#28: Re:co Podcast – Michelle Johnson on Building Diverse and Inclusive Coffee Communities (Session 3, Ep. 2)

Today, we’re very happy to present episode two of the Changing Tides session, recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. The main focus of this session was to have those often difficult conversations around diversity and inclusivity in our coffee communities. If you haven’t listened to episode #27, we strongly recommend going back to listen to it before you continue with this episode. On this episode of the Re:co Podcast, we are pleased to welcome Michelle Johnson, Writer and Social Media Influencer well-known for her blog, The Chocolate Barista.

Special Thanks to Toddy

This talk from Re:co Seattle is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at http://www.toddycafe.com. Links

Episode Transcript

Hello everybody, I’m Colleen Anunu, Director of Coffee Supply Chain at Fair Trade USA and member of the SCA Board of Directors. You’re listening to the Re:co podcast, a special episode of the SCA podcast. The Re:co podcast is dedicated to new thinking, discussion, and leadership in Specialty Coffee, featuring talks, discussions, and interviews from Re:co Symposium, SCA’s premier event dedicated to amplifying the voices of those who are driving specialty coffee forward. Check out the show notes for links to our YouTube channel where you can find videos of these talks. 

This episode of the Re:co Podcast is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at toddycafe.com. Toddy: Cold brewed, simply better. 

Today, we’re very happy to present episode two of the Changing Tides session, recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. The main focus of this session was to have those often difficult conversations around diversity and inclusivity in our coffee communities. If you haven’t listened to episode #27, we strongly recommend going back to listen to it before you continue with this episode.

On this episode of the Re:co Podcast, we are pleased to welcome Michelle Johnson, Writer and Social Media Influencer well-known for her blog, The Chocolate Barista. Welcome to the podcast, Michelle!

Here is Michelle Johnson, speaking at the Changing Tides session of Re:co Symposium in April 2018.


Michelle Johnson: Hello everybody. How’s everyone doing? So I work for a company called Barista Hustle. And there are four pillars to our business. A lot of people aren’t really sure where to place us. But there are four things that we do majorly.

We are a coffee subscription service. We sell affordable tools to baristas. We have our community. And we also have online education and free learning resources. And my job as the Marketing and Community Director is mostly focused on that community aspect, as well as marketing.

Early on in my career, I noticed that, for me, community was kind of all of what coffee was about. I started out in DC and it was because of the latte art throwdowns and meeting other coffee professionals and engaging with them that I got super into coffee and then everything else came along with it.

Because the epiphany I had was: people are at the core of this industry. We can talk all day about extraction, and grind consistency, and roast curves. But what about the people who are helping to promote those conversations? What are we doing for them? So at Barista Hustle, our North Star is to help the world make better coffee. And that informs those four pillars of everything that we do. That can be so many things. That umbrella is so massive. We can help people make better coffee, literally. We can also help people make better coffee by focusing on people and having the conversations about what we need to do so that they can focus on coffee.


On Facebook, Barista Hustle has a large community. But the online conversations were being driven by mostly white men. In the Facebook groups, when marginalized people tried to talk about their experiences, they were attacked by cisgendered men for who they were rather than their ideas.

So that community that we have at Barista Hustle, our Facebook group is the main part of it. It was started by Matt Perger about a year and a half ago just to have friendly coffee chat. He wanted to gather coffee professionals and enthusiasts to talk about coffee. That group is 21,000 members from all over the world. Managing all of those people is quite a task. We have tons of different conversations in there and it’s really become the place where everything happens online in coffee. If you want to know about anything, we allow people to come into the group and enter in what it is that they want to talk about. They have pending posts, we accept them, and we go on through Facebook threads and talk and talk and talk all day.

But something that we were noticing was that the group was very heavily… The conversations were driven mostly by men, mostly by white men. And if we try to talk about anything that’s centered a marginalized coffee professional, be it, I don’t know, sexual harassment in the workplace, maybe talking about wage theft. Those conversations would go off haywire.

People weren’t able to actually engage because they were getting derailed. Especially if you were a woman or a woman of color, if you were non-binary, talking about the personal and very valid experiences of those coffee professionals, we weren’t able to have those conversations. Things like ad hominem attacks, attacking people instead of their ideas. Men over talking us and not even letting us have the opportunity to talk about our experiences, without thinking “oh, no that doesn’t happen in my shop. So it’s not a thing,” which is not true.

The trigger point was this intersectionality panel that I helped plan with Tracy Ging last year and we decided we have this group of 21,000 members and we have all of these conversations… We kind of have a responsibility to also talk about what’s happening to marginalized coffee people. Because this is where everything is happening.

We have the influence to change the direction of where conversations are going overall. So we tried to talk about the intersectionality panel and that thread was horrid. Emotional label, like Colleen talked about earlier, we were just on that thread trying so hard to get people to hear us, to listen that these were things that we were going through as coffee professionals. And it was spending hours of trying to just continue to validate that and we weren’t able to.


So Michael Cameron and I, he’s my colleague, we decided we needed to do something about this and with Matt’s support, we were able to really dive in and find out “how can we change those? How can we change this very clearly toxic culture within our group to try and make it more positive?”

Because we have the responsibility and the ability to have productive conversations overall. Like this is what we’re here for.

So we decided to do a Google survey. It’s not the most scientific thing. We’re not certified researchers. But you know it was very DIY and we were able to do it. So we had three questions on the survey: 1- what can we do to make our Facebook group more welcoming for people to engage in? 2- What would you like to talk about? 3- And what are the things that are really keeping you from engaging in the first place?

But before we needed those answers, I needed to ask a demographic question. I needed to know who was saying what. Because the whole point wasn’t really to focus on what everyone in the group was saying, or even what men in the group were saying, I wanted to specifically center the marginalized people and what they wanted. Because the idea was, if we center them, and then fix the problem so that they can engage then we all can engage.

So the demographic question was: are you a cisgender man? Are you not a cisgender men? And do you prefer not to say? And later on I will show some graphs and I do not include the “prefer not to say” but I do focus on the cisgender men and non-cisgender men.

And the reason why I split it up like that were for a few reasons. 1- It was the most inclusive gender question we could ask. They are cisgender men. And if you’re not a cisgender man, then you’re probably a woman. You’re probably a non-binary person or transgender man. I also didn’t include the degree of race, just for simplicity for us trying to code it. But I am aware that that would be a whole another set of data and that would be really interesting for us to see as well.


Many respondents said they were afraid of looking stupid in front of other people and there were too many attacks on people’s identity rather than their ideas. Michelle made changes to how Barista Hustle manages the Facebook community with a strong focus on inclusivity.

So for the first question: “what keeps you from participating in the group?” These were long-form answers that we gathered in the first survey. And the things that people said, that they had a general fear, they didn’t want to look stupid engaging in the group. We do have a lot of high up coffee professionals in there. So I understood that.

And that the bigotry and prejudice was a thing as well, which was very apparent when we tried to have those conversations that sent centered marginalized people.

“What can we do to foster more welcoming and safe environment?” A lot of people said “cut out the cisman BS.” I understand. That was the mansplaining; that was the ad hominem attacks. That was the derailing conversations and de-valuating our experiences. Which also leads to we needed to be better moderation. And that was very real. If you let any thread go long enough, someone will bring up Nazis and people did.

So the first thing we did after this was set some ground rules. So we created the Barista Hustle Universe Community Guidelines and they were very clear cut set of rules for how to engage within our online spaces. If you’re going to be in here, you’re going to learn how to discourse with people properly. And if you don’t do that, you’re not going to be in the group. We’ll remind you, but otherwise we will kick you out. And I was very trigger-happy with that “banned” button.

The second thing we did was, upon entering the group you have to be approved, so we asked three questions. 1- will you go read the guidelines? 2- will you be respectful when you’re engaging in conversations in the group? 3- what’s your favorite coffee? Because we always like to hear those things.

The last thing was more active and intentional moderation. So moderation, not just in terms of people violating the rules, we would remind them and kick them out and if the conversation started to derail, we would put it back on track. But also being intentional about who is engaging in paying attention to them. So anytime a marginalized person commented on the thread, we would try and like their comment, we would try and reply to what they said just to show that we value their contribution. When they would send a post in and to talk about things we would try and approve more of their post than we would men.

Because this was valuable to us. This was a flag that we were trying to raise and wave that we cared about what you had to say, and we wanted to make that very clear.


So we did a second survey. Because we needed to know… “Alright, we did these three things. Did it work?” It feels like it worked, but we wanted to make sure. So we did a second survey in March and these are some of the results.

“What keeps you from participating in the Facebook group?” For the people who said that they were scared and they didn’t want to look stupid, non-cisgender men feel more confident and better about it now than they did before. And oddly enough men are now more afraid to participate, which, you know what? I’m not mad. That’s fine by me. I would love to hear other people contribute.

When it comes to bigotry and prejudice, in total, everyone said that there’s less of that going on. But more specifically non-cisgender Men, we nearly slashed that in half and that’s really amazing.

For what we can do to make our community more welcoming and safe, “cutting out the cis-man BS,” we’re doing a little bit better. It’s not much, only an eight percent change, but it’s something that we’re continuing to work on. Same with better moderation, 17.4 percent change and a decrease in between the two surveys and that’s something now that we can focus on since the group overall is starting to feel better and that we’re starting to have more productive conversations.

But that last one, “all good.” So we didn’t ask people if things were all good. These were these were long-form answers. So in the first survey we had people say like “no, you don’t need to change anything, things are fine.” But in the second survey, we had way more people across the board that said things that were fine, especially non-cisgender men, which is what I’m focusing on here. And if they feel like things are better, then we’re winning.

We asked another question in this last survey, as well. It said “in terms of moderation, group member interactions, in general group discussion, has the overall quality of the group been better, the same, or worse in the past six months?” So the people that said that things were worse the numbers were so small, we didn’t really need to include them. So in total, a lot of people said that things were the same. And that’s still okay because at least we didn’t take a step backwards. Also overall, they did say that things were better just a little bit though. Same with cisgender men, most of the things were the same, which regardless, they were going to be fine either way, but a good amount did say that things were better. But for non-cisgender men, most of them said things were better now and that’s all the focus that we’re putting on.

Because what constitutes a win for us is, if marginalized people within our group feel like they can contribute, that they can be a part… That what we have to offer is for them, then we did our jobs. But we’re also not done.


There’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to diversity. But it’s worth the work, because diversity is good for business.

So it seems like, you know, “we did it!” Like “yeah, we’re a diverse community now.” Like I said, there’s still work to be done. But some of the conversations we’ve been able to have since have been truly amazing. We were able to have a threaded discussion about moms in the workplace and breastfeeding and how to juggle having a newborn baby and still working as a coffee professional. We’ve been able to talk about tipping and wage theft and sexual harassment and how to better center queer people in your coffee workspaces.

So for you, I need you to remember that, the people that are in our community, the 21,000 that are from all over the world, they are your people as well. They work for you. They’re coming into our space to talk about what’s going on in their own personal spaces. That’s not to say that you need to go into our group and find out if your employees are talking about you. But it is to say, it’s a good place to come in and find out the conversations that we’re having and where the industry is going. Because that’s where that discussion is happening.

Also, I don’t need to reiterate this but it’s been proven time and time again, and you can Google it yourself, like diversity is better for business. For us at Barista Hustle, I’ve realized that we offer tools and we offer education and we have all these things we sell. But if we put as much effort on that as we do on our people, they’re going to want to spend their money on us.

Because they’re going to feel like it’s for them, that they can be a part of that too. Because the industry depends on it. We have so many great minds within the entire industry and we’re doing ourselves a disservice only focusing on a small group of them to help carry the entire industry forward. Because, at the end of the day, this is really a conversation about equity. So all of us who are in here we have power to influence and we have the ability to put in that extra work for those who are already starting out further behind than everyone else, to get them forward.

So are you willing to make this a value in your business? And if you are, you need to prove it. People want to see it. It’s that time. We are living in that time where this is very important. And if you’re going to do that, you need to set some rules. For most coffee places, you know, it looks like HR policies and whatnot. So what happens if those rules are violated and are you willing to stick to those?

This road that we’re on is going to be long, and like I said, we’re not done with all the work that we’ve started at Barista Hustle. And the bus towards, you know, true diversity and true inclusion, we’re all piling on it. And I saw a tweet earlier before I got on stage about a group of people who left the room during this discussion and they’re just going to be left behind.

We’re all waiting to get on this bus to get this moving because my coffee professionalism matters. And so does Becky’s and so does my friend RJ’s and we’re all marginalized people who want to be able to just talk about coffee. But we’re having to spend our time trying to validate our experiences and it’s keeping us from getting there.

So is it actually possible to help the world make better coffee the whole world? I’d like to find out. Thank you.


Colleen Anunu: Great. So Michelle, let’s talk.

Michelle Johnson: Let’s do it.

Colleen Anunu: Let’s do it. Great, so I wanted to start specifically about some of the tactics that you explained in your presentation that you applied to Barista Hustle. Specifically around changing that toxic culture and trying to be more welcoming and addressing barriers and asking for opinions. I’m just wondering, if you think that maybe some of the tactics could be applied to other contexts, specifically in a cafe or a coffee company. Or, how would you recommend to anyone that’s in a leadership or management position in another context to address some of this toxic culture that you’ve identified and worked to solve?

Michelle Johnson: Since Barista Hustle is an online forum, a lot of this would be a lot more interactive and verbal in person. So I think about just how past jobs I’ve had where I’ve had really great managers who would defer to me or other employees like me that weren’t men, for instance, when it came to trying to solve problems, just not only in the sense of changing our culture, but general coffee problems. Doing things like that.

I think about training programs and cuppings where a lot of them are often led by men and they’ll also only talk to the other men in the room and find out their opinions. But being extra encouraging to everyone else that’s there and trying to get them to participate and make them feel like, what you taste and what you think on how to do this one thing is right too. Those are things that come to mind and how to apply that in a more in-person sense of ‘how to change the culture’ thing. Yes that yeah,

Colleen Anunu: I mean just even thinking about that. I mean there’s so many people have some anxiety or feel uncomfortable with even trying to address things in person. And it’s like when you’re online or you’re a moderator, you’re super empowered, you don’t have to have a face-to-face conversation with an individual about the way that they’re acting. You said you’re pretty trigger-happy with the button to cancel their membership on the spot, right?

Michelle Johnson: I wish I could block people in real life [IRL] too.

Colleen Anunu: Yeah, but how would you suggest or do you have any particular experiences of addressing some of these issues in person or where you’ve specifically had to call out someone for their behavior. And how do you do that?

Michelle Johnson: I’m going to be completely honest with you Colleen. That’s something that I’m still trying to figure out because a lot of the experiences I’ve had so far haven’t been the most positive and trying to hold someone accountable in person for putting me in a position where I wasn’t empowered where I couldn’t continue to do my job.

And so it’s definitely still a learning experience for me and something that I’m still going through. But what I have found is having a support system of other folks around me, especially other people who have more privilege than me, who are able to vouch for me and speak for me when I want them to speak for me, has been really helpful. So whether that’s a manager or a peer or anyone who is able to view the situation from the outside and be objective and say “you know what? I see that you are being treated unfairly or being wronged or being spoken over. So I’m going to step in and make sure that this gets resolved for your sake.”

One specific example is in meetings a lot I would get talked over or I would have things that I said repeated back to me from someone else and then everyone would be on that person be like, “oh, yeah, that’s a great idea.” And I’d be like, “well, I just said that” and having someone else in the room who recognizes that, who would then speak up and be like, “hey, Michelle just said that” or “hey, Michelle’s trying to get this point across like can we all please be quiet?” Like that. Just those little things have been really helpful, but I’m still I’m still learning how to hold people accountable and in person too. So ask me in about six months.

Colleen Anunu: That is a deal. I will yeah. I mean, I totally feel that. I have the same response. I mean, sometimes it can be really challenging but I think I’m totally with you. The way that others support or can be – I mean, I don’t want to use the A- word “allies” – but that’s the real purpose of supporting individuals that they don’t necessarily need to stick up for themselves all the time. I mean, there’s so much to say about individuals that are that are that are doing some really important work on behalf of their friends and colleagues and fellow beings.


 Colleen Anunu: And I do want to riff off that when you’re talking about managers or leaders within a company that have supported you in that way or that you’ve seen do it. At one point in your talk you invite leaders in the room at Re:co to join Barista Hustle, to join the forum, and to see the new leading conversations and I wonder if you’ve had any response after that or you’ve seen some people come into the forum and learn new ways of supporting or learn about the new conversations that are happening. If you have any experience to share from that invitation.

Michelle Johnson: I mean we had right, after Re:co, we had a huge uptick and people who were joining the group, which was amazing, but honestly there had been a little bit of a dip in participation after that as well.

I mean like a lot of the people who were joining the group were a bunch of men. And a lot of the questions that were continuing to come in were still  along the same lines of “this isn’t really a conversation that’s going to help push us any further.” It’s like, “I don’t know what TDS I should set for my coffee” type of thing, which we like having those conversations too and that’s fine. But I mean, if I can be completely transparent with you, it wasn’t long after Re:co that I myself had left the group. So I’m not sure what it’s like now. But I mean regardless of all that, we still had some really good conversations in there. And one of my favorite conversations was… We had a whole thread about working mothers. And how do you navigate working at a coffee shop or owning a cafe and being pregnant or having a newborn and not being able to give yourself a lot of maternity leave. And what to do in those situations. And so many…

There were people just like baristas, managers, Kim Elena was a part of that conversation, there were so many people that I also looked up to who had so much to say and it was a learning experience for me because I’m not a mother, yet. But to see that this was something that I had never even thought about. A conversation that needed to happen. But it was one of like the most engaging threads in that group and I feel like the most eye-opening for everyone as a whole.

Because it’s like, if I didn’t think that that was a conversation to be had, then a ton of other people didn’t think about that too. And, from that conversation, I’ve learned that community and the people that you work with will be extremely helpful for when you are a new mother working in coffee. And it was just like super encouraging and I was like, I hope more conversations like this continue to happen. And I hope that this opens up to even pass the online forum into some support group for folks who are having babies and want to continue working in coffee.

Colleen Anunu: So yeah. Yeah. I remember when you mentioned that specific conversation on stage and I just thought exactly. I also am not a mother and I have worked in spaces where there are single mothers or new mothers working in the cafe and the needs and responsibilities of those individuals are so different. And it’s hard to fathom that I as well had never even thought about that. But totally recognized how that happens. And how to be more mindful in the future. Do you remember anyone specifically on that thread having similar epiphanies or anything else worth noting from the reaction from the general public or those that weren’t leading the actual discussion?

Michelle Johnson: Yeah, I saw there were a couple of comments and people who are just thanking everyone who had participated for bringing up that topic and for thanking the person for asking the question and I’d seen a couple tweaks here and there. But it was in general just very well received and that was probably one of the like highlights of my time moderating that Facebook group.


Colleen Anunu: Yeah. I mean that’s the other thing that you said, I mean it’s so important I guess to give that positive reinforcement and just calling out a thank you or you said sometimes liking comments from people that were sharing things or that were marginalized folks or underrepresented folks on the thread and why that positive reinforcement is so good and to be thankful and Mindful and to give space to them. So that’s awesome.

Are there any other conversations that happened after you changed the Rules of Engagement? Or what I forget exactly what you call them, Community guidelines? Any other major conversations that come to mind when thinking about how the group changed?

Michelle Johnson: We had tried multiple occasions to have the identity conversations and they had over time had gone from very bad and unproductive to pretty okay and pretty productive. And for a lot of people, especially since the group was global and a lot of the talking about race and gender and identity as a whole, some of it would for sure go over people’s heads. And how people would respond was not necessarily out of a place of malice but like, cultural ignorance and not quite realizing that what we’re talking about isn’t just something that’s happening in the US or happening in Australia.

It’s global. But aside from still continuing to try to have those conversations and over time them getting better, we were also able to talk about mental health for hospitality workers in general. And I remember one of the first times someone had submitted something about mental health and it was tacked onto a conversation about wage inequality. That conversation did not go well at all. But we had tried it again a few months later and it was a little bit more productive. But those very sensitive things that people… I feel like with hospitality, those types of topics we just sweep under the rug and we button up our shirts and put our smile on our face and just try and do our jobs. And a lot of people are able to function that way but then shame folks who aren’t able to function that way.

And that was, at the end of the day, what I was trying to help change because the forum was 20,000+ people in it and was a place that a lot of people came to see what was going on in coffee as a whole. It was like one of the only online gathering places for the industry. And then for those who aren’t in the industry to just like see what was going on.

So I felt a responsibility to like, “I need to be having these conversations in this space because I know that there are a ton of people looking at this and a lot of people learning from it.” So why wouldn’t we? It felt like a waste, not to try and have these tough conversations on top of talking about TDS and robots and espresso machines and stuff like that. Like it’s all important. It’s all tied together. And no matter how much you try and sweep mental health and race and gender under the rug it all still very much informs people’s experiences as a coffee professional. And I really hope that overall that came across and I was able to still do some good work and create some positive ripples as a result.

Colleen Anunu: Yeah, that’s awesome. I didn’t realize that it was over 20,000 people.

Michelle Johnson: Yeah, it was a big group

Colleen Anunu: and potentially larger now. And robots, talking about robot rights at all. Just kidding.

Michelle Johnson: We still got some time!


Colleen Anunu: Robot mental health, Michelle. I’m just playing. So that’s amazing that you had not only this business mentality around responsibility and that was part of the new ethos of this business, basically is what it was. I mean, it’s a forum, it’s a little bit of a membership forum, but it’s still like the brand, the identity and how you want to cultivate community. And that’s also very much part of you and not just Barista Hustle but Michelle Johnson and Chocolate Barista and all things that you believe in. And I know that you said that you’re no longer with the group or with the company and I’m just wondering, what are you up to now? And what are you interested in working in?

Michelle Johnson: Well now I’m scheming on the low. I have a lot of plans for 2019. My big plans are to grow the Chocolate Barista and I want to make the Chocolate Barista into a parent company and have subsidiaries underneath it of different things that I can pursue. Because I just like to do a lot. I’m always doing a lot. So we have Black Coffee the podcast, and I’m planning on growing and evolving that. I want to do catering, events. I want to do consulting. I still want to continue doing marketing. I’m doing some of these things as an independent and a freelancer right now. I’m also writing for Sprudge and I do some non-coffee related work as well. But yeah, I’m planning on making the Chocolate Barista a force to be reckoned with. And in some ways I think to myself that it already is, but I want to create an even more solid foundation for it and I want to create a network that just continues to lift up black coffee professionals and other coffee professionals of color and just see where that goes. But right now I’m still in Melbourne, working quietly and having my head down, but then in 2019, it’s going to be something else. I’ll be back in the US and I’m just going to hit the ground running. So stay tuned.

Colleen Anunu: It sounds awesome. I mean, I would love to hear… Because I know that after SCA last year and after Re:co, was it your first black coffee event?

Michelle Johnson: Yeah, like right after.

Colleen Anunu: I want to dig into the dynamics that you experienced between the Re:co attendee base and then what you cultivated for Black Coffee. Could you describe really quickly what Black Coffee is?

Michelle Johnson: Black Coffee is a live podcast show that focuses on the experiences of black coffee professionals and enthusiasts. We all just get together and have a conversation with each other about our experiences. And sometimes there is a theme, sometimes it’s just a general conversation, but it’s very entertaining, it’s funny, but it’s also quite real and emotional. I listen to a lot of pop culture podcasts. And this was a direct stem off of…listening to those podcasts and seeing that they do live shows as well. So I wanted to find another creative medium to have these types of conversations besides just doing a regular old panel discussion or something like that.

Colleen Anunu: Regular old panel discussion?

Michelle Johnson: Those are great too!


Colleen Anunu: Yeah, there’s validity there. I’d love to hear that experience though, of that shift between something that’s pretty formal, and a lot of preparation. I mean, you said that we worked for months on the topic of the Changing Tides whole session. And then you worked really diligently with your team at that point at Barista Hustle to dig into the data from your surveys and to talk about your specific experience and project with Barista Hustle to also have that conversation and different audiences.

How do you deal with those different dynamics or what have you learned from your experience after these sessions?

Michelle Johnson: Well, I remember in the in the same time that we were preparing for Re:co was the same time that I was preparing for Black Coffee. So doing all of this on top of each other was a lot. But I mean that’s just how I work these days anyway. But yeah, it was a huge shift because Re:co was… I had a button-up shirt and heels on and I’m having these very deep conversations that were based in data, intellectual, talking to people who were owners of companies, CEOs and things like that and actually feeling a little bit of stress of having to justify why my talk was important to some of these people.

But then at the same time having a lot of those people come to me and say that “hey, this was really important. I’ve never heard a talk like this. And especially with how you applied it to your business. I want to talk more.”

And then flipping the switch and going to Black Coffee which was more informal, still just as important of a conversation, a more informal, creative medium where we could just be ourselves and not to stand up straight, for example. And we were also drinking on stage too. But yeah, the audiences were just very different. Black Coffee attracted more baristas and people just come in off the street, which is great. While Re:co are people who are able to be in that room, people who are in the high executive level positions, and can afford to go to Re:co and things like that.

And over time. I’d like to see, if not in the audience at least I’d like to see Re:co have more speakers that are entry-level to mid-level people, like baristas or trainers and managers.

Because I feel like they have a lot to say and people who are in the executive level positions, I have a hard time feeling like they are completely in the know of what’s going on in the lower realms of their own businesses because they’re not engaging or talking to them. I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt and say that they are interactive and they’re engaging with their staff, but a lot of them are just sitting up in their office, wherever that is, and making the decisions that come across their desks, and that’s about it. So to have baristas and more producers and folks who are actually on the ground coming to Re:co and at least speaking, I think that would be very valuable and how that medium and forum grows and evolves over time.

Colleen Anunu: Yeah, absolutely. This really got me thinking about when we were working together on the whole concept for Changing Tides with Phyllis Johnson and Matt Slater, and we were really trying to think “how can we make this super dynamic and try and get as many perspectives and voices up on stage as possible to talk about these really uncomfortable issues of power dynamics and class issues and struggle and race issues and marginalized communities and microaggressions and all the buzzwords, but all the real lived experiences of people and why it’s important for business.” And we’re trying to frame this constantly especially for the audience in the room of “this is important for your business, but also the world is changing and the ship is sailing and let’s give you the information that you need in order to make life better for us, but also make like life better for yourself.”

But thinking about all of the panelists and presenters that we were able to secure for the session in general, we had a really hard time and didn’t end up actually securing anyone talking from a perspective of diversity and inclusion from a business, like from a large corporation.

And we reached out to a number of people that we thought would be great to speak on the topic. And there’s a lot of risk that I feel like is perceived, there just wasn’t a real interest of for us to be part of this conversation. And so it ended up being a real grassroots on the ground, as you just said, type of conversation around the reality of the situation.

And you just saying all of that just got me thinking about how challenging but how rewarding it could have been if we also had someone from corporate culture talking about culture change and shift and what they’re seeing and how much budget you have to allocate to actually engaging appropriately on these topics.

Michelle Johnson: Yeah, totally. I think for a lot of those companies, I just can’t help but think that, when they have like a Director of Diversity or they flaunt these initiatives that they’re doing for their companies and they’re putting a lot of money towards it and telling the world about it, I just can’t help but think that it’s just for show. And then, when it actually comes down to someone asking them “can you please come and talk about this? Especially with your position in the corporate world and things like that, this would be really valuable for our people to listen to you.” And they’re just “like, oh well, maybe not, actually no.” And it’s really disappointing and I’m still keeping my eyes out for a corporate company that is actually putting their money where their mouth is. And I would love nothing more than to see for a big corporate company be like “actually, this is our number one value here and everything else just falls into place from here. And not only do we have something to show for it, but we also want to go out there and start to talk about it, too.”

Yeah, that would be a game-changer.

Colleen Anunu: Right? I mean, it’s interesting because if they’re really doing a good job, you would think that it would just be felt by the employees or just known about what kind of good supportive company it is. You wouldn’t need to write a press release round around training thousands of employees on different tactics and your sensitivities in all this stuff.

I mean, it’s something that I think it’s worth it for us to continue to look forward to and to try and secure more speakers to this topic. And it does get me thinking about who in the audience is going to listen or what kind of delivery or what kind of person does it take to get these important concepts, these two real concepts across to individuals to get them to change their behavior? And you had mentioned in your talk at one point that some people left the room at the start of the Changing Tide session, and I don’t remember somebody maybe tweeted about it during the start of the session back in Seattle. But I just wonder, would it have been a different scenario if you did had someone else from Barista Hustle like Matt, who is a white man, talking about the issues that he’s seen. Do you want to speculate on that, like how different the conversation would be received? Let’s just start there.

Michelle Johnson: Yeah, I’m comfortable with speculating that it definitely would have been received differently. I don’t need to be afraid of saying that out loud, because that’s just what it is. That’s what it’s like. That is bias, that is racism, that is sexism, that is the patriarchy, it’s all of it. And, for one, it would have definitely surprised people had it been Matt on that stage giving that exact same talk, but more people for sure would have stayed to listen to it.

And to that, I’m just like, I don’t have much to say to that. It just be like that. But I hope that, for one, for more white men to step up and talk about this but also to know when they should just pass the mic instead. But two, I’m glad that I was the one to give this talk and I hope that people over time realize that, “you know what? I don’t need a white man on stage telling me these things because the fact of the matter is that they actually don’t have the range for this.”

And had it been Matt on that stage doing that talk, it would have been coming from me anyway.

Like I said, they just don’t have the range. And it’s like, the more marginalized the person the more that they’re able to speak to these type of things and actually give you a grander scope of what it’s like. And really, the world just needs to learn how to listen to those people instead but this is just the world we live in. We’re still getting there.

Colleen Anunu: Yeah we’re going to continue to get there. I think that it’s an ongoing process. Definite dynamic learning experiences. Well Michelle, I wish we could talk all day. But when you come back to the United States, we probably can talk all day. I want thank you so much for joining us today.

Michelle Johnson: Yeah, thank you for having me. This is awesome.

Colleen Anunu: You’re welcome.

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