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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 5 Issue 2 Highlights



On The VolunTourism Fringe: Just Coffee Travel Delegations

Colleen Coy is the Coordinator of Just Coffee's Travel Delegations. At select times throughout the year, Just Coffee, a worker-owned cooperative, provides customized itineraries for its customers and other interested parties to visit the coffee producers with which the cooperative works in destinations around the world. Recently, Just Coffee began adding voluntary service activities to its delegations. I caught up with Colleen Coy and asked her to share details of her team's efforts and what are, for me, the first such VolunTourism offerings that I have encountered.

In the Post-Meltdown Economy, we are hearing more and more about cooperatives around the world. The Mandragon Corporacion Cooperativa (MCC) in Spain is probably the planet's most renowned cooperative, but what exactly is a cooperative?

Lynn Pitman, Associate Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives (UWCC), describes a cooperative in this way: "A business that is owned and controlled by the people who use it, and the benefits are distributed proportional to use."

The UWCC is currently involved in a five-year study that includes measuring the direct and indirect economic impact of cooperatives in the U.S. Economy. The study focused on four economic areas - Commercial Sales and Marketing, Social
and Public Services, Financial Services, and Utilities
. Here is the most recent summary from the study:

  • Nearly 30,000 U.S. Cooperatives operate at roughly 73,000 places of business throughout the U.S.
  • These cooperatives own more than $3 trillion USD in assets, and generate more than $500 billion USD in revenue and more than $25 billion USD in wages
  • In terms of indirect and induced impact of cooperative business activity, the study estimates that cooperatives account for nearly $645 billion USD in revenue, more than 2 million jobs, $75 billion USD in wages and benefits paid, and a total of $133.5 billion USD in value-added income

(Source: UWCC Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives)

From these nearly 30,000 cooperatives, we will single out Just Coffee to discuss how its impact is expanding beyond economics and embracing cultural exchange and social benevolence through its travel delegations.

The History of Just Coffee and Just Coffee's Fair Trade Delegations to Coffee Country

Legend has it that Just Coffee was started by a "college boy" and a farmer who met some revolutionary coffee growers in a place called Chiapas.  They struck up a friendship and went back to their homeland of Wisconsin to help sell their compas' beans to people who would not seek to rip these fine growers off.  After meeting some semi-shady and disinterested "coffee men" who turned up their noses and acted rudely, they sought out the advice of fair trade veterans in the justice league of coffee roasters known as Cooperative Coffees.  After several pep talks, they became reluctant entrepreneurs and joined Co-op Coffees.  Thus Just Coffee was born!!!

After adding a much needed environmental engineer (every fair trade roaster should have one, really) they promptly began roasting beans in a very odd looking contraption that they acquired from a nice Madison roaster.  The results were simply smashing.  Soon they began traveling the world in search of cool new producer co-ops to work with while simultaneously adding great folks from Madison to their bulging roaster operations. As a team this rag tag crew of farmers, activists, bikers, writers, dancers, zen parents, actors, circus clowns, and fellow travelers have concocted a plan to overthrow the neo-liberal coffee menace.

And this is where you come in...

Just Coffee’s Delegations began in 2005 when our cooperatively run business decided that in order to fulfill our vision of fair trade it was integral that we regularly visit the producers that we purchase from and simultaneously provide an educational opportunity for our customers, the final link in the fair trade chain.  Delegations have since served as the catalyst for us to accomplish these goals and many more. 

Our first experimental delegation was to visit coffee cooperative Santa Anita la Union, in the Guatemalan highlands.  We have been back a minimum of once a year since then and each year our relationship with Santa Anita grows stronger and we are able to more effectively work together for the betterment of their community and the improvement of the fair trade system.

Just Coffee's delegation program provides delegates with comprehensive briefing notes regarding Certified Fair Trade, an explanation of coffee terminology, and other materials specific to the country they will be traveling in, and the people and organizations they will meet.  Delegates are encouraged to utilize the Just Coffee website and other on-line resources to familiarize themselves with where they will be going.

Each year we have added new delegations to producers' groups to our repertoire: El Salvador, Guatemala, Chiapas & Oaxaca Mexico, Nicaragua, Timor-Leste, and soon Bolivia, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic!

Colleen Coy's Role

So what exactly does Colleen do?

"I take groups of people from all over the world," Colleen says, "but especially Just Coffee customers, which could be individuals or groups that sell our coffee through fundraiser or education programs; it could be people from coffee shops or stores that sell our coffee. And I take them down to visit and meet the cooperative farmers that we work with around the world."

"For us, the delegations serve as a way to mobilize short-term volunteers, as part of the delegations, to visit, to build and develop and maintain long-term relationships with the trading partners that we have, which are cooperatives," she adds. "It also works as an education tool for the producer groups we work with, because, whenever possible, we try to bring down people who have expertise in a certain field that is beneficial to the farmer-producers or something that they're looking for - whether it be someone who can instruct on new roasting techniques or agricultural techniques."

There are two principles of cooperatives "that deal with the wider community around them," offers Lynn Pitman, "cooperation among cooperatives and a general concern for community. [Just Coffee Delegation] is a wonderful example of those cooperative principles in action."

The Philosophy Behind Just Coffee's Fair Trade Delegations

Delegates play a vital role in developing and maintaining the long-term relationships that the workers of our co-operative and our trading-partners (the coffee-producer co-operatives, their families, communities and their organizations) wish to build. Meeting with coffee farmers, staying with their families, visiting with their organizations and learning about their lives, their farming systems, the production of quality coffee, and about the operations of their co-operatives facilitates extremely valuable social and cultural exchanges.  Over time, these exchanges collectively evolve into the very substance of a growing history of co-operative social-relations and mutual effort between producers and consumers.  

Delegates contribute by giving their time to the relationship between our communities, the communities of consumers and the communities of producers.  These interactions and relationships transcend the limited time of each delegation and enable us to come to know each other better and to work together on ongoing projects of mutual interest and benefit.  Delegates are able to witness work that is being done and to form part of a community of solidarity working together to enrich each others lives.  Our Just Coffee fair trade Delegations to Coffee Country involve more and more people in more direct trading relationships, relationships based on mutual respect, understanding, and shared effort.  Through Just Coffee’s Delegations, consumers and producers come together to increase each others awareness of fair-trade and sustainability.

The Impact On Travelers

"It is quite transformational for people," Colleen says. "I'm always surprised and amazed at how many people come on delegations and tell me afterwards that it changed their life and that they're going to go home and do things differently and really think about where things come from before they purchase things - make better choices."

Brenda McKee, an alumnus of the 2009 Nicaragua Just Coffee Travel Delegation, explained her experience in these words:

Mark Dohm, an alumnus of delegations to Nicaragua and Guatemala in 2009, put it this way:

These delegates volunteer their time and their resources to make a deeper connection with these communities. Whether there is a transference of skill or not, the commitment of individuals willing to take such a trip to further their knowledge and understanding of the products they buy and where these products come from - the "people" behind that production - could there be a better expression of VolunTourism?!?

Concluding Thoughts

Exchange is a very important concept within the cooperative structure. In the case of Just Coffee, the cooperative also offers "Reverse Delegations," opportunities for Just Coffee's fair trade partners to come to Madison. "So when they come to Madison," Colleen continues, "we've taken individuals from Nicaragua to do barista training here because they have wanted to open up their own coffee shops to sell their coffee locally [in their home destination]." This reciprocal flow of learning and education is invaluable in strengthening relationships between coffee growers and Just Coffee. Former delegates living in the Madison area also have an opportunity to reconnect with members of farmer-producer cooperatives whom they may have met during a previous travel delegation.

Given that some VolunTourism operators have long-standing relationships with communities, the idea of reverse delegations to a UK-based, Canadian, American, Australian or European Union-based headquarters could be an incredible way to solidify relationships and stress the fact that VolunTourism is rooted in exchange. Certainly, this is worth consideration as we try to move from the notion that service travels in only one direction.

I think there is much that can be learned from the Just Coffee Travel Delegation model by all VolunTourism Operators. Treating communities as "cooperatives," perhaps even helping them to develop the capacity to self-organize in such a way, could truly enhance the vision of all stakeholders and transmute the idea of what "service" truly means. As voluntourists continue to experience communities around the world, they will come to realize that the greatest service they provide, when polished with their best attitude and desire to learn, is simply this - - "Showing Up!"

About Colleen Coy

Colleen graduated cum laude with a bachelor of arts and science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Colleen began working with Just Coffee in 2005 leading their program of fair trade travel delegations to coffee country and now also does work with Just Coffee in Producer Relations and Education/Outreach. 

As the Just Coffee Travel Delegation program continues to grow, more and more producers are reached each year; Annual Delegations are now taken to Guatemala, El Salvador, Chiapas and Oaxaca Mexico, Nicaragua, and Timor-Leste and plans are in the works to strengthen relationships with producer groups in South America and Africa in the near future. 

Colleen is also one of the founders and initiators of the Gardeners of Eden Seed Project, a small sustainable agriculture and Permaculture project that has been working for more than three years, primarily with coffee farmers in Timor-Leste, on diversification and seed saving as well as improving quality and yields of coffee harvests. 

Colleen is a professional ballet and modern dancer and is a certified Pilates instructor.

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