Lenora Yerkes is an artist and coffee professional based in Washington, D.C. She's a Sales and Account Manager at Counter Culture Coffee and the creative genius behind the amazing Field Trip box design and merch. (If you haven't seen it, ya need to hit that link!) Having personally been welcomed by Lenora into the DMV coffee community just a few years ago, I was extremely excited to talk with her about ways she thinks coffee can be more accessible and welcoming for the industry at large.
Angela Ferrara [THE BARISTA LEAGUE]: I feel like accessibility has become sort of a buzzword in specialty coffee. I was wondering how would you personally define accessibility?
Lenora Yerkes: Can you elaborate on how you’ve seen it used as a buzzword?
AF: Sure! I feel like I often hear people say things like, ‘we want to make coffee more accessible’ or, ‘our event is accessible,’ without actually backing it up in any way. Like, I’m not convinced every time I hear that word attached to something, that any actual steps have been taken to achieve it.
LY: So, I think this comes back to how I see some of those skills that are really central to hospitality. I don’t actually believe it’s people’s job to be nice to everyone all the time. Instead, I think of hospitality a lot more like facilities management. As the person in that role, I think it’s your job to make a safe and comfortable place for everyone who has permission to be there. And that permission is held by the facilities manager; permission can be given and it can be taken away. The way I think about accessibility most is in literal sense, physical accessibility. I think as people who work in the hospitality industry, whether we’re entrepreneurs, company owners, or baristas, I think we need to advocate for compliance with existing laws for just plain physical accessibility. I think, as a business owner, you shouldn’t lean on a technicality like your building being a historic building so you’re grandfathered out of not removing a step to install a ramp. Another example of this is that sometimes it’s cheaper to pay the fine for your bathroom not being wheelchair accessible than it is to renovate your bathroom and have it be compliant. When I see places that haven’t created accessibility in this way it makes me really upset. It makes me embarrassed for the business, it makes me embarrassed to be a patron of the business, and it makes me embarrassed of humanity and how we treat each other.
I’m less well versed in the ways coffee competitions are trying to be more accessible, but I expect good accessibility at a coffee event to mean good leadership from the people who are the best at public relations and the best at facilities at management, meaning they should be able to make sure people are able to get there and that people are able to take in the information when they arrive.
All the best examples of accessible education are free and open to motivated coffee professionals who are willing to go sit at a lecture or go read that information. I feel like another level of accessibility is how welcome people feel in spaces. That’s where I think it’s on people like me, or the people organizing the event, to exercise that facilities management role and their PR skill sets to make sure that everyone can hear and everyone can see and everyone can literally make it in the door, that everyone has a place to use the bathroom. From my perspective that’s a huge part of my job: making the space a level playing field where everyone has a chance to talk and everyone is comfortable and feels welcome.
AF: How has your understanding of the ways things can be more accessible grown? Has anything come up that you hadn’t originally realized was a barrier?
LY: I’m only beginning to realize how much accessibility extends to online learning and the web. And that’s really my ableism showing. I get to experience the web the way it’s assumed that ‘everyone’ can use it. In terms of professional development, I’ve been thinking about language accessibility, ASL accessibility, accessibility for the blind. We’re really just at the beginning of what’s possible for online education for all sorts of things, but coffee definitely included. Right now, we’re really not doing it very well. So thinking about accessibility in coffee, I ask myself where the information is and how to break down the barriers so that more people can have access. For example, English to Spanish translations. How can we translate things in all the ways they need to be translated, including on the internet? Because on the internet you can reach many many more people than you can in person.
Something else that I’ve seen a lot in my own life is that people who don’t understand that you need accessibility are never going to give you that accessibility. Some classic examples of this are that white people don’t know what it’s like to not be white or that people who are read as men their whole lives don’t know what it’s like to not be read as a man. The problem here is that these groups typically don’t even see the lack of accessibility for people who aren’t white or people who aren’t read as men. To bridge that lack of accessibility I think the key is extreme networking. By that, I mean, working with that particular community, say of women in coffee or of people who don’t speak English in coffee to find a solution together. For a group that needs accessibility to really rely on another group that already has that accessibility to break down, translate, and then share can sometimes feel impossible because another huge problem with accessibility is gatekeeping.
AF: How would you define gate-keeping? Do you have any thoughts on how to bring up issues of accessibility or ways to prevent gatekeeping within communities?
LY: Gatekeeping is any kind of behavior that limits access to information. I think it can be ill-intentioned, as when used to purposefully exclude based on decisions the information-holder is making about the inquirer, or passive, when the information-holder might not realize they're withholding in a way that supports their unconscious biases, or structural. I think we just saw this structural gatekeeping issue play out at Access. Even that more-affordable event costs a lot of money to produce and is going to be out of reach for many of the people it is designed to reach. I understand that there was some discussion about whether it was welcome feedback when a person on stage brought up that financial bar. What I saw play out in that discussion was that evening financial access to professional development is a huge conflict in our industry. People feel excluded and I think it's a flash point for folks feeling crunched by low wages, generally. I don't have an easy solution to that, other than acknowledging that attendance at these industry events does not encompass professional development.
When it comes to passive or ill-intentioned gatekeeping, we all have a duty to address our assumptions about how we, as individuals, share information. If we have information to share, it's our duty to share it. If we're not getting the information we need from whatever resource, take a note and move on to the next resource and keep at it.
AF: What are some ways that you think we can try to break down the barriers to gaining knowledge or education educational opportunities that aren't accessible to everyone?
LY: I think one way to find accessibility is by identifying people you really can ask for help and leaning into them. I do this all the time in the arts. In the last few weeks I met with an artist who wanted my advice about an opportunity I’m familiar with. Then I did the same thing a few weeks later to another artist about an opportunity I had available to me. I think that folks in hospitality do the same thing when it comes to combating challenges in accessibility, they find someone they can trust enough to ask some specific questions about how they got a job or if they liked working for a specific company. One project doing this very well right now is Chris McAuley's project Getchu Some Gear, which collects donated coffee gear and disseminates those tools to folks who are often sidelined in their coffee education. He saw that need and has fit into a seat where he can offer that help while also showing us all that that access is our collective responsibility.
When I was trying to learn coffee, or getting started in the arts as well, I remember feeling that I had no idea what I was doing but I was unable to admit that, even to myself. The work of faking that is exhausting and it stands in the way of getting better. Once I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing, it was a long time before I got any of the help that I needed to start learning. And it’s sort of the same deal if you want to progress in your career. Like, how does someone learn to buy green coffee? I don't know. So when you’re trying to learn how to do literally anything in coffee I think first you have to admit that you don’t know how to do it and then you need to have a roster of who you can talk to about doing it, and who are the people who are safe to talk to.
AF: Yeah. Personally, that’s how I’ve gotten a lot of information about my own career trajectory. Figuring out what it is that I want to do and then asking others how they did it themselves. Otherwise, really, I’m not sure how I would’ve gotten some of that information. I guess if they had said no to helping me out, I’d have to find someone else.
LY: The thing that kept me working in a cafe for as long as I did was that there were these avenues of advancement that I wasn’t able to take advantage of because of my work schedule or when certain coffee events happened. Missing these definitely slowed my development as a coffee person. I was frustrated, wanting to know what people meant by coffee tasting all these different ways and I would try to learn on my own and it was very very hard. I ended up doing these things that are mind-blowing to me now. Like I set up a coffee cupping of all dark roasted coffees, like, so dark that you can barely taste a difference. And I would taste coffee with people that knew less about coffee than even I did. And I remember one day I asked them what their favorite coffee on the table was and they all chose the darkest roasted one, the one that was my least favorite, and when I asked them why they liked it, they said, ‘it tastes the most like coffee.’ That's when I realized that I had to study with people who knew more than me if I was going to learn. But sometimes even that can put you in a very vulnerable place. In my case it meant that I had to show up to public cuppings where I felt very much like an outsider. I didn’t have the language and I knew I had to talk to learn something but I was really afraid. And, look, I think this is a really common story. A lot of us feel like this, especially about tasting coffee. And if you don’t work in an environment where there's good coffee, or access to tasting a bunch of really good coffee, sometimes there’s no advice other than to get a better job or with a better company.
AF: I was excited that you wanted to talk about accessibility because I think Counter Culture does a really good job of organizing accessible education for the coffee community.
LY: I appreciate that a lot. I’m proud of our education department. I think that the educational courses that we offer that aren’t free are extremely reasonably priced and I’m really proud that our wholesale education is able to be totally free to the folks that use our coffee in their cafes. It’s a very key part of our business model that we want people who are serving our product to know how to make good coffee. It’s very important to us to give people the tools to do their jobs well. And then there’s the ProDev series which is totally free and open to the public and that’s been great. Something else we’re working on is providing Spanish translations of everything.
AF: That’s amazing!
LY: It is amazing. But I remember having really sad, shameful feelings about the proposal of having everything translated because it was really the first time I had ever thought of all these people who had, until now, been trying to listen to something in not their native language. I was really ashamed of myself. Like, how had I gone this far never asking why these things weren’t in Spanish?
AF: But that’s a great example of what you were saying earlier about how when folks have a certain type of access, they don’t even think about it. Everyone has blind spots and the more we talk about our own, fewer and fewer barriers will exist. Thank you so much! What are you excited about next, Lenora?
LY: Let’s see. I was involved in an anthology called Drawing Power and it’s the first comic I’ve had published by a really well regarded publishing house. It just came out at the end of last month!
Lenora: Thank you! I’m super excited and terrified about it. It’s edited by Diane Noomin and the forward is written by Roxanne Gay which is crazy!
I’m really interested in the retail experience in coffee and the way consumers experience and engage with coffee. So another thing that I’m thinking about nowadays is specialty coffee’s expansion out of cities and into the suburbs. I’m really excited about that. When people tell me they're going to build coffee shops in the suburbs I tend to think, ‘there’s nobody out there, though!’ but that’s just not true! So many people are really interested in what we do with specialty coffee shops in the city and want it in the suburbs. Their interest is really exciting and inspiring to me.