Opinion / Humans are coffee’s greatest resource

Since the launch of the Glitter Cat Barista Boot Camp in 2018, Eric J. Grimm has been working with US coffee professionals outside of the competition arena to empower them in the workplace. Grimm explains why the HR function is essential for both staff and employers wishing to create pathways to inclusive opportunities in coffee businesses – and that accountability is the key to success

The Glitter Cat Barista Boot Camp is a barista training programme focused on providing opportunities and skills to members of marginalised communities | Photo credit: Glitter Cat Barista 

As Director of Positive Outcomes at Glitter Cat Barista I work to support marginalised workers in the coffee industry, including the LGBTQIA community, people of colour, neurodivergent and disabled people and people of marginalised gender.

Many of these people have been held back in various ways, not just in coffee industry competitions, but in their own professional pursuits.

Since launching the Glitter Cat Barista Boot Camp in 2018, a barista training programme focused on providing opportunities and skills to members of marginalised communities, we’ve connected with so many brilliant talents in the coffee world.

Yet, so many of these talents tell us that joining the programme was the first time they’d been taken seriously in their entire career.

We heard stories of people asking their supervisors to take their role to the next level or wanting to learn more about coffee simply to be told that they hadn’t paid their dues or that they needed more experience.

There are many roadblocks in the way of marginalised coffee professionals and often there is no clear way to make it past those barriers.

Initially, a lot of my work was helping people work through their imposter syndrome. We encouraged people to be the most authentic version of themselves, to network with others who could help their career trajectories and improve their competition performance. More recently, we’ve also expanded our HR programme to go beyond competitions and into workplaces.

HR is key to ensuring workplace anti-discriminatory polices are effective

In June 2020 it felt like the US was on fire. There was a major national reckoning with systemic racism, historical oppression, and the ways we discuss race.

During that time many coffee companies, particularly in the US, issued statements attempting to address missteps with the treatment of their black employees. There were many lofty promises and pledges to tackle racism – but for the most part these were vague, and we didn’t see measures put in place to ensure accountability.

Initially, Glitter Cat discussed setting up a project that would provide a framework of commitments for businesses to sign up to. However, as we explored the concept we realised that didn’t go far enough.

The core of the issue is that even if coffee companies have anti-racism policies in place, they often don’t go far enough to protect marginalised people. That means staff, but also marginalised customers too.

Once we decided that we would work with coffee businesses to establish anti-racist policies, we discovered that human resources (HR) is the key to implementation but that the function is missing from most small businesses.

We recognise that it’s difficult for smaller businesses with fewer than 100 employees to have a HR function beyond the owner and that’s why we decided to get HR-certified. I applied for an accredited certification to become an associate professional in human resources and after 10 weeks of classes and passing a 300-question test, here I am on the other side.

Since then, I have worked with coffee businesses in the US to develop forward thinking company policies.

Glitter Cat will be launching an HR cohort soon and that group will work on developing universal documents that smaller coffee businesses can use to help develop specific HR policies.

“Coffee shop owners should be asking themselves where they are situated, who they are serving and who are they trying to serve” | Photo credit: Glitter Cat Barista 


Accountability is crucial

Checking in on staff ultimately involves long-standing relationships with them, which is difficult to do on a volunteer basis. Accountability is crucial, and ultimately when you have written policies in place in some instances those are binding documents.

Ultimately it falls to a business to hold themselves accountable to their own written standards, but also it gives employees power to hold their employers accountable.

Success depends on a lot of hard work from both sides, but by introducing an HR programme we hope to make the process easier for businesses. This is not about calling out employers as wrong or to correct them.

Instead, it’s about acknowledging that employers have so much to do when running a business and that any way that we can help them to make things clear will positively impact their own accountability.

The first step is to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists and that we have it embedded in us based on cultural and political representations of marginalised groups.

Acknowledging it doesn’t mean that you have to say ‘I’m deeply guilty and I need to make amends’. Instead, it means acknowledging the fact that it exists and that there is always room to improve.

“Without acknowledging the community, it is impossible to do the work of diversity, equity and inclusion”

That’s why when we create HR processes the documents cannot be set in stone and must be ‘living’. This process links to another big learning from our programme relating to the use of language for marginalised people. For example, racial and ethnic minorities was a term that we used in the beginning for people from communities of colour. Another example is that initially we used the term ‘disabilities’, and now we’ve split that into two groups of neurodivergent and disabled people based on our evolving use of language.

We also need to acknowledge that the work of diversity, equity and inclusion means acknowledging specific issues on a macro level and that broad umbrella policies are ultimately band-aids – and that these are often band-aids over bullet wounds.

Coffee businesses must be community minded

Gentrification in US communities is a huge issue that we’ve been grappling with for what seems like my entire coffee career. The expansion of coffee shops is often seen a wonderful thing for neighbourhoods. But across the US, the appearance of a specialty coffee shop where there has never been one before is often a harbinger of doom for long-term residents, signalling increasing property values and the threat of landlord evictions.

Coffee shop owners should be asking themselves where they are situated, who they are serving and who are they trying to serve. Without acknowledging the community, it is impossible to do the work of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The coffee industry has the great advantage of touching the lives of so many people throughout the supply chain and provides brilliant exposure to people from all walks of life.

Listening to how communities want to identify and be treated means exposing yourself to people you may not have encountered before. Only then is it possible to pinpoint the roadblocks that have been put up against individuals in the workplace and overcome them.

This article was first published in Issue 11 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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