The Chain Collaborative is a nonprofit based in Nicaragua designed to source unique methods for giving back to producers
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
Careers in coffee tend to follow a very traditional pathway: First you work as a barista for a couple of years; then you work your way up either through management or training or roasting. Maybe you meet a few people, perhaps compete in a barista competition or two, and only then, after years of paying dues and working in all aspects of the coffee industry do you finally get to do what you really want, whether it’s running your own store or opening up a coffee-roasting company, or becoming a green buyer. There’s an unspoken agreement that you have to work your way up the chain before you can truly pursue your passion.
It’s not that Nora Burkey didn’t want to wait that long, it’s just that this coffee professional forged a new path to reaching her goals. As the co-founder of the non-profit organization, The Chain Collaborative, Nora knew from early on that she couldn’t wait to start the career she envisioned for herself. œI figured it would take me years to obtain the kind of job and position I wanted, and I didn’t have too much patience, so I decided to give myself the career I knew I wanted, says Nora as she discusses how The Chain Collaborative came to be. Nora started her career much like the rest of us did ”as a barista. Although she loved coffee and her work at Joe in New York City, she found that she enjoyed learning about alternative coffee trade models and how these models could help farmers even more. œI quickly realized that in all honesty, working as a barista on the day to day doesn’t bring you in contact with the real work of development, and that’s what I wanted to do.
After 2 years as a barista for Joe, Nora started volunteering and working abroad in any way she could. She then got her master’s degree in sustainable development from the School of International Training, where she met Dean Cycon, the owner of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee. His company was involved in an initiative in Nicaragua called The Recognition of the Unpaid Work of Women, which attempts to factor in the often overlooked and unpaid work women do on farms into existing cost structures. Nora moved to Nicaragua to study the initiative, and eventually wrote her thesis on micro-finance. By that point, she knew that she wanted to continue doing the meaningful work she’d been part of in Central America. However, she understood it could be years before she found the right job, so she decided to create it instead.
Nora had very specific goals for the new project she was starting. œI wanted to help more companies connect to existing initiatives and give back to producers. That’s harder than you think, for various reasons, and I knew I wanted to make sure all the proceeds went to the projects. I knew I needed a built-in model to make money for my own salary so I wasn’t always asking for that. After running into a past Joe co-worker, Mike Morgenstern, the two of them came up with a model for a sustainable development organization that could donate all proceeds directly to farmers and specific initiatives. Proceeds given to the The Chain Collaborative help companies create and contribute to various initiatives, while Rumours Roasting, a branch of The Chain Collaborative, uses its profits to cover all operational costs so the efforts of the Collaborative can go directly and completely to development projects.
The Chain Collaborative was founded just over a year ago, and already Nora and her team have taken on some big projects. œOne big goal includes starting the $1 a Day Campaign. We want to create one day of the year ”that repeats every year ”where companies donate all their profits past $1 after operations costs to projects in the coffee lands, standing in solidarity with the 4.2 million farming families who earn less than $1 a day. The Chain has sponsored a number of projects aimed to connect consumers and coffee professionals with farms abroad, including providing microloans to female cooperative members in Peru, consulting for Project Hope and helping them remodel their camp project for migrant coffee pickers’ children in Nicaragua, and finding means in which farmers can diversify their incomes in Guatemala. Here in the U.S., these projects are funded through various collaborations between companies and consumers, like a coffee residency, wherein a store or a group of roasters can come together and help fund specific projects by contributing profits from retail bag sales or hosting an event to raise awareness.
The Chain helps connect the coffee world to initiatives in coffee communities, and strives to make the process easier and more impactful. œPeople have so many doubts and questions about sustainability precisely because they don’t spend years studying it or living in coffee communities. But this is what we do, so we want people to be able to trust the expertise with which we’ve founded this organization and be able to trust us to do something beneficial with their investment. Getting involved is easy ”their website, thechaincollective.org, illustrates a number of ways that someone can get involved on a few levels.
Along with getting involved, perhaps you can also take from Nora the confidence that there isn’t just one pathway to a meaningful career in coffee. Nora casually admits she drank robusta coffee with condensed milk during her time in Cambodia, and didn’t really give a second thought to roast levels or extraction percentages. And maybe that thought makes you flinch, but maybe your passion for coffees comes from a different place, and you’re not sure yet what that means for the future. It’s not easy to figure out where that place is, and might require a bit of risk and self-exploration. œI think people should strike out on their own or do something in coffee they didn’t even know existed, or didn’t think they even agreed with. Move around and open up your coffee world. You won’t languish there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @ashcommonname.