The Panel

Micah plopped down on the hotel bed and sighed. After what seemed like days of flight delays and middle seats, she was relieved to finally be at her destination: the city of Boston.

She was there to lead a diversity panel, hosted by a new coffee conference and targeted toward North American mid-level coffee professionals. Marketing teams, regional managers, trainers, HR crews, and other corporate coffee staff—they were to be her audience at the event.

Earlier in her career, she’d made a habit out of sitting on such panels, although these days she considered herself mostly retired from such work, and happily focused on being a successful coffee trader. But the conference offered luxury accommodations and a hearty honorarium for her time. It was just enough to get her back in the game.

There in the hotel room, a card lay folded on the nightstand with “Micah Brown” handwritten across it. She flipped it open to read it.

Micah —

We’re honored to have you with us. We’re looking forward to hearing you drive an important conversation and offer your invaluable perspective. We can not wait to learn about what we can do to be better to all.

– The Boston Coffee Alliance

Micah tossed the note to the side before dozing off to sleep, the nervousness of leading yet another diversity panel fading away. They’re pretty much all the same, she thought. How bad could it be? 

***

The next morning, Micah arrived at the conference hall inside the hotel building ready with a KeepCup of washed Guat in hand. The lobby was empty and almost silent except for the sound of a muffled feminine voice coming from the other side of the closed hall doors. A lone woman sat alert behind a desk and smiled. Micah approached.

“Hi, I’m speaking on th-“

“Diversity panel, right?” The woman finished Micah’s sentence. “You look like someone who talks a lot about that.” She didn’t break her smile or stare.

“Yup, that’s me…” Micah managed to say, tamping down her true feelings.

“We’re just about to start! Here’s your badge, and the panel’s that way.” The woman motioned towards a door to the side of the conference hall. Micah followed, sipping her coffee as she walked down a long corridor leading to a dimly lit backstage area. A stagehand with a headset appeared and quietly signaled her to wait behind a curtain.

She could hear amplified voices from the stage, and then the sounds of a thunderstorm and people trekking through a forest filled the auditorium—a video presentation to the audience, trying to market sustainability. Micah couldn’t believe it—the presentation was indeed already starting—and as she looked around the empty backstage area in confusion, a creeping thought dawned on her. She whispered to the stagehand, “Aren’t there other people supposed to be here on this panel with me?”

They ignored her, listening intently to something in their headset. The lights brightened on the other side of the curtain and the amplified voice, now clearer, introduced Micah to the audience.

“All the way here from Oakland, California to lead our diversity panel in an important discussion, Micah Brown!”

The stage hand created an opening in the curtain for Micah to appear through, and motioned for her to move towards it. She straightened up, clutched her coffee, and confidently walked into the applause and bright lights and on stage. It took a second for her eyes to adjust but when they did, she saw it.

One single chair at center stage.

She hesitated and looked out into the crowd, blinded by lights. The applause continued, almost hypnotic, drawing her cautiously towards the waiting seat.

“Micah, we are very pleased to have you,” the speaker’s voice echoed loudly. Silence fell over the room as Micah sat and looked around for the voice’s source. Micah picked up the microphone in the middle of the seat before sitting in it. Her sweaty palms were making it difficult to grip her coffee cup.

“I-I’m happy to be here,” Micah managed to respond with a crack in her voice. What the hell is going on here? Where’s the panel?  And then the room changed, and the lights dimmed, as five small lamps illuminated one by one at a table just in front of the audience, at the base of the stage. Micah could just barely make out five suited figures seated under each lamp. A shiny gold plaque read, The Diversity Panel.

***

Alarm bells were ringing. Her fight or flight instincts fully engaged, Micah felt transported out of her body, looking down at herself in the very moment she was captured within. A pair of manicured hands emerged into the light of the lamp in the middle and straightened a waiting microphone. “Welcome to the Diversity Panel! We have so many questions for you. Your expertise will be integral in helping us be better to all.” The woman repeated the line Micah read from the card in her hotel room, but it sounded so much more sinister. “Who would like to begin?”

Four male voices spoke up in unison, their hands speaking for them but faces still shadowed behind the light. Micah glanced back and forth across the table trying to see the faces of those speaking firmly at her. Their gestures made it hard to focus. Intense waves of heat—righteous anger, betrayal, mortification—waved up and down her nervous system.

“Gentleman, gentleman, one at a time!” A voice cried out.

“Hi, I’m a regional hiring manager for Big Basket Coffee Roasters,” a deep voice rang from the far end of the table. He rubbed his hands slowly as he spoke. “We’ve done everything in our power to bring more diversity into our company. Everything. We post photos of baristas from different backgrounds on social media. We’ve made championing inclusivity a part of our mission statement. But we’re still not getting enough people of color to apply for jobs. We do our best but I just don’t understand why they’re not coming!”

The blinding heat from the stage lights made Micah sweat. Without seeing who was in front of her, it was hard to focus on answering the question.

“Well, it would be helpful to start with-”

“I just don’t think those people care about coffee like we do,” another male voice jumped in and interrupted. “I mean, you’re doing your best! We’re all doing our best!” The table murmured affirmations in agreement.

Those people? Did I really just hear a “those people” live on stage at a diversity panel? The moment hung like a choke pear—should she walk out? Should she fight back? The panel felt no such shame or hesitation—they went on rabbling, impatiently talking amongst themselves, demanding an answer from their chosen sacrifice.

“Well…” Micah started, choosing her words carefully. “You can’t sit and wait for people to come to you without doing the work. You have to put in effort and take these opportunities to them.”

No acknowledgment of having heard her message was made, and the next speaker dove right in. It was like a firing squad.

“Ms. Micah, at our company—it’s called Ivy Field, have you heard of it?—all of our floor and kitchen staff are super diverse.” A pair of hands to the right of the woman gave a thumbs up. “Micah, wouldn’t you say we’re doing a good job?”

Silence fell over the auditorium and Micah could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Were these people serious? They were deadly serious, and waiting for an answer, so she decided to give it to them.

“But how many of those people do you have in leadership positions? Have you opened up any pathways for them to grow and move up within the company?” The room grew more tense. The lights were getting hotter.

The voice of an old man to the left of the woman raised his hand to speak. “We had a Black general manager at our shop but… they just didn’t fit in with the culture. They would kick out customers they felt were ‘ignorant and disrespectful’ (he gestured air quotes) and we just couldn’t have that. Our customers come first. So, we let them go.”

Micah’s hand tightened around the microphone. She raised it to speak but was cut off again by the woman in the middle.

“What we really want to know, Micah, is what do we do?”

The panel mumbled “mhmm” in unison and waited for an answer.

“What more do you expect us to do?” The man on the far right repeated.

“We’re doing all we can at Big Basket. What should we do now?”

“Ivy Field is a good example of diversity, is it not?”

“What do we DO, Micah?”

“Please tell us.”

The voices of the panel started to ring louder and louder. Micah’s breathing increased and sweat dripped down her face. She tried to cry out, to respond, to quiet the madness and engage in genuine discourse, but her microphone had long since been turned off.

WHAT DO WE DO?” The panel yelled in unison. The ghost-like audience behind them chimed in with them. “WHAT DO WE DO? HOW DO WE DO BETTER FOR ALL?”

The auditorium lights came up just bright enough to show a sea of blank white faces staring wide-eyed at Micah on the stage. Hundreds of them, no thousands of them, filling an impossibly vast conference room, no amphitheater, no coliseum, no…it was a stadium, a vast 100,000 person oval, a triple-decker packed to the very last seat.

“WHAT DO WE DO? WHAT DO WE DO?”

The panel remained shadowed behind the lamps but their chants boomed over everyone else’s. Micah dropped the microphone and her coffee, running off the stage behind the curtain. Backstage was completely dark and the pathway to the conference hall lobby was nowhere to be found. Micah rushed around with her arms stretched out, trying to feel for a doorway out.

“WHAT DO WE DO?”

The voices seemed closer than before. Micah’s hand trembled onto a doorknob but it was locked. She turned around and saw the five shadows of the diversity panel behind her, with hundreds more bodies behind them, a mob of voices and gnarled bodies piling on top of each other.

“TELL US, MICAH. WHAT DO WE DO?”

She slid down the side of the door and covered her head. The chanting rang loudly in her ears. The mob was closer now. She couldn’t breathe. No one could breathe. There was nothing left to breathe, nothing left to say, only the sound of the riot now and the deafening sound of bones crunching, spines snapping, skulls imploding as the bodies piled atop each other, killing themselves to get to her.

***

MICAH! MICAH!”

“Micah? Are you okay?” Micah jolted awake from her seat on the plane. She ripped off the headphones on her head and looked to see her colleague, Ezra, staring at her in bewilderment.

“You doing alright?” Ezra looked at her worried. They were mid-flight seated in business class and a flight attendant’s voice signaled for everyone to prepare for landing.

“It was… a dream?”

Micah breathed in one last bewildered gasp, then breathed out a deep, soul-cleansing sigh of relief.

“Must’ve been some dream,” Ezra said. “Are you stressed out about your green buyer talk?” Micah remembered they were heading to an auction to buy and trade coffees in Guatemala. She was the keynote speaker for her contributions to this sector of the industry.

“Yeah, I guess I am. Must be a flashback from my old diversity days.” Micah sat back in her seat and relaxed. She looked out the window just in time for the volcanoes surrounding Antigua to come into view.

“Ma’am, would you mind putting your seat in the upright position for landing?”

The voice of a woman sent a cold brew chill down Micah’s spine. She turned to the flight attendant at the edge of her row, intensely staring and smiling at her. The woman from the conference hall lobby in my dream, she thought. She placed her seat upright and watched the attendant walk away. A folded up note fell onto the ground by her feet. She slowly picked it up and read it.

How do we do better for all?”

Michelle Johnson is a news contributor at Sprudge Media Network, and the founder and publisher of The Chocolate BaristaRead more Michelle Johnson on Sprudge.


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