How to make a friend in Uganda. business consultant, NGO worker, former Peace Corps volunteer, activist: searching for sustainable solutions to eradicate extreme poverty

September 18, 2009

Faith, Justice, and Fair Trade (a personal journey leads to organizational change)

For many years, I struggled to connect my faith with my passion for social justice. The two worlds felt distinct and separate. I would talk to my classmates at business school about innovative new ways to solve complex social issues such as poverty in the developing world and then talk to followers of Jesus about how to deepen my spiritual understanding and live a life more connected with the God I read about in the Bible. At times, I felt that I was straddling an ever-expanding chasm between a world of reason and intellect and another of mysticism and emotion. Then about a year ago, I found a group of people who were also seeking to find a connection between faith and justice at the Boston Faith & Justice Network . BFJN took the “least of these” Biblical passages from thought to action. I finally felt my esoteric and grandiose business school ideas could find real-world purchase.

After attending a Lazurus at the Gate small group study last fall, I joined my church’s BFJN chapter and began involving myself in the Fair Trade Boston campaign. In this capacity, I worked with a team from my church to educate our community about the connection between gratitude and consumption. I also began meeting monthly with other church, business, and community leaders to plan and execute initiatives such as Action Charlie and  Fair Trade Boston (the event). At Action Charlie, we gave away 25,000 coupons for Fair Trade Ceritified™ coffee, and at the spring Fair Trade Boston event, we provided visibility for local socially-conscious businesses in a bazaar-like setting. Both actions were big, fun, and introduced Fair Trade to a multitude of people.

However, my largest effort to date has been advocating for a switch to Fair Trade Certified™ products at the Greater Boston Vineyard’s Sunday morning cafe. It is with great pride and excitement that I can announce that Sunday, September 13, 2009 marked the first day that the Greater Boston Vineyard served Fair Trade Certified™ coffee and sugar to an estimated 800 adult attendees. How can you convince your organization to embrace the same commitment? I’m not going to pretend that there is an easy blueprint. However, I can share the story of how, with the help of two other committed advocates, I pulled, pushed, and prodded my church to its decision to make the switch.

Last February, at one of the very first meetings of my church’s BFJN chapter, we discussed how to build a foundation to begin advocating for greater availability of Fair Trade Certified™ products in our neighborhoods. We decided that we needed to first develop support and momentum within our own church before we could affect the larger community. Some of the groundwork had already been laid by our chapter’s founder over the course of the previous year as she developed a relationship with Danny, our church’s director of Community Development. However, to make real change in how our church operates and functions, we knew that we would need to talk to those who actually make purchasing decisions. I initially thought the process would be quick and painless. While there was little pain, the process took several more months and many more meetings than I had originally envisioned.

To begin, I set up my first meeting with Adam, the assistant pastor who orders all the food and beverage for Vineyard’s Sunday morning cafe. Adam and I spent most of the hour in early February talking about the foundational principles of Fair Trade and how it differs from direct trade. In the remaining time, I talked about how the use of Fair Trade Certified™ commodities could tie into and enhance our church’s mission. Adam asked many difficult questions, to some of which I knew no answers. I left the meeting with no commitment and no clear direction on how to continue our conversation. Adam remained unconvinced that the certification process added any real value to coffee trade.

The first meeting lead to a series of conversations – some formal and some not so much. My commitment was tested as little visible progress was being made. By the time June rolled around, Adam warmed to further exploring the issue but was still hung up on his current supplier relationship. To add some momentum to our effort, I began to reach out to local roasters that I found listed on TransfairUSA’s website. Several responded, and I asked Adam if we could set up meetings with each of them. My intention was to give Adam additional perspective on the issue of Fair Trade certification. In addition, meeting the roasters might allow him to consider switching from his current supplier relationship since it would put a face on “the competition.” It worked! After our second vendor meeting, Adam and I began organizing a coffee cupping for the Vineyard staff.

Getting the rest of the staff involved in the choice of our new coffee accelerated the momentum. Adam did a great job of promoting the coffee cupping. The executive pastor, an associate pastor, a couple of assistant pastors and much of the community development department participated in a blind taste test of five FTC blends from three local roasters. They were all very vocal about their choices throughout the tasting and took studious notes on the flavor and strength of each cup. To save paper, everyone used his or her mug and then threw any waste into a hastily arranged spittoon. Our lead pastor stopped by to lend his support, but we didn’t have enough coffee to offer a cup! As the tasting concluded, I had the chance to ask the staff if they had any questions regarding a potential switch to a Fair Trade Certified™ coffee. I felt more at ease explaining the basic tenants of Fair Trade than ever before. The questions were challenging, but I was a bit more prepared for the skepticism after initial meetings with Adam and provided answers that were hopefully at least as thoughtful and sincere as the questions. When asked to differentiate between direct trade and Fair Trade, I offered comparisons to familiar certification programs such as USDA Organic. The direct Q&A format allowed for more focus and interaction between everyone involved.

I cornered Adam in the kitchen as we cleaned up and uttered what we were both contemplating: “What’s the next step?” To my surprise, he said that he was ready to switch to a coffee from one of the companies we had just sampled. Step by step, I had answered each one of his questions and concerns throughout the process, provided security and support, and it was apparent that the staff tasting had provided the necessary organizational momentum. With the bus full, we were rolling down the hill at full speed. Adam and I quickly discussed which company and blend might be the best choice for our church based on our meetings with the company owners and the cupping that we just hosted. Adam chose one and said he’d make that contact, and we picked a launch date for the new coffee so that my team and I could plan a proper launch promotion. Below are a few photos of that launch on Sunday, September, 13, 2009.

Jeff Purser has a real passion to find sustainable solutions to eliminate extreme poverty. He recently completed his MBA at Northeastern University and lives near Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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