Great Coffee at the JJ, but is it Fair?

Eastern Professor Nancy Thomas often shares the words of Eastern alumnus and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson in class: “the opposite of justice is poverty.” The fair trade coffee movement has provided one answer to the injustice of poverty by insisting that everyone involved in production, from South America to the United States, be paid a fair wage.

The Waltonian recently covered Jammin Java’s switch of coffee providers. The previous provider is a local fair-trade coffeehouse in Philadelphia, whereas the new provider, Peet’s, is a franchise based out of California that only offers one fair-trade blend, which Eastern doesn’t currently carry.

Curious to learn about the history of fair-trade coffee at Eastern, I contacted Sara Frymoyer Bishop–an Eastern alumna and former Waltonian staff writer–who was instrumental in getting Eastern to use a fair-trade provider. Sara–who is currently Assistant Principal of KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy in Philly–started at Eastern in 2002 but took a year off in 2004 before graduating in 2007 with a degree in sociology. Of her experience during that year off, Sara shares:

“I did a program called Mission Year in Oakland, Calif. While in Oakland, I interned at Transfair USA. They are the third party certifier of everything fair trade. Basically, if something features the official fair trade symbol, they put it on there as the stamp of approval that the farmers are indeed paid a living wage. I learned a lot while I was interning there about all of the colleges across the country that were exclusively fair trade and also about the real difference that fair wages make in farmers’ lives.”

These experiences led Sara to advocate for change upon returning to Eastern. “I brought up the issue with Speak, a club that I co-led at the time, and we decided to see what could be done. Before us, there were definitely steps toward fair trade. What we spent time doing was figuring out the reasons why Eastern wasn’t fair trade. We met with Sodexo and Bettie Ann. We met with David Black, the president at the time, to talk about the reasons why,” Sara says.

The process of getting fair-trade coffee at Eastern was a long one, lasting an entire year. During this time, Sara told me, she learned so much: “We learned that the issue is not as black and white as we had assumed–there were limitations with the company that provided coffee to Eastern. There were limitations in terms of budget. Basically, we worked together with Sodexo and the school leadership to bring about the change through lots of conversation, listening, and mutual respect. It allowed us to build a foundation of trust so that we were taken seriously. We worked together to figure out would make it work business-wise (ultimately helping the local provider to carry fair trade) and then we also worked together to figure out how we would educate the staff and student body on why they should want to choose fair trade.”

I asked Sara if she encountered hostility or opposition in her efforts. She replied, “I wouldn’t say opposition; I would say real factors that any institution deals with. I think people who are passionate about an issue have a tendency to be overly simplistic. Social change is not so simple. Real change means digging in and figuring out the many factors that influence a situation and working collaboratively to find a solution. And if that doesn’t work, going back to the drawing board, figuring out key influences and trying again and again and again. Would Sodexo be able to continue to use their local provider? Could the local provider get the fair trade product? Would it be worth the cost? Would enough people choose it? Because of the way we approached the situation, I never felt hostility.”

To conclude the interview, I asked Sara to describe what she sees as the benefit of using a local fair-trade provider and her response was stirring. “Local business is better for the local economy. Fair trade is totally in line with faith, reason, and justice. If the option for fair trade is available, no matter what the business factors, it is our responsibility to try to make it work.”

Comments are closed.