In the past week, accusations and admissions of systemic racism and abuse complaint cover-ups have rocked Counter Culture Coffee, an American wholesale specialty coffee roaster based in Durham, North Carolina. A series of allegations and demands have come from employees both past and present played out across a series of social media posts and against the wider backdrop of an ongoing historic Black civil rights movement transforming public life worldwide. It’s a fast-moving story, involving a large volume of public statements made on social media, and it continues to shift and expand today—with additional comment from all parties involved, here’s the story so far.
With a nationwide network of training centers and wholesale partners ranging from restaurants to cafes to grocery stores, Counter Culture—founded in 1995—is widely recognized as a leader in specialty coffee sustainability and education. They have published a series of widely lauded coffee transparency reports since 2009.
On the morning of Thursday, June 4th, 2020, D’Onna Stubblefield—a coffee professional, arts and literature advocate, and Black Coffee panelist—stepped into the role of a whistleblower by publishing a public statement about her experience working for the company on social media. Stubblefield, who is originally from Pittsburgh, was employed in Counter Culture’s Philadelphia region from August 1st, 2016 to July 1st, 2018. Her public statement on Twitter and Instagram Stories was published in the form of an epistolary, addressed simply to “Ben”, who has been confirmed by all parties to be Ben Helfen, a longtime Counter Culture Coffee employee, and a Community Coordinator for the Specialty Coffee Association of the United States.
With D’Onna Stubblefield’s consent, here is her original statement in full:
Stubblefield’s statement was widely shared through the American specialty coffee community, and made local news in Durham, appearing in a feature on WRAL.com. Prominent Counter Culture wholesale clients, including New York City’s Everyman Espresso, announced plans to audit their vendor lists; the barista competition training non-profit Glitter Cat Barista Bootcamp announced the termination of its partnership with Counter Culture; and journalist and coffee equipment designer Umeko Motoyoshi asked Counter Culture to remove Umeshiso products from its website. Motoyoshi has additionally archived a series of public statements and lines of questioning directed at Counter Culture on her public Instagram page, as part of an archived image gallery titled “Re: CCC”. References and links to these archived images—an invaluable primary source given the 24-hour disappearing nature of Instagram Stories—appear with Motoyoshi’s permission.
On Sunday, June 7th Counter Culture issued its first public comment on the matter, published in a series of text images on Instagram and Twitter. Here is the text of Counter Culture Coffee’s public statement from June 7th:
Stubblefield’s response online was immediate and public. On Instagram, she revealed she had received a similar version of the statement presented as a direct apology to her, signed by Counter Culture Coffee Founder and President Brett Smith. (This image, shared by Stubblefield, is archived on Motoyoshi’s account). “No wonder it sounds so hollow,” Stubblefield wrote. “It wasn’t really meant for me.” Moments later Stubblefield offered a second public statement on social media, republished below in full:
Stubblefield’s statement has led to additional allegations from former Green Coffee Buyer Chelsea Thoumsin, who has in part corroborated Stubblefield’s experiences, outlined her own allegations of abuse and complaint cover-ups while employed at the company, and called for increased transparency from the company, as per Motoyoshi’s archives. In addition to Thoumsin’s public claims, shared by Stubblefield, Motoyoshi, and others on Instagram, on Friday, June 5th a collective action was undertaken by an unsigned group of 15 warehouse workers at the company’s Durham headquarter. It is archived here by Motoyoshi, and appears under the heading “From The Warehouse Floor: Solidarity with the Movement For Black Lives.”
In the course of reporting this story, Sprudge reached out to all involved parties for additional comments. Counter Culture Coffee offered theirs, which appears below, and has published an expanded version of this comment on its official website. In identical language appearing in both the website comment and the comment submitted to Sprudge, references are made to a “Diversity & Inclusion advisor” hired by Counter Culture “to audit our business and begin training and education for our staff.” We asked if they could share more on this, and a representative from Counter Culture followed up with more information. As of the week beginning June 8th, Counter Culture has hired Intersections, a D&I advisory organization based in Raleigh. From the official Intersections website:
We are trainers, educators, and speakers who help organizations tackle diversity and inclusion with tailored facilitation. training, mediation and speaking engagements in order to help create better practices. Intersections offers a myriad of services and ways to help you share your challenges and needs with us so we can create best practices for you and your team. We have partnered with and facilitated workshops for over 50 national organizations such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, The National Urban League, NC Chamber Foundation and more with a reach of over 1 million executives, employees, business owners, health care providers and more.
Ben Helfen, to whom Stubblefield’s original statement is addressed, declined the opportunity to comment at length for this feature, telling Sprudge, “I don’t want to say much, because I want to don’t dilute the power of D’Onna’s message, and I am so grateful for it. I still have so much to learn and so much room to grow, but the truth of her message truly hit me in a visceral way, and I can never accept the status quo again.”
Additional comment from Chelsea Thoumsin:
“I shared my experiences because now is not the time to be quiet. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, Black people are still being murdered by police, and we are seeing an uprising of various magnitudes across the world.
The thing about being silenced is that it is violence. The thing about being silenced is that it doesn’t stay quiet. It lingers around, always pecks at the back of your mind. When someone puts forth their experiences, as they had them—this is their truth. Listen. You’ve been granted the opportunity to be in a highly personal space.
I am using my voice to express solidarity. While it has been heart-rending to recount these experiences at CCC, I am coming away with a real sense of love and amazement for the coffee community that has always been there to support me as well as one another. This is what I will be focusing on going forward.
We are learning that companies have underestimated their employees’ resourcefulness and resiliency. We are learning that our voices are actually powerful, especially as we come together. We are learning, in real-time, that profit means nothing when it means silencing others.
We are fighting for what each of us who has experienced these injustices already knew: coffee is for everyone.
It is time to build something new.” — Chelsea Thoumsin
Additional comment from Counter Culture Coffee Founder and President Brett Smith:
“There are issues at Counter Culture Coffee that need to be addressed. We shared our thoughts, goals, and actions through our social media channels this past Sunday, and the work has begun. We are engaging a third-party investigator to investigate current and past claims, and we will take appropriate and immediate actions. We have partnered with a Diversity & Inclusion consultant to audit our business and begin training and education for our staff. We will hold moderated Town Hall meetings to continue these conversations with our team. These are the first steps.
This is very important, we have work to do.” — Brett Smith
Additional comment from D’Onna Stubblefield:
“A core value at Counter Culture is the word Positive. It was never my favorite core value because that word, positive, can mean so many different things to a variety of people. During my time with the company, those differences in meaning were exposed often.
In my family and culture, positivity is synonymous with honesty, which is often expressed through directness. This means that no matter how good or bad something was, if you were direct and honest about it you were doing the positive thing for all parties involved. You were giving someone the gift of awareness, but also the gift of self-correction.
This is not what that core value meant to Counter Culture and it was, and still is, painfully obvious. But this does not change what positivity means to me. My recent communication with respect to the company and its leaders has been a gift. I have given you the gift of awareness and if possible, self-correction. Please accept my gift and grow.” — D’Onna Stubblefield.
This story is developing.
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network and the winner of a 2020 James Beard Award for digital journalism.
Disclosure: Umeko Motoyoshi is a podcast host on the Sprudge Podcast Network.
Top image: Counter Culture Coffee