In 1999, Phyllis Johnson and her husband, Patrick, founded BD Imports as a way to import green coffee from both Kenya and Black farmers in Brazil and sell the beans to roasters around the world. (In 2020, she published the book “The Triumph: Black Brazilians in Coffee.”) Her daughter, Maya, joined the company, making it a two-generation Black-owned business. For more than 20 years, Johnson has been a role model for the next generation. She had been talking about inclusivity and racial equity for years, but in 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Johnson founded the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity to scrutinize racial equity in the coffee industry and offer solutions. In this edition of Voices in Food, the Atlanta-based Johnson spoke to Garin Pirnia about being a trailblazer in a white male-dominated field, the importance of representation, and having hope for the future.
We have always run a socially conscious business where we look for folks who are like us, who believe that they can be a part of business and offer something different.
When the company started, we worked with small exporting companies throughout east Africa, and we moved into Central America. I’ve done an incredible amount of work with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance and helping to establish their chapters throughout east Africa. After that, I turned to work more intently on racial equity, and that has been my focus for the last year and a half.
I started the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity after I wrote an open letter to the U.S. coffee industry on racism. I felt it was time for us to put this on the table as an industry again. I say again, because I always tried to put it on a table. I felt that after George Floyd, we could then talk about it as an industry.
We’ve been fortunate. The CCRE has been able to create opportunities that we’re very proud of. I’m really thrilled to still be here, and I’m thankful that I did use my voice, even when I felt as though there weren’t any real answers or any strong interest in getting to solutions or opportunities. I’m thankful that I use my voice in spite of that.
“Coffee was part of colonization and enslavement. … Because you don’t have representation in telling these stories, the stories don’t exist for any other contributors to coffee other than white people. And so Black people who come into the industry are left feeling like there is no past history of anyone like them that contributed to this industry.”
[In 2018], I wrote an article about the lack of Black Americans in coffee, and one of the reviewers said there was no reason for me to write about such a topic. There was a lot of pushback about that article and a lot of pushback on how much of a contribution Black people had made to coffee, because there had never been an examination of that.
When it was talked about it would be, well, enslavement was an issue. Coffee was part of colonization and enslavement, and it’s kind of left there. But because you don’t have representation in telling these stories, the stories don’t exist for any other contributors to coffee other than white people.
And so Black people who come into the industry are left feeling like there is no past history of anyone like them that contributed to this industry. It feels cold. It feels foreign. It feels unknown, unfamiliar. Without having any sort of idea that there are massive contributions, you don’t feel like you belong in an industry. But we have to be able to write about it and tell its history in a way that shows that more than white men contributed to where we are today — that’s really critical.
I think representation is getting better, but I think we have to be mindful that opportunity is there and the resources are there to help sustain representation so that we don’t develop ideas and attitudes towards different groups of people, because everybody might be at a certain stage. I think we have to stop making martyrs out of those who are the trailblazers, who did it against all odds. It should be easier.
I’ve been on a cupping table where the buyer would say, “Do you believe Black people are smarter than white people?” “Phyllis, you must be here to sell your cousin’s coffee.” “Um, is that because I’m Black? If I’m Black, I can only come to coffee from picking it?” “Do you even have the money to invest in this container of coffee that I’m trying to buy from you?” It’s all of those types of things that you have to withstand, and you have to have the mental and physical wherewithal to get through. Because if you’re the only person you see doing what you’re doing and you’re being discouraged, there’s a good chance you might give up.
“I think that my life and my work is a living testimony that you receive more through giving.”
We all have biases, including me. I always think about who am I encouraging or discouraging? Who am I making assumptions on? Just based on their gender or their race, because I know how those things made me feel, or I know how those things came across to me. Unfortunately, some biases can cause more harm to people than others. If I don’t have an opportunity to offer you, my biases are less dangerous than those of someone who has more power. But we all have biases and our biases can be somewhat harmful to ourselves because we are missing out on learning something about someone.
I think when it comes to racial equity, we all have to evaluate what we could do in our own space, because there’s plenty of things that can be done in our own lives. I think you have to examine where you are. I’m always grateful when someone buys coffee from us or a new customer comes along. I think that’s great because it carries our message forward, and it also sends a message to those who don’t think this work is important that it is [important]. Whatever you buy, just be intentional about it.
I think that my life and my work is a living testimony that you receive more through giving. I’m excited for the future in spite of a pandemic and everything else. I’m very hopeful. I’m seeing things I’ve never seen in my entire life. This generation really is at a stage where we are examining equity, and that’s a good thing.