By Bill Fishbein
Just before I went off to college, my dad pulled me aside to give me some words of advice. He told me that he had once read in the Talmud that, “If you change one person, you change the world”. While I knew and appreciated that he was trying to share something of profound value to me, I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. There are billions of people in the world. And, changing one of them wasn’t going to make one hill of beans worth of difference. Anyway, I went off to college.
In college, while other kids were drinking beer and falling in love, I was falling in love with coffee. I studied late with friends from Venezuela who brewed the most delicious coffee. I should have been as passionate about my studies as I was about the coffee. But, I graduated just the same.
Shortly after college, I returned to Providence, to help my mom and dad in their restaurant equipment business. It was a small business, but we had big dreams. Still, I envied the coffee supplier. We both entered restaurants from the back door, but he had the life! He sold coffee!
Our family went from restaurant equipment sales to gourmet housewares sales, but coffee was always on my mind so one day I told my dad I wanted to bring in a line of specialty to get customers coming in once a week instead of once in a long while. I lied. I really just wanted to run my fingers through the beans.
The business really took off but we were strapped for cash, so we borrowed a little and expanded to 2 locations. We sweated from week to week and the businesses continued to grow. We borrowed a little more and opened a third location, and then we borrowed even more and opened an upscale Jewish Delicatessen. There were lines out the door: we were officially HOT. But, we had borrowed to the hilt. We worked weekends, nights and fended off the creditors as best we could, but the struggle consumed us each day.
My dad had struggled a lot harder than I did. He had pulled himself out of the Depression with the ingenuity and creativity that could only have come from those days. He never realized the fruits of his creativity, as our businesses simply couldn’t keep pace with the debt. Things began to crumble and it was a painful process. We lost everything.
This was a very public loss. Three retail shops and a restaurant, each formerly recognized as vibrant businesses in Providence. It’s not easy to fail in a small town. One day everybody knows your name, the next day nobody will look you in the eye. At least it felt that way at the time.
I was 35 years old and I had failed at everything I had had ever tried. But, there was one thing I had never tried, and it was the one thing I really wanted to do: open up my own coffee house. Problem was, I was broke – dead Broke. No credit, not bankable. I did manage to borrow $4000 from a friend and with that money, I started a tiny coffee house. I sold roasted coffee only. I didn’t have anywhere near enough money to build an espresso bar at a time long before the big espresso café boom seen in the US.
Business started slowly… my friends would come into the quiet store, the lack of customers so obvious, and they’d say, “Billy, Get a Job!” Those were the early days, but little by little things got better. With my first meager profits, I built that espresso bar I longed for, and began roasting my own coffee. One day I turned around and there were lines out the door, and a few hundred dollars in my pocket to boot. Not much, but there was no debt against it. I had never been there in my life.
You would think I’d be elated at that point, but I wasn’t. In fact, I found myself in an emotional turmoil. I felt I was leaving a struggle, a struggle that had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. And, despite the difficulties, despite the failures, I felt that there was honor in that struggle.
Somehow, I was able to realize and confront the reality that coffee, the same coffee that I had fallen in love with so many years ago, the same coffee that gave me opportunity when it seemed the whole world had turned its back, the same coffee that was pulling me out of a financial abyss to a reasonable level of financial security… this same coffee was hardly as generous to the people who grew cared for and harvested it.
I was compelled to go to Guatemala where I met coffee-farming families for the first time in my life. I was shocked at the poverty I saw. On some of the richest lands in the world, children didn’t have enough food to eat. Water born diseases were rampant and medical care was non-existent. Children suffered from easily preventable diseases. Those children who managed to survive ended up working long hours in the coffee fields instead of going to school.
All of this, from coffee. The same coffee that provided my income.
But, more than anything, I was amazed at the honor, dignity and vitality of the people who lived in such conditions. Despite their never-ending struggle, and maybe because it, they were bound together into cohesive communities, communities filled with love and joy for life, a dynamic spirit about them. Honestly, I wondered who was more impoverished – them or me. I wanted to learn from them. I had no idea at the time how much I actually would.
When I returned home I faced a dilemma. With but a few hundred dollars in my pocket, my head was telling me this was no time to become a philanthropist. At the same time, though, my heart was telling me that you can’t make a profit at someone else’s expense.
Enter Coffee Kids
I can honestly say that at this point, and for the first time in my life, I decided without any hesitation whatsoever to follow my heart. I started an organization called Coffee Kids in order to help coffee-farming families improve the quality of their lives. I raised money from my own business and from coffee businesses like my own, and from my own customers and from other consumers as well. I did it for personal reasons. I had to do something for the people upon whose shoulders I stood to earn a living. And, I couldn’t sell one more pound of coffee without doing so.
I was fired up like never before, and money was beginning to come in. It was time to organize and start some specific projects. One project in particular stands out in my mind was the plan to help small-scale coffee-farmers in a remote region of Guatemala improve the quality and yield of their coffee crop. This made a lot of sense to me: after all, I was in the coffee business. But the following year world coffee prices plummeted and the project failed. Failed so bad that some farmers lost their farms. I felt terrible – what had I done? Who did I think I was? In my effort to help, I had tinkered with people’s lives. At that point, I decided that it was time for me to shut up and start listening.
When I started listening, I began to hear things I never heard before like, “All we have is coffee. And, coffee isn’t enough. The harvest only last a few months anyway so, even at the best of prices we have 7 or 8 months without income anyway. We need alternatives!”
The truth is, most of the world’s coffee is grown by small-scale farmers who are totally reliant on coffee as their only source of income. Coffee is all they have In producing countries, the coffee trade is riddled with coyote-like middlemen who take advantage of impoverished coffee farmers. Add to this the fact that coffee is a volatile commodity, its daily price in the most remote regions of the world is determined by speculators in NY and London, buying and selling coffee futures, along with the futures of millions of coffee-farming families every day. Coffee is all they have, and coffee isn’t enough.
I began to listen to coffee-farming families and I learned that no one knows their plight better than they do. No one knows how to deal with it better than they do. Coffee farming families have survived for generations against adversity beyond belief, families who, despite their struggle, have maintained their values, their communities and their culture. They had done all that without me.
In listening, I learned to appreciate coffee-farming families for their strengths, not their weaknesses. So, I began to build relationships with coffee-farming families and local non-government organizations to assist them. I’m talking about long-term relationships, relationships built on trust and openness.
Coffee Kids began to support projects that coffee-farmers created themselves. Projects based upon their priorities – the things important to them, not something important to me. Coffee-farming families create their own strategies to solve those problems, strategies based on their own values, their own culture. In the end, they manage and evaluate their progress based upon their own standards, not mine.
The focus of Coffee Kids’ work is to help coffee farming families create alternatives for themselves so they are no longer totally reliant on coffee as a sole source of income. With coffee-farming families as the guides, Coffee Kids has supported women’s savings and lending groups that help women start small cottage-type businesses, businesses related to their local economies, not the unreliable northern market.
Coffee Kids has supported women’s health collectives affording women the opportunity to take responsibility for their children’s health and nutrition. And, Coffee Kids has supported education programs that provide scholarships for children to attend secondary school and even the university, children who otherwise would not have been able to receive any education at all.
Coffee Kids has helped coffee-farming communities organize themselves and become consultants for other coffee farming communities, communities that are now able to take responsibility for their own development, to carve out their own vision of the future.
Today, there is a glut of coffee on the world market that continuously suppresses world coffee prices. Coffee-farming families throughout the world face their worst crisis in history. In fact, considering inflation, world coffee prices have plummeted to a 100-year low, leaving experienced coffee-dependent farmers with little choice but to leave their homes and their farms for jobs in the cities. Worse still, some risk their lives to cross the border to neighboring countries. Families are breaking up, communities are evaporating, and cultures are being destroyed.
While this is going on, world financial institutions and international agricultural agencies have presided over the largest increase in coffee production in history. In fact, as experienced coffee farmers from one side of the world leave their farms, less experienced farmers from an even poorer part of the world start planting coffee, mostly poor quality coffee.
Vietnam, which had never been a major producer of coffee, has suddenly become the second largest producer in the world, second only to Brazil. Coffee production continues to increase even as prices continue to drop, defying the laws of supply and demand. The overwhelming dependency on coffee has ensured that the only thing sustainable about coffee is the coffee crisis.
And yet, while millions of coffee farming families are becoming refugees, many who work with Coffee Kids have income in addition to coffee and have been able to remain at home with their families and their farms. Cultures thriving, communities in tact, farms functioning and families together.
It hasn’t all been rosy. Every project has had its share of challenges. But, I learned a long time ago, that within each failure lie the seeds for success. So, Coffee Kids stand behind coffee-farming families who are struggling and we support them through their difficulties until they find their way, as they pick themselves up and create their own futures.
Over the past 15 years, there have been many times when I thought about giving up. But, each time I do, I think of the people who can’t give up, people with whom I have had the honor to work, the people who’s struggle I have had the honor to share. And, it is true. There is honor in the struggle.
Fifteen years ago, I made the conscious decision to follow my heart. And, when I did, I discovered a new world. I have discovered a world where people hold the solution to their own problems. I have discovered a world where generosity is abundant in the poorest of the poor.
In a world where I used to see poverty, I now see opportunity. Where I used to see weakness, I now see strength. And, while I still like to hear myself talk every now and then, I have found far more value in listening.
Sometimes I feel as if I were seduced into the exotic world of coffee to join coffee farming families in their struggle to liberate themselves from their dependency upon the same coffee that brought me to them. My life has changed so much over these past 15 years.
In fact, one day I realized that the whole world looked different to me, that for me, the whole world had changed. And, that’s when I realized that my dad was right. If you change one person you do change the world.
He just didn’t tell me who he was talking about.
About the Author
Bill Fishbein is the founder, Executive Director, and on the Board of Directors (as Treasurer) of Coffee Kids: Grounds for Hope, an international nonprofit organization. Coffee Kids works with local non-governmental community organizations in Latin America to create education, health-care, training, and microenterprise programs for coffee farmers and their families.