished product. Magazine and newspaper articles tell tales of overnight success stories that seemingly truly happen overnight. In reality, overnight success is often many years in the making. What “got you there” doesn’t make for pretty pictures. The seemingly easy wins, the quick pivot and big idea that gains traction, the rags to riches are built on a lifetime of relationship and skill building.

Working hard matters. But, when you dig deeper into success stories, there is also usually someone in the wings – a mentor, a teacher, a parent, someone or an accumulation of someones – providing guidance and support along the way. The notion of instant success in a complete vacuum is folklore. Is there opportunity to be found by people of all stripes and backgrounds in the U.S.? Absolutely. Do some have advantages over others in the pursuit of these opportunities? 100%.

I’ve been reflecting recently on the enduring impact and importance of a good education. Education creates a solid foundation, a springboard that expands one’s options and from which to make choices in the future. There is incredible privilege that comes with that, from literacy and critical thinking skills that enhance one’s basic ability to function in the world, to the confidence to handle new situations, to a broad professional network and understanding of professional norms. As a child, my siblings and I were given the space, the support, and our parents’ disciplined example when it came to pursuing our studies with vigor and without distraction. Going to college wasn’t a question; it was a priority. I wasn’t aware at the time of the enormous and enduring gift I was being given. Only now do I realize more fully how the core fundamentals of my education – literacy and grammar, critical thinking and data analysis, clean writing, and a challenging of one’s preconceptions – inform who I am and what I am capable of today.

In this context, I think about the MAIA Impact School in Guatemala and how education is poised to change the trajectory of the girl pioneers’ lives. Notably, part of the curriculum at the Impact School includes mentorship. Mentorship bridges the gap between the students’ family and cultural history and a new future of expanded possibility. Working hard and the means to afford an education are obviously critical pieces. But so is having a support system in place to help navigate unfamiliar terrain.

In the United States, the opportunity to attend school exists more broadly for all. Education through high school is both a right and a requirement, though educational opportunity and outcomes are widely variable and often influenced by geography and wealth. The leap to college for low-income and first-generation college students is vast. In some ways, because of the traditional values we are raised on that espouse hard work, independence, and self-reliance, the gap is even wider because it isn’t acknowledged, as though the unique struggles of first-time college-bound students don’t or shouldn’t exist.

Working hard and financial means are only two components of successful outcomes. To pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous about one’s own experience. For students who are trying to break the mold, to chart a new course, the demands are even more rigorous and the reality more isolating. The notion that working harder will remove all barriers is a myth. The Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Fund recognized that, “a high percentage of [low-income and first-generation] students drop out of college for reasons other than solely financial, from lacking a familial support system to an adverse academic environment. While many organizations help high school students secure college admissions, almost none provide vital mentorship for transitioning to and succeeding in higher education.”  They have made it their mission to help first-time college students by closing both these financial and mentorship gaps. In partnership with Upper Bound, Upper Bound Math and Science, TRIO, and Urban Scholars, the Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Fund offers:

●  Cash awards of $3,000 to each accepted student;

●  One-on-one mentorships tailored to each student’s individual needs;

●  Internship opportunities at local institutions and/or organizations.

The award recipients for 2018/19 and 2019/20 are shown in the following picture. You can read more about their individual stories here!

PHOTO-2019-07-26-21-38-44
Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Awardees

This is hope in action. This fund honors Anaya and her life wish. It bridges the gap to achieving the American Dream for hard-working and driven scholars, attempting to level the playing field by creating more equitable access to, and outcomes in, higher education. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Community and Connections Count. That concept may not be as prized or acknowledged as some traditional American values, but it is a more genuine and real one. No one truly goes it alone. And no one should have to.

The Scholarship Fund’s Annual event and award ceremony will take place this year on August 20, 2019, in Needham, Massachusetts. If you are interested in attending or contributing, RSVP through their website at: https://anayafoundation.org/index.php/events

Congratulations and good luck, scholars!!!

 

 

 

On Becoming Powerful and Empowered

I have been writing a lot recently about the MAIA Impact School and my fight for girls’ education (rights, life – hope!) in Guatemala. Today I am bringing empowerment Stateside.

A couple of years ago, my Rheumatologist recommended adding weight-bearing exercise to my routine. Instead of doing what normal people do, you know, lift some weights here and there at the gym, maybe do the circuit equipment, I joined CrossFit Launchpad (CFLP). My Rheumatologist’s jaw dropped when I told her that. It was pretty funny, actually. I could see the wheels turning in her head, “Crossfit? Really? Do you always have to push the outside edge with this disease?” Why, yes, yes I do.

You see, I know myself, and it’s a fact that I will not pick up a weight unless I am instructed to do so. Accountability counts. Plus, the gym owner, Ronda Rockett, is a Primary Care Physician, so she knows all about body mechanics and physiology. When I told her that I have RA I felt safer knowing that she knew exactly what that meant. Plus, she seriously knows about health and fitness.

Crossfit Coach
Crossfit Coach and Athlete Ronda Rockett

Needless to say, I started showing up to these classes, at first cutting workouts in half and still hobbling around on pulled and tired muscles for days afterwards. I have been going long enough now that not much fazes me, the lingo all sounds familiar, and I have watched our crossfit community grow. The other day it struck me as I watched people moving around the gym, stretching and warming up, gearing up for the workout, asking questions of the coach – this small gym is a microcosm of society, a seemingly ever more rare reflection of what an inclusive, supportive, caring community looks like. The idea is to work hard personally, but not to leave anyone behind (even the family dog).

This tenet applies to everyone who comes to the gym – men, women, and children. People join CFLP for a whole range of reasons, including some who haven’t exercised in a long time; who weren’t “athletes”; who have weight they want to lose that just won’t budge or health issues they can’t shake and are sick of not feeling well. I notice them shyly standing in the corner, hoping to blend into the walls and go unnoticed, deferentially allowing others to go first, reviewing the WOD (Workout of the Day) saying things like, “I don’t think I can do this.” The weekly schedule reflects the scaled workouts and WOD modifications designed for them. I see how hard they work, and how it just wipes them out, sweaty, panting, red-faced, and exhausted at the end.

Over time, I witness a slow evolution brought about by hard work and perseverance. Not only are these budding athletes literally becoming more powerful by lifting ever heavier weights or accomplishing more sets in a workout, but they are also becoming more empowered. Being part of this community ignites a light within. Here, a strong core means much more than six-pack abs – it’s about your spirit and celebrating everything that makes you you. Given the right support and encouragement, it turns out you can do anything – in the gym and outside of it.

Scientific studies suggest that strong, healthy, active parents raise strong, healthy, active kids. According to Dr. Christine Carter, “the first step in the science of raising happy kids is to actually be happy yourself.” Check out this Time magazine article from 2014 about how to raise happy kids (10 steps backed by science). Here’s the summary list:

  1. Get Happy Yourself
  2. Teach Them To Build Relationships
  3. Expect Effort, Not Perfection
  4. Teach Optimism
  5. Teach Emotional Intelligence
  6. Form Happiness Habits
  7. Teach Self-Discipline
  8. More Playtime
  9. Rig Their Environment For Happiness
  10. Eat Dinner Together

At CFLP, Ronda and the other coaches encourage us beyond the amount of weight we can lift. We talk about setting (achievable) goals, forming new habits, nutrition and sitting down for a healthy meal as a family (not in front of the TV!), working hard, and gratitude. We are creating new pathways for ourselves, and also setting an example for our children. We are modeling what it means to be healthy and strong and to expect effort, but not perfection. We are also teaching them about building relationships and how a supportive and caring community behaves. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – no one goes it alone. Everyone needs support and encouragement somewhere along the line.

The other day, we finished the prescribed workout with a little time to spare. One member, the one guy in the room that class, suggested that we add on a little extra to finish out the time. This particular athlete had finished the workout well before the rest of us, and then stood there patiently swigging his water, cheering for each of us, and waiting for us to finish. When the coach asked him what he wanted to do for extra work, he responded, “whatever the team wants.” This is an attitude to emulate. Imagine our world if everyone strove to lift others up versus pushing them down; where unity was sought over division, support given versus criticism; where we meet face to face, put the screens away (for an hour!), and cheer hardest for the one who is coming in last; where our common humanity – our community – is celebrated and flourishes. Go team!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

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