Whether you see it or not, women play a fundamental role in the production of the coffee you enjoy every morning. "Women make up about 75 percent of the workforce in coffee, and are often in roles in early stages of supply streams (like plant care, harvesting, fermentation, and processing) which are the stages most directly related to quality. The specialty industry is super-preoccupied with quality," and yet for a time, there wasn't much information very readily available on the subject. That's where Amaris Gutierrez-Ray comes in. A veteran of the coffee industry with over ten years behind her, Amaris is the founding force behind the Women in Coffee Project, which is composed of a small group of fervent activist volutneers at Joe Coffee.
"I'm a biracial kid who grew up in Southern California and the mountains of North Georgia. My mom is Nicaraguan and my dad was from the US, so I grew up with the migrant stories of my mom, grandma, and other relatives who fled Nicaragua in the Sandinista uprising in the early '80s. I started working as a barista during my undergraduate degree and continued to work in coffee as I started grad school, but slowly started getting more and more fascinated with the world of coffee. I noticed a lot of disparity between the traditional coffee culture in Nicaragua and the coffee culture here in a first world country and wanted to investigate those differences and the torrid history of coffee and colonization all over the world. After finishing graduate school, I moved to NYC for a full-time career in coffee, and I've never looked back! I've been in the industry for over ten years, and still feel like I'm only scratching the surface.
In 2018, I started looking around for information about women in coffee. As long as I've been in coffee, I've looked up to certain women as role models for encouragement. When I started in coffee, the industry was still pretty male-dominated, and the roles I've had in roasting over the past six years have been even more male-dominated than most, so being able to take inspiration from other women in roasting (and knowing about groups like #Shestheroaster) has made a huge difference in my career. So I was interested to see how that was expressed in female roles in producing countries, but the information I found didn't feel comprehensive for me. Yes, there are some organizations engaged in measuring gender representation, which is a very good thing, but not all were nonpartisan. I was surprised to discover I couldn't find much information from women in producing countries themselves or information about how any woman anywhere can access training and education. At the same time, I heard a talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of a single story, and how we often don't know what we don't know. The only way to confront that in ourselves is to listen to as many stories from others as possible. I was encouraged to start investigating how to really listen, and create a space that can be truly nonpartisan, exist outside of any preexisting business relationships, and allow women in different roles in producing countries to share their true voices and their true perspectives."
One such personal story came directly to Amaris last year, through a collaboration with Fincas Mierisch, a family business in Nicaragua that operates a few farms as well as a dry mill. "We had been talking about how it can often be difficult for seasonal workers who depend on the harvest for consistent work to find income from within their communities during the off-season, so we decided to organize a project for the women who work the drying patios during the harvest. They made beautiful tote bags for us out of the jute they use for coffee sacks and the press they use to screen print them, and connected with a local dressmaker to attach colorful straps. We were able to have an honest and open conversation about fair labor wages and the cost to produce the tote bags, and in turn, we were able to get them here to use as a fundraising tool throughout the year. Eleane Mierisch, the Head of QC and a producer herself, and Haisell Beteta, the Manager of Personnel for the dry mill, were such active and encouraging collaborators, it was an inspiration to work with them and get to really understand how they care for and work with their teams. Those two women were half of the invited speakers for our first annual panel event, and this collaboration happened after the event was over, so it was also really encouraging to see how we could continue to positively impact each other's lives because of that shared experience!"
Still, Amaris didn't realize how much work was still ahead. "When I started, I anticipated a lot of events and interviews and all sorts of things in a short amount of time! I thought inviting women for panel events multiple times each year would be a great goal to have — but I wasn't really in tune with the agricultural schedule for each country. There are busy seasons outside of harvest; planning stages, post-harvest, export season, etc. It became clear to me that there was so much I had to learn! I also really realized how much I took for granted that coffee is a passion project for all roles involved. It's both incredibly obvious and yet stupefyingly complex: it takes resilience, intentionality, and a delicate balance of hard and soft skills to cultivate, market, and live off of coffee production. Gratitude and respect (both active verbs!) are what I feel I've learned the most about, and that's had such a positive impact on all the other work I do. If that becomes a takeaway for others engaging with this work, then I would consider that a huge success."
When asked where the Women in Coffee Project is headed in the next 10 years, Amaris remains determined and ambitious. "Our immediate goals are to become a registered non-profit within the next few years, grow our little team, and because of that growth, highlight the work of even more women in different roles across the world. The whole sector will change a lot over the next 10 years, we're already seeing some of that change with demand increasing and supply decreasing. I think it will become even more critical to engage with women in the workforce in coffee to learn how our businesses can support each other — what a viable, sustainable coffee business looks like for everyone actually requires everyone to invest in listening to each other very carefully. People in producing spaces are not unfamiliar with needing to adapt quickly, as they've been the ones to take on the most risk when it comes to strategies to deal with climate change, prices that don't cover the cost of production, and natural events outside of anyone's control. True collaboration and community organization will depend on creative solutions and listening well — those qualities are important to our work and I hope we can contribute to the greater industry in a positive way because of them."
Of the positive changes that come with the goal of gender equity, Amaris stresses: "It is important for so many reasons! Women are in roles in early stages of supply streams that directly relate to coffee quality, so investing in training, removing barriers to access education, and economic support will have a huge impact on maintaining and improving the quality of coffee grown everywhere. Also, there are studies to prove that supporting coffees produced by women means that women will have direct, financial recognition for their work, and the research has shown that when women have more financial responsibility, that income stays with and stabilizes their families, local economies, and communities. The research also shows that when women are involved in their family's financial planning, it's much more likely that they will also be involved in healthy business practices. All of these are indicators that women have a powerful role when it comes to coffee quality and economic stability in regions where coffee is grown. Caring about either quality or sustainability means caring about gender equity and the role of women in coffee!"
And for anyone who shares that concern, there's a lot you can do to ensure your coffee has a positive imact. "If there's the name of an individual (like the name of a producer) on the bag of coffee you're drinking, you're already engaging with a roasting company that values the people behind the coffees they source, so that's already a good sign. You can also purchase coffees directly produced or influenced by women (if the name on the bag is female, that's a great sign!). You can ask roasting companies what coffees they offer are produced or influenced by women, or ask them how they've incorporated gender equity into their sourcing strategies. Do they support other organizations that have an immediate impact? You can even go a step further and ask them if they've engaged with their logistics partners (like the exporters and importers they buy from) if those organizations measure or highlight gender equity in the places where they work. Your purchasing choices have a huge impact and can encourage roasting companies to continue to invest in women and gender equity.
Beyond that, there are many more ways to get involved from home. "Following us on Instagram is a huge start! Sharing with us what stories you enjoy reading, or what you've learned from engaging more with gender equity is also important to us. Share what you're reading with us so we can learn together! Let us know if there are areas you'd like to learn more about. Connect us with female producers whose work you'd like to highlight, maybe we could do an interview together. If you love to write and have a gender equity-related topic you're passionate about, we'd love to feature it. Lastly, we fundraise for our own programming throughout the year, but we also acknowledge the tangible work of other organizations, like Grounds for Health, the Partnership for Gender Equity, and the International Women's Coffee Alliance."