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When COVID-19 shuts down events worldwide, how do events-based companies respond?

For The Kore Directive—a UK-based group founded in 2018—the focus has shifted dramatically, from a series of semi-monthly events, including cuppings, guest speakers, and panels, to a robust and growing online community centered around weekly digital meetings and Instagram campaigns. Along the way The Kore Directive seeks to disrupt long-held prejudices and biases its members have experienced in the UK coffee community, and building towards a new identity of inclusivity and equity for coffee professionals around the world.

“Our events are community centered,” says Kore Directive founder Sierra Yeo, “angled on accessibility and focused on career progression, but we did make sure all events were open—if you’re an ally, you can come. Feminism is for everyone.”

Yeo adds, laughing, “At least that is what it was until a few months ago.”

Kore’s in-person efforts, from mechanics workshops to zero wase latte art throwdowns, have been put on hold for the moment, including a now-canceled cupping focused on coffees from Costa Rica. Their work in March was upended—like everyone’s work, like society itself—by the onset of a global pandemic unseen in our lifetimes, whose ongoing impacts continue to play out daily. But in the face of all that Kore’s pivot has been dramatic, effective, and perfectly attuned to the wider moment of 2020. And that’s not by accident.

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A couple of weeks ago saw us hold our first elections for the Kore Committee, and we're excited to announce that the results are in!⁠ 🌟 – ⁠ We're so happy to welcome Camilla, Georgina and Izzy to the committee, each taking on a role to help the Kore Directive reach new heights and achieve more than ever. These lovely ladies are as passionate about the Kore as they are brew ratios. Don't you worry, we won't be letting Sierra go – we would never let a superstar like her get away! – ⁠ Thanks as always for your ongoing support to the Kore Directive and everything we stand for. We look forward to working hard and making you all proud to be a part of the community. ♥️♥️

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The organization’s committee—which includes founder Sierra Yeo, along with Media and Engagement Officer Izzy Austen, Events Manager Georgina Borton, and Chairperson Camilla Morgan—have adapted to today’s challenges by drawing from their own experiences working in coffee and managing through the lockdown. It takes a two-pronged approach. First, what began as a series of WhatsApp calls for a small group of Kore supporters has blossomed into a weekly series of public Zoom chats (and new Discord server), engaging with a growing network of coffee professionals around the world each week. Called simply “Coffee Chats @ Kore,” these are weekly open dialogues centered on coffee community in the UK and beyond, with a focus on baristas. “The Zoom calls have definitely been my saving grace during lockdown,” says Austen, and it’s clear this sentiment is widely held among attendees.

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Weekly meeting topics are wide-ranging, from the serious (Austen led a particularly well-received session on imposter syndrome) to the lighthearted (favorite signature drinks, “frankenblends”) to timely topics, including the organization’s overarching goal of dismantling institutionalized racism and sexism in the coffee industry. In researching this article I sat in on one recent “Coffee Chats @ Kore” session with a laser focus on the legalities and resources for baristas beginning to return to work after COVID shutdowns; it was an unexpectedly moving experience, frankly, and represented to me something I’ve seen various calls for and requests for in the coffee industry over the last decade, which is transparency and the open sharing of organizational resources in a manner that centers the barista experience.

An easy thing to ask for, a difficult thing to execute, yet here’s Kore making it happen, from unpeeling the UK furlough scheme to delving into questions of employee rights, malpractice, and whistleblowing (more on that in a moment), all of it handled through an open dialogue of real-time question and answer.  

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Holy smokes!! We don’t usually post this on the feed but… the TURNOUT today. 😱😱😱 – 33 new voices, 33 new personalities, 33 new insights into how we can make our industry and community more diverse and inclusive. Regardless of gender, orientation, or heritage. That’s on top of the network we currently have. – For those of you who attended, thank you for sharing and being supportive – and most importantly, for being PROACTIVE. You volunteered not just your time but your resources and talents; we see that and want to engage and utilise that. – We also want to thank members of the SCA UK chapter who came on our chat today – the volunteers behind the chapter that joined us to learn, advise and plan for a better community for us all. We really appreciated your presence, input, and willingness to listen. @sca_uk – As we weren’t able to capture everyone’s details, please reach out on our DMs if you’d like to be added to our WhatsApp group, where the bulk of the community work takes place. Even if you couldn’t make it to the call today, we’d be happy to have you.

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“Kore chats have become [like] a social support group,” says Borton, “where we can share our current and past experiences without prejudice. We have each other’s backs despite… during a time that was so isolating, it has been an anchor to have a couple hours of fierce and friendly face to virtual face interaction.” 

These weekly digital live events have recently moved to a Thursday 7pm BST time slot, making attendance easier for curious would-be attendees in the United States and beyond. “It’s great to have a mixture of both serious and fun conversations, where people can dip in and out where they wish,” says Austen. “We all love a good cup of coffee and a fight for social justice, and that’s what our role encompasses.”

This loops us back to the second prong of the work Kore is doing here in 2020: a coordinated Instagram campaign focused on accountability and anti-racism, embodied by the hashtag #coffeecantbecolourblind. “On Kore’s Instagram we’re publishing redacted testimonies,” says Yeo, “and it’s an interesting thing for us. We’ve kept up with the success of coffee professionals across the pond in calling out companies or individuals that need to be held accountable. It’s very different here, especially with the furlough scheme, where you are still technically on the company payroll but deemed non-essential. It means people are more apprehensive, understandably, about speaking out; we wanted to help empower people to talk with the hashtag.”

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The #coffeecantbecolourblind #coffeecantbecolorblind series – Story Number One. – If you know anyone who has experienced racism in the coffee industry, and is in need of support, please send them our way via DMs. – If you know of anyone who is struggling to speak up, and wants a platform to do so anonymously and with behind-the-scenes support – let us know. – If you have personally witnessed racism happen to someone else and want to figure out how to be a good ally and reform the industry, get in touch. – Taking on feedback from the community, we are progressing with the utmost sensitivity and caution. All posts will include trigger warnings, and all posts have been submitted anonymously by individuals of their own accord. – Together we can make this community safer, and more than just tolerant of diversity – but CELEBRATORY. Racism, bigotry and discrimination have NO space in our industry.

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For Yeo this work is personal, literally. Yeo claims experiences of racism and discrimination while working as a barista, in circumstances outlined at length on Yeo’s personal social media. “This is my baby, for better or worse, and I’ve felt duty to lead it on,” Yeo says. This means communicating with whistleblowers, managing the text of individual posts, triple-checking with sources, and ultimately publishing these accounts as wall posts on Kore’s Instagram. “It’s pretty fucking hard reading some of this stuff,” Yeo tells me. “Some of them are are from people I identify with on different levels, or stories that are very similar to something I’ve experienced. But I feel like it’s almost my duty, as a fellow person of colour, processing these stories and uplift these contributors’ voices via our platform. I think it’s very meaningful work and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In one month after launching the campaign, Kore has posted four distinct accounts under the hashtag campaign. Micro-aggressions, xenophobia, workplace racism, and colonialism as just a few of the themes these posts address, in a series of work that’s only beginning. “Racism is very subtle in the UK,” says Yeo, “and that’s feedback I’ve had from people submitting stories. It’s interesting because Britain was such a massive colonial power, you know? I’m Singaporean, and Singapore was a British colony. It’s interesting to see how that colonial mindset is interwoven in daily life even today.”

This feature began with a question: when COVID-19 shuts down events worldwide, how do events-based companies respond? There’s no single answer, no demonstratively “right” path, but between you and me and the wall there has been a broad range of how different companies have made their way over the last few months, some more effectively than others. For Kore, a digital organizing approach on two fronts—Zoom events and whistleblower accounts—amounts to a new roadmap for what this small organization can be, and indeed, how coffee organizations can serve their communities and push forward here in 2020. Next steps for The Kore Directive include developing a competition mentorship program geared towards “demystifying competition,” as per Yeo, as well as development of a funding and membership structure with an avowedly global reach.

“Activism is something I care deeply about,” Yeo adds. “With the committee now we have varied skill sets and overlaps. All of these different pools of resources have been grouped together to bring Kore further.”

“We’re grabbing the coffee industry by the horns and steering it in the direction it needs to go,” says Izzy Austen. Sit in on a Kore Zoom, follow their work on social media, and you can’t really argue the point. 

Follow The Kore Directive on Instagram and watch for updates. Join KORE Directive for weekly Zoom calls on Thursdays, 7PM BST. 

The Kore Directive logo designed by James Wise

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. 

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