I recently had the absolute pleasure of talking with Sierra Burgess-Yeo about her experiences as a female, immigrant, person-of-colour working in specialty coffee in the UK. Sierra moved to the UK about 5 years ago from Singapore, where she was born and raised. Now, she is the General Manager of Timberyard Facebook (run by Department of Coffee and Social Affairs), a writer for Perfect Daily Grind, and a founder of The Kore Directive.
The Kore Directive is a collaborative effort to provide support to womxn working in the specialty coffee industry. They offer a range of classes and events designed to help womxn grow their technical skills, network with other professionals, and support each other.
Sierra will also be joining us on 26 January when we head to Helsingborg! She’ll be one of the three fabulous judges kicking off a new year of The Barista League coffee chaos. We’re so excited.
Angela Ferrara [THE BARISTA LEAGUE]: Well, let's start right there! How do you think being a female, immigrant person-of-colour has directly affected your experience working in specialty coffee?
Sierra Burgess-Yeo: I’ll start this off anecdotally. The last place that I worked before my current place of work, it got to the point that I was the only person of colour and it was very hard for me to dismiss a lot of interactions that I saw as being particular to me. For example, whenever I was on the till, I’d get tonnes of questions about where I was from. It comes down to a few factors, I think… the way I look and the way I sound. I don't sound Singaporean at all. In fact I sound quite international… and I also sound a bit British… which actually attracted more attention because people would be trying to place where I was from. And most, if not all, of the time, my other teammates never got that kind of attention. It was hard for me to gain any kind of support. And it was hard for me to get my managers to do anything about it. They would just be like, “you know, you’re in London and people ask this kind of thing all the time.” To which I would say, “You don’t get these questions. I do. Ive watched everyone else on the till and no one else gets these questions.” Where are you from? Where are you really from? You don’t sound like you’re from there. That would happen so often, almost every day. The inability for my work to do anything about something that was making me uncomfortable really drove this home. And I felt incredibly invalidated. I thought maybe I’m making this up. Maybe I’m causing trouble. And that simply wasn’t it. It took me a while to really sit down and come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t just me, there really was a problem.
In contrast, I still get that question where I work now, but I feel much safer because the crowd here is quite international as opposed to where I was working before that was mostly white business men and women in the upper-middle class. I think the idea of consent and safety is the big core difference where I’m currently working.
A: How do you think your current place of work has created a more safe environment?
S: Well, t’s helped me to recognise situations in which it’s appropriate and consensual on both sides. I’ll always wait for customers at Facebook to ask me that question first. I’ll never raise that question because I think I’m too traumatised by the question, it’s too loaded for me at this point for me to ask someone else. So, I’ll wait for them to ask the question and I’ll judge the situation. Most of the people that I see at Facebook are regulars, so if it’s in a context that’s more than just, “Where are you from? I need to know to scratch my itch,” I’ll ask the question accordingly. Sometimes I’ll lie about where I’m from if I’m uncomfortable. But a lot of the time I’m challenging myself to be comfortable with that question again because there’s no shame in it. It’s also helped me to word it in a sensitive matter. So, sometimes I’ll be like, “Have you been based in London all this time?” which is an easier way for me to ask where someone’s from without asking that specific question. It gives people a bit more leeway to tell me whatever they'd like to tell me. So it’s been really good practice in helping me desensitise questions like this. Often times these interactions are really pleasant and I think a big part of asking someone where they’re from or what their heritage is or what their nationality is is because people are trying to connect with you. There’s just such a charged discourse around the issue at the moment that i’m trying to work out the best way to have a meaningful conversation with someone else.
In Singapore, because I’m Singaporean-Chinese, I belong to the majority race. So I had a lot of privilege growing up that I didn’t realise until I came here and basically became what my Mum calls “a second class citizen”, tongue-in-cheek, but very true. And it’s such a rude shock to become a minority when you were the majority. It’s made me question a lot of the assumptions that I’ve held and a lot of the unconscious biases that I have and blind spots that I have when talking about race, nationality, and ethnicity. So that’s another factor that I grew up with that I think might account for the way I feel and think.
I’ve also tried to read up a lot more on my own national history. Singapore used to be a British colony. So there’s a lot of that power dynamic as well. If I say I’m from Singapore, you should know where that is. The fact remains that a lot of Colonial history isn’t taught in English schools as far as I’m aware. It’s just kind of obliterated from history which is why it’s extra galling to hear someone say what they say about where I’m from in relation to Singapore. And I’ll admit that’s quite an extreme reaction. Not a lot of Singaporeans I know here react that way. It’s just a byproduct of me being who I am, extremely aware, most of the time.
A: You mentioned that you’re trying to be less reactionary when discussing these topics with others. Tell me more about that.
S: Yeah! It’s something I’ve been working on for a while in the sense that I definitely think I have the right to be offended or angry about certain things, but I think it’s really important to clamp down on that initial emotional reaction and then turn that into honest, open debate. Mainly because I’m quite vocal on social media, like a lot of times I’ll post about my experiences and I’ll have a response that doesn’t sit right with me and I’ll be like, no, I need to actually engage with someone and find the balance between taking on the emotional burden of having to educate someone whilst managing it in a rational way.
The thing is, I feel very privileged to get to spend a lot of time around other female people-of-color, some of whom are also immigrants. It’s been very inspiring to have that kind of discourse with them. They've all been very supportive with regards to intersectionality - especially the people I’ve met through The Kore Directive. It’s been a very healthy bubble I’ve been in for the past few months.
A: I love that! Speaking of, how was The Kore Directive launch party?
S: It was good! I feel incredibly elated that it happened, but also felt exhausted by the end of it. I think in my head it had been a lot more structured than it actually ended up being. I was thinking this is going to happen and that’s going to happen and we’re going to be on time and it was a lot more relaxed and there was a lot more organic stuff going on that I didn't plan for. But it ended up being really cool. And finally, also, I felt like we could have done better, but that’s probably my over-achieving self talking. A lot of people came up and congratulated us on the night and in my head I was thinking… I just managed to get 50? 60? 80? people in a room. That wasn’t that hard with all the tools at our disposal. The internet and all that stuff, but everyone seemed to think that was great. So that’s good for us!
We covered a bit about what the Kore Directive was all going to be about. We also encouraged everyone to network a bit outside their comfort zones because that’s what these events are all about. If you don’t step outside that comfort zone, you aren’t going to get to know the people that you want to know. We also encouraged them to bring male friends along to our events. We want to make change, but we can’t do that by being in an echo chamber. So we definitely explicitly said, “This is for everyone who wants to change the way women’s issues are approached.”
A: How long have you been working on The Kore Directive? Is it an idea you’ve had for a while?
S: I’ve always been interested in women’s issues and I think it’s something tangible when related to work. Having experienced gender-related issues at work, it’s easy to pin point and it’s easy to identify and it’s easy to diagnose. And I was sure a lot of other women felt the same. And they did! As I was talking with people about it, we realized no one was really doing anything to address these issues in London. So, then… this was born! It started really taking shape in March 2018.
A: Because I think that so many women, women-of-color, and non-binary people working in coffee feel the same way, do you have any insight or advice that you’d give to someone trying to create safe spaces for them to work in?
S: I think it’s honestly all about listening. Half the things I know today that have influenced my world views have been through open and honest discourse and really listening to what people have to say and going back to the whole reactionary thing, not having an emotional response if you can control that. It can be quite painful and traumatic, and I think it’s important to recognize that you are perfectly entitled to feel the way you do, but you are also responsible for not giving someone the pleasure of seeing that you are emotionally tied to it. The only way to change what someone else thinks is to rationalize with them… not to be offended and immediate shut the conversation down. You can be. You can be offended, just make sure you have tight rein on your temper if you want to invoke some change. That might be very debatable, but it’s how I feel.
A: Thank you so much, Sierra! What are you most excited about next? In the coffee industry - either with what you're personally doing, or just with larger steps that the industry is making?
S: Oh! A couple of things. So there’s been a broader discourse about climate change and some really strong action being pushed across the world. I’ve had the privilege of being involved in World Coffee Research conversations where they talk about sustainability of coffee. I really like to see more of that happening. I’m really excited about where that conversation is taking us. I’m also really excited to see the impact this will have on producers and the greater equity through the supply chain. For them to be paid more for their efforts and be able to make more profit off the crops that they gift us.
Also I’m personally excited to see more South Asian coffees in the West. I recently went home to Singapore and there’s some amazing stuff being grown in the South East… so many amazing places doing great things. I’m excited to see more of that.