“Womxn in Coffee” Urges the Portland Coffee Community to Listen and Take Action

Alejandrina Acereto, center, speaks during the Womxn in Coffee panel at Black Rabbit Service Co. in Portland.

PORTLAND—In a city currently embroiled in conversations surrounding harassment and discrimination in cafés, as well as a recent surge of violence towards the queer community, many in the Portland coffee industry are taking action to address these and more concerns through thoughtful events including roundtable discussions and panels, like Friday night’s Womxn in Coffee.

After a successful maiden voyage in Seattle in October, the Womxn in Coffee panel made its way to Portland on February 15 to continue the conversation surrounding the injustices women, people of color, and queer folx endure throughout the industry.

Organized by Seattle-based barista Tatiana Benitez and sponsored by Oatly, Womxn in Coffee found many in the Portland coffee community packing Black Rabbit Service Co. for a cathartic, empowering evening of six panelists discussing their experiences facing racial, gender, and sexual identity discrimination, and presenting solutions to tackle these issues.

Panel speakers Tatiana Benitez, Camila Coddou, Alejandrina Acereto, Sara Reynolds, Paxton Ogwaro, and Molly Flynn.

Benitez opened the evening’s conversation by addressing the recent turmoil surrounding a prominent local coffee business and why events such as the panel are important to the greater coffee community.

“With everything that’s happened in the Portland coffee community, I think it’s really important for this to happen now,” she said. “As a person who’s gone through sexual harassment and racial discrimination…creating a safe space where these conversations can be had, it’s very important to me.”

She also spoke about the need for those who have faced discrimination to be heard and validated by peers, coworkers, and employers, rather than have their experiences and feelings questioned and belittled.

Next, Camila Coddou, formerly of Ristretto Roasters, shared how being the only queer woman of color on many staffs has guided her own hiring and training choices, calling out how Portland cafés lack diversity not because there isn’t a diverse pool of applicants, but because managers focus on only hiring those with experience—a practice that gives preference, overwhelmingly, to white men. She encouraged upper management in cafés to invest time and energy into their training programs and allow for a learning curve.

“What’s not important? Rosettas! What is? Diversity!” she said.” 

 

Following Coddou, current Stumptown barista Alejandrina Acereto opened up to the crowd about the sexual harassment she encountered while working in San Diego, which led to fear and anxiety every time she left for work. Although she brought it up with management, there was no system in place to deal with the harassment—an oversight in many cafés.

“What I want from all of you is to make sure there is a system in your workplace to deal with sexual harassment,” said Acereto, before echoing Benitez’s sentiment that people, especially women, need to be validated in their experiences. “Instead of being defensive, listen to us.”

Acereto closed her time by stressing the importance of intersectionality, stating, “You can’t support me as a brown person but not also support me as a woman….If you’re going to stand up for us you have to stand up for everything we are.”

Good Coffee’s Sara Reynolds outlined what she has witnessed in café settings, particularly in regard to gender roles. It is typical to see, in her experience, female employees manage the register, clean tables, and check on customers, while male coworkers and managers spend time at the bar discussing the coffee. The dichotomy between men and masculine-presenting persons, who are privileged to focus on roasting notes and flavor profiles, keeping the flow of information among themselves, while women and women-identifying workers take on the often-unnoticed work on the hospitality side, is eye-opening.

Following Reynolds was Portland barista and author of “The Miseducation of a White Manager” on The Chocolate Barista, Paxton Ogwaro, who spoke succinctly yet powerfully about tokenism in the coffee community, investing in workplace ethics, developing a consistent and fair system for addressing employee concerns, and how their experience has exposed the importance of exit interviews.

“Unhealthy work environments are flourishing,” they said.

The final panelist, Seattle-based Molly Flynn, founder of #CoffeeToo, shared her own experiences of harassment, before delivering a list of action items for how the industry can better address the issues covered over the course of the night. These include:

  • Have a code of conduct
  • Remove biases from your hiring processes
  • Hire an external HR company
  • Consider having an ethics committee made up of employees
  • Have a portion of each company meeting dedicated to discussing legal rights and social responsibilities
    (Following the event, #CoffeeToo posted the full list to its Facebook page, with more information about each item.)

The panel concluded with a Q&A, which yielded more insights including how the community can support marginalized baristas and the importance of giving patronage to cafés that treat their employees well.

Womxn in coffee have a powerful voice—and the strong turnout of attendance and the enthusiastic conversations among those who lingered after the panel prove that the Portland coffee community is ready to listen.

“I want people to listen to us and know,” said Benitez, “none of us are alone in this. We all work for the same industry.”