The following is an interview between the NCA Next Generation group and Phyllis Johnson, co-founder and president of BD Imports, a roasted coffee importer serving the food service, hospitality, wholesale, and retail markets.
In 2018, Phyllis authored “Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry?” to shine a light on the lack of diversity and representation of Black Americans she saw and experienced in the coffee industry. Phyllis continues to fight for an anti-racist coffee industry today, and recently called on industry leaders to provide resources, tools, and funding to fight racism in the industry.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You grew up in a farming family in Arkansas. Did your agricultural background play a role in your choosing a career in coffee?
Initially I didn’t fully understand or see the connection, but it didn’t take long before I realized that I could have a greater connection to coffee based on my background. I didn’t embrace my upbringings of having to work on the farm as a child. Ironically, I was 35 years old, educated and well-established into my career when I was comfortable acknowledging parts of my upbringing. Having to work hard on the farm as a child wasn’t something that I was proud of, and it was hard for me to talk about it. I remember riding on the back of a truck going through dusty fields, callouses on my hands from working so hard.
I’m not totally sure why I found that part of my life embarrassing — hard work should be respected. I think it reminded me of our position in life. A Black family working on the land of White farmers, my mom referring to the landowners as Mr. and them calling her by her first name and being paid low wages for incredibly hard physical work. Growing up I always wanted to be someone different that who I was born to be. Coffee has allowed me to go back in a weird sort of way and truly appreciate that part of me that I wanted to run away from, I believe that’s why I found comfort working in coffee.
There were very important lessons I learned in those years of my life of working on the farm — not only hard work, but perseverance — and seeing my mom, a strong leader, who made lots of hard decisions. I learned the value of humbleness, appreciating the simplicity of farm life. My past gives me respect and empathy for coffee farmers.
How did you get started in coffee? Were there any mentors in your past or present who helped you get here?
From day one of starting in coffee I had empowering mentors. Having a mentor makes all the difference in the world in someone’s life. I have had mentors throughout my entire life both personally and professionally. Some more significant than others. Soon after becoming a mom, I realized that I not only wanted to encourage my children to live their dreams, but needed to be an example, so I pursued my dream of being a business owner. Both me and my husband shared the same dream of being business owners. A Kenyan man introduced me to coffee, and I became a student of coffee and it’s taken me on a journey around the world, but mostly back to my childhood experiences of working on the farm in Arkansas.
There was a slightly older couple who lived in our community, and they became mentors. They’d lived in Africa when they were younger; they taught at the local college and had a background in African American studies. I believe they were the first to plainly speak to me about the history of coffee as I was trying to find my way. I can hear them saying now, “You know, coffee is a product that was produced by the enslaved,” and they would go on to tell stories based on their education and life experiences.
Coffee is a friendly industry, not to be confused with it being relentless when it comes to business and trade. I was fortunate to have several mentors, one in which continues to help guide me today. She’s been my mentor for the past 17 years, she always says, we’re “coffee sisters” and whenever I’m thanking her for her time and effort she says, “It takes a team, we’re a team Phyllis.” Having great mentors have taught me how to be a good mentor to others. I’ve also learned that the best mentors are those who uplift others with no expectations in return other than to see that person do well and go on and give back to others, we call that the ripple effect.
We’re in the midst of a massive cultural shift in the way people of color are being seen and treated in society today. How do you think this transformation will impact the coffee industry in North America?
Maybe this cultural shift allows us tosee people of color, or should I say, Black people in a different way. The reality for Black people has been consistent throughout our history, racism morphs into a slightly different form with each generation, almost to a point to where it’s not seen by some as racism in society and often just totally denied.
I’m not totally sure how this enlightenment will transform our industry or society. We’ve had hopeful moments throughout history. Hope and optimism are sometimes all we have in our darkest moments. There are no quick solutions, and I’m afraid that we may think resolving years of racism all comes down to that one new hire at the company. While I can appreciate good intentions, change will come from first an examination, then intentional actions to dismantle systemic racism.
Certain words and phrases make us uncomfortable and I believe that our first step is to become comfortable with not only words, but reality. It’s not personal, and if you’re uncomfortable that means it’s meant for you to do something about it. That’s how I see it. We all have a great deal to get out of this shift or enlightenment. This moment in time isn’t just for Black individuals to feel a sense of empowerment but it’s for everyone to grow and think of ways to build a better and more equitable society.
Working in coffee affords us even greater opportunities because we have an industry that would benefit from more participation by Black Americans, many of the coffees we touch are from Black and Brown producers so there are opportunities to rid ourselves of centuries of oppressive business practices. We have some work that will keep us busy for a while. We need better solutions; more talent from Black Americans can deliver that. We have a track record of delivering something extra to everything we do.
In 2018 you wrote an award-winning article titled “Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry?” – What, if anything, do you feel has changed since writing that article?
The biggest thing that’s happened since that article was written is that more young professionals have been inspired on their journey in coffee. I understand that companies are now using the article as a resource. It was such a personal journey to write the article. I believe the writing proved its value with the recent racial unrest that we’ve experienced in this country and the need to examine ourselves to be more inclusive. I believe more individuals are comfortable speaking up and Blacks in coffee are becoming more visible. That’s what we need.
I don’t think that we can ever really quantify the value and impact of an article that speaks to the heart of an issue. I realize what was missing for me when I came to coffee and I tried to create that for others so that they could find their way more quickly and become productive contributors for themselves and to the industry. I gave up trying to quantify the effects of work after working on women’s empowerment in East Africa. Trying to quantify the impact of that work was like counting granules of sand, because women are continuing to run with opportunities far beyond my imagination, and that’s what so cool about empowerment.
You echoed your calls for racial justice and better representation in coffee in your recent open letter titled “An Open Letter to the US Coffee Industry on Racism”. What has been the response to your letter so far, and what changes or actions have you seen from the coffee industry since it was published?
I am humbled by the response to the open letter. The enthusiasm and interest in building a racially equitable industry has continued well over a month since the letter was released. When writing the letter, I didn’t think so much about how it would be received, but the need for us to acknowledge racial inequality and we needed a call to action. Also, I wasn’t looking around for someone else to take the lead on this. This was a leadership moment for the work that I not only engaged in but the essence of who I am, a Black woman who has been trying to find my way in the US coffee industry for the last 21 years. I believe that we have started working towards change and it’s my hope that we never stop in generations to come.
The biggest change that I’m seeing is the examination of where we are and how we got here. There’s more tolerance around discussions on inclusiveness, we have actions to take and I’m working on the formation of an organization that will address these issues.
How can the coffee industry turn their calls for racial justice and inclusion into action? What do you feel the industry should be doing that it isn’t?
Let me start by saying, I’ve not been harboring all the answers to this century-long problem in my head and only willing to release the answers in this interview. This is a complex problem, and the complexity isn’t wrapped up in what to do — the complexity rests in a will or desire to act or see a different future.
One thing the coffee industry must do is to stop normalizing a lack of diversity. See it as the problem it really is, a systemic problem that we get to help solve as best we can. See a lack of racial diversity as missing solutions to important problems. See a lack of racial diversity as one of the highest risks to your business going forward. It must be a priority, not a far-off wish or challenge that you’re trying to figure out with a dwindling budget during a pandemic.
We must rescue ourselves from our own helpless attitude toward racial diversity. What should we do? I’m hopeful that we can come together as an industry and work on solutions. This is a non-competitive initiative that will bring us to new level. Solutions are unique and meant for each of us to work towards our own best solutions based on our situations.
We don’t have the option of staying silent on this issue of racial inequality, hoping this all blows over and then move on to something else. Racial inequality is what built our country, and is what our industry is rooted in. It’s not up for debate or finding better words to make it sound better, it is what it is, it’s why we are where we are today.
We must not only see ourselves as inheritors of systemic racism, but also architects who can build a better future. We are not without power.
What words of advice do you have for the next generation of coffee professionals who are just entering or considering entering the industry?
This is one of the most dynamic industries you can be involved in. I would say to this next generation to get everything you can out of coffee, and by that I mean understand your position and power in the industry. Know that you yourself may have chosen coffee based on your family heritage, or just somehow passionate about the beverage. Coffee isn’t a choice for everyone — understand the value it holds for others who may never have the opportunities that you have. Educate yourself on the history of coffee, chose to look beyond what is obvious and you’ll see more. Allow yourself to ask hard questions about coffee, but mostly allow yourself to tackle the hard problems in our industry.
I’d also say good luck, carry the banner forward, bring all of you to this work, if you so desire. To the young men, make room for the brilliance of others to join in this work. You are the leaders that you’re looking for.
Finally, as a seasoned coffee professional, how have you been coping during the pandemic? Any tips, tricks, or advice for our readers to help them get through this crisis?
Many of us will be able to proudly say one day that we not only lived through a major pandemic, but an economic recession, and racial strife all at the same time. That’s a lot. There are really some beautiful moments in all of what we are experiencing. I’ve had special moments with my family as well as professionally. I had a video call not long ago with a young Hispanic woman, a new entrepreneur whom I’d never met before. She started to share her experiences trying to get through the pandemic and it brought tears to our eyes. I immediately felt connected to her and her struggle. That would not have happened had we met at a coffee conference. We put up a strong face most of the time when there’s a lot going on in business and life. The pandemic has made me unapologetic about my emotions, and I’m enjoying that.
I’m getting through this time just simply trying to be more human, connected to a purpose that’s bigger than me. I’m focused on using all that I’ve been given to uplift others, be a good mentor, and be part of the solution. The only way that I know how to survive is to help others. This time in my life there’s more clarity about who I am and my purpose. I wish that for everyone, because I know how difficult it can be trying to discover your place in life. I’m enjoying this time knowing there may be more times of confusion, but the one thing I’ve known for a long while is that it’s not just about me.