As the specialty coffee industry’s worker-led push for true inclusion gains momentum, more and more coffee pros are working to create spaces and forums that center and prioritize coffee professionals of color, from the work of Michelle Johnson on The Chocolate Barista blog and the new Black Coffee event, to Kristina Jackson’s black woman-centered Boston Intersectional Coffee Collective, to Ezra Baker’s panel discussion series Coffee, I See You. In the latest move to create spaces of color in coffee, Alexandra L. Zepeda of Gimme! Coffee is launching Caffeinated and Melanated, a platform for people of color in coffee to collaborate, amplify each other, and create opportunities for growth. Her first event, a social mixer for coffee professionals of color, will take place at El Jardin in the Bronx on Wednesday, August 1.
Born in the South Bronx to Salvadoran parents, Zepeda has worked in coffee since 2011, starting off at Gregory’s Coffee and ending up at Gimme!, where she currently works as a barista. Although she was born in the US, she spent time as a child living around coffee farms in El Salvador. Growing up with coffee at the center of her household, she’s always felt tied to coffee work. While working at the Starbucks Reserve in 2012, she saw the in-depth way she, a barista, could engage with the coffee farms she had been surrounded by in El Salvador as a child; inspired, she decided to dive deep, earning her Coffee Master certification.
As with many other activists of color in US specialty coffee, the inspiration behind C&M came from the lack of spaces for people like Zepeda within the coffee community. “As wonderful as the coffee community is, I didn’t attend any throwdowns or specialty coffee events until 2015 for fear of not fitting in, getting my skills and knowledge downplayed, or getting belittled because of the color of my skin or texture of my hair I inherited from my people, the vocabulary and the loudness I inherited from my hood. I want to be surrounded by people feeling the same thing as I—specifically, women of color.” Zepeda feels lucky to have found a handful of people she truly relates to in her local coffee community and wants to make sure other WOC in coffee have the same opportunity. “WOC are the backbone of this industry. I want to reach out on a nationwide scale.”
In terms of focus, Zepeda wants to make sure that C&M events present real opportunities for professional growth. She wants to follow the group’s inaugural mixer with a series of skill-building events, including workshops to help POC deal with injustice in the workplace. “We’re in an industry that doesn’t set us up for success. I want to create events that actually benefit us professionally.” In addition to skill-building workshops, she also plans to put together a panel discussion event and donate proceeds to the many POC doing revolutionary work at various levels of the industry. Down the line, she also wants to create an exchange program for baristas and producers at origin.
Zepeda is grateful to those who have paved the way for her to start C&M. “I really want to thank Michelle Johnson, Tymika Lawrence, Ezra Baker, and Liz Dean for being amazing leaders in our industry and for inspiring me to do something different, outside of my comfort zone; to step up where it’s needed,” she said. “The coffee industry regularly fails to address the diversity that stretches across their people from farm to cup by putting only one demographic constantly at the front—or, even worse, only acknowledging other groups when it’s beneficial for them. Posting pictures of your amazing WOC baristas for International Women’s Day but refusing to sponsor their dreams of judging or competing just isn’t cutting it anymore. This is why we’re breaking barriers and making ourselves extra comfortable lately.”
By putting herself out there and attending events even when it didn’t always feel comfortable, Zepeda has gotten to know a lot of coffee pros at many different professional levels, from people with dream jobs to those who are still struggling to find their place in the industry. She wants the initial mixer to help coffee professionals of color to start making those connections in a comfortable setting and gaining access to the resources they need, especially outside of the typical competitive setting that throwdowns necessitate. As organizations like C&M help people of color in coffee to connect with each other and gain opportunities for mentorship and support, we can hopefully look forward to a time when no coffee pro ever has to be afraid to go to a throwdown.