Our conversations with the global coffee contingent assembled in Seoul for the WBC shed new light on the controversial SCA decision
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
I have to admit, being in Seoul, South Korea, for the 2017 World Barista Championship, and hearing the news of the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) decision to move forward with the plan to host multiple 2018 international coffee championships in Dubai, UAE, has been frustrating, confusing, and simply overwhelming as a journalist.
When I first began writing this piece, I thought the situation was clear: The SCA should be publicly condemned for this decision. After 63 days of protesting and waiting for a response from our governing board since the initial announcement, I thought their solution was inadequate and downright offensive—to continue holding the events planned there (the 2018 World Brewers Cup, Cezve/Ibrik Championship, World Coffee Roasting Championship, and World Cup Tasters Championship) and then to offer competitors who chose not to compete a deferment option—in which competitors can choose to defer their spot in any world competition until the following year if they give an “adequate” reason—was deplorable.
I looked to Twitter and other social media outlets, and saw my friends and colleagues express the same sentiments. So I decided to walk the floor of the WBC stage here in Seoul, and ask past and present competitors, coaches, and competition supporters from across the globe what they thought. I considered this a rare chance to step outside my echo chamber and talk to the global specialty-coffee community. The response I got was surprising.
Almost everyone I talked to expressed hesitation to condemn the decision. Some didn’t think the decision should be condemned at all. Many noted the confusion that a deferment policy could create—could there be 30 World Brewers Cup champions one year and 50 the next?—and some felt that the SCA made a confusing issue even more unclear. But almost every person expressed that they felt the outrage being expressed online through social media was a uniquely U.S. response. They felt like the outrage being expressed centered the competition around the needs of people from the United States.
I’m from the United States. For the first few hours I spent talking to the international coffee community gathered here, I was outright confused—I wasn’t sure how to process what people were telling me. But there had to be something there—this wasn’t just the response of one, but the response of many from all over the world. I talked to current competitors and teams from the Middle East, past national champions, and volunteers from all over the world, and they all told me the same thing.
And as I sat with this information, things became more clear.
In the 17 years of international coffee competitions, competitors have routinely been excluded from participating due to visa issues and safety concerns of the host country. In 2015, when the WBC was held in Seattle, more than one competitor couldn’t attend the competition because it was being held in the United States. In the past, many competitors would find out just days before that their visas had been approved, leaving them hours to make arrangements to compete. This year—2017—is the first year every single person who registered to compete in the WBC was allowed to attend.
The Deferred Candidacy policy, presented in a press release by SCA and World Coffee Events (WCE) somewhat recklessly, coupled with the initial decision to hold coffee championships in Dubai, were meant to address that on a global level. The Deferred Candidacy policy was not meant as a direct response to the problem in Dubai, but rather as a solution for a problem the SCA and WCE run into every competition season. On an annual basis, champions from countries all over the world face undue hardships to travel to the host country, which is simply not an issue any competitor from the United States has ever had to face until now.
I was surprised to learn this, and I could see how the global coffee community would be frustrated by our outrage because many of them have already dealt with exclusionary practices and violations of their rights and safety. Not that our outrage isn’t justified—let’s be clear there is simply no excuse for choosing a host country for a competition that routinely jails people for expression of sexuality outside of what the government deems decent or acceptable, which is well-documented by organizations like the United Nations and the Human Rights Watch. (The New York Times just published an article that feels exceptionally appropriate right now). But it seems like many members of the global community are suspicious that folks from the United States chose now—right now—to speak up. And the fact that this is a largely United States-centered reaction is something that needs to be dissected if we are to operate global events in a unified governing body.
This is an argument that is hard to process because it doesn’t diminish the fact that Dubai is simply not safe for many of our members. There’s no argument around this. The personal experiences of folks saying, “I’ve been to Dubai and have never felt in danger,” don’t erase the laws on the books, the documented violations of human rights, and the fear many members of the coffee community feel. But I was surprised to learn that so many members of our global specialty coffee community have faced hardships in the past, and that’s perhaps where the dissonance lies.
I know I was shocked to learn that this WBC in Seoul is the first time that every eligible national champion who wanted to compete was granted entrance to the host country, and that’s a start to solving this problem and bridging the global community. We need better, more reliable access to information and standards to which the SCA can make and uphold decisions. Yes, there have been years where not every competitor could enter the host country, but who could ever find that out without being at the WBC? And if we’ve had problems with competitors entering the country in the past, how is there not already a litmus test in place for determining a country’s eligibility to host a world competition? How was Dubai chosen in the first place if there are no standards established?
Transparency is key. Right now, folks on social media are speculating about how and why this decision was made, and many of them are pointing to money. And while I hear whispers on the WBC floor that people have the wrong idea, that ignores the fact that if people don’t know why a decision was made, of course they’re going to try to figure out the reason. Why was the press release from SCA so sparse? Why was information so slow to trickle down to members? How is money factored into decisions like this? Why are we, right now, confused as to how to elect members of the board that is meant to represent us? (I had to look at the bylaws of the SCA and how directors are appointed, and I still don’t totally understand.) As our community grows globally, the SCA has a responsibility not only to be transparent, but to reach out to the community and ascertain its needs and wants at every step. Decisions like these shouldn’t be surprises to its members. That’s Management 101.
I’m lucky to be here. I’ve learned so much through walking the show floor and talking to the global community. Some of my opinions have stayed the same—I still fundamentally believe Dubai is and continues to be the wrong place to hold a global coffee competition. But I’ve also been given the opportunity to see a problem on a much larger scale. I realize not everyone has been afforded this luxury. For my part, I will answer questions and continue to try to engage more members of the global community, the SCA, and the WCE in my commitment to communicating that information to you, the readers. As a journalist, it’s my job to give you as much information as I can.
The decision and subsequent outrage here don’t exist in a vacuum—this will happen again if we don’t analyze how we got to this place, and it’s clear now that decisions such as this one have been routinely made over the last decade to an audience that perhaps didn’t react as they should, or at least didn’t have all the facts before the outrage was expressed. Still, that doesn’t change what’s happening now and the fact that we have to engage with the problem in front of us. There are members of our community who feel unsupported and feel like their needs aren’t being considered. There are members of the global community who feel unheard and feel they have been ignored in the past. This is an excellent time for the SCA to really think about what it means to be an actor on a global stage and give voice to its myriad members.
Barista Magazine continues to encourage its readers to post comments and/or email their thoughts as well as ideas for a better solution to firstname.lastname@example.org.