writer + artist

Phyllis Johnson

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“Walking down a pathway of doing something you have no earthly idea of what it will bring–that’s called faith.”

-Phyllis Johnson

Phyllis Johnson is a powerhouse in the coffee industry. The founder of BD Imports, she sits on the board of the National Coffee Association and for two years served as the Vice President of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.

Johnson works tirelessly to advocate for women in coffee as well as on diversity issues, which is essential in an industry that is predominantly white and male. Coffee comes with a complex, and often dark history, and the industry that keeps us caffeinated daily is still fraught with those complexities. Johnson believes in facing them head on. As she wrote in an article about diversity and representation in the coffee industry, “when we continue to ignore and normalize the effects of racism and inequality within the industry, we cannot expect positive outcomes.”

Through her work, Phyllis ensures that the people producing coffee are respected, paid and honored for their work and that women and minority communities have a seat at the table. A couple of years ago, I interviewed Johnson about race and coffee, which ended up being one of my favorite interviews that I have ever conducted, mostly because the conversation challenged my own thinking. So of course I wanted to include her in the Women’s Wisdom Project.

Johnson and I discussed her work by phone, and the interview has been edited for clarity.

Who is Phyllis Johnson?

I’m someone who cares deeply about a lot of things, I’m someone who is extremely optimistic. I’ve been blessed to be around people who were always encouraging, from the time I was a young child. So even now, there’s always that shadow of someone, either physically or no longer there, that kind of sits over me and says “you can do this, keep going.” I think that I’m very optimistic and one of the things that I always try to do is to be optimistic to other people. As I have gotten older, I can see the optimism in things but I can also see the other side of the things. I’m trying to understand even the simplest thing as a whole instead of coming to a quick decision on how you believe, or what you think about something.

When I think about who I am and I think about my, my past and my present, I’ve always tried to align myself with individuals who are not thought of as being the ones to have the answers. For most of my life, there are places that I walk in where I think people look at me as a positive figure. So I’m often trying see the other side of it and see what it’s like to not be heard. There are situations where I am totally not heard at all, don’t get me wrong. I know those moments in those times in my life when I have an invisible being, so I’m always thinking about that invisible being because it is who I am as well.

When we’re fighting the fight and we have our issues, we can lose sight of the humanity in each other. That’s something that I’ve always hoped to hold onto; even though we might disagree, there’s some message that you have for me and I have for you.

What does the word wisdom mean to you?

When I was younger I would think of wisdom being housed in older people who have struggled, the struggle is on their face, they learned from their experiences, that’s what wisdom kind of meant. After starting a company in my mid 30s, I remember a biblical verse that came to me when I felt that I was trying to do something that I had no idea what I was doing: “wisdom belongs to God.” For me, growing up with a Christian background, that gave me equal footing. It was like, “wow, wisdom doesn’t have to be held inside of me, it’s something that I can ask for and I can look for and gain insight from and it’s not relegated to certain people or race or gender, it’s out there. Then I have a chance at it.” As a younger person that verse resonated with me and even when I’m talking to a younger person who’s trying to find a way that’s something I always say to them because, you know, we always think that someone else knows how to do something better, or that they have the answer. I think that’s part of being a human being; we think that there’s a super human out there, someone who is smarter, brighter. But the ability to gain what they have isn’t impossible for you. There’s an equal opportunity at gaining wisdom and insight through different mechanisms, either experiences, or in conversations with people who share their experiences. It’s available, and it’s available at all ages.

It’s as if we have to trust that it’s out there and available to us, but we have to be open to receiving it and asking for it, right?

Walking down a pathway of doing something you have no earthly idea of what it will bring–that’s called faith. The belief in something that you can’t see until you’re doing it, but it’s only because you’re doing it that it will get to someplace. The joy and the benefit is in ways that you may not be able to trace back, but it definitely has a benefit and incredible value to your life.

You want to protect that space too because not everyone can understand what you’ve been given and you’re following a pathway. That pathway may not make sense to the closest people around you.

Along those lines, can you talk a little bit about your business and when you started it and what the inspiration for that was?

I think I’ve lived my life through the business. I think that the business has opened me up as an individual to see life in a different way–to have this boldness, to do things and to say things. Sometimes, the weird thing is, is that you never feel that sense of authority. I don’t know if everybody feels that way or not, but I, I feel like that even though I’ve been working in coffee for 19 years, I still don’t have that authority.

[When I first started] my first trip to Costa Rica. I went to Costa Rica because I was afraid to go to Africa, so I went there and this lady walks up to me and she tells me all this stuff about myself. She invited me to go have lunch with her. She was the wife of a New York Stock Exchange broker and she was just there for the coffee conference. It was amazing what she said to me at that time. I had not sold one bean of coffee, I had not imported one bean of coffee. I had no contacts in the industry. I just had a full time job as a sales rep working for a company, and the money to fly to Costa Rica and learn about coffee. She was a white woman from New York and she said, “you know, you need to serve on boards, you need to get to the highest level. Your voice needs to be heard. You need to have a focus in Africa.”

Doors have been opened for that that me that are not open for others. I see that as a true privilege and an opportunity. I may not physically be represented in this industry, but there is a space for me. There’s a place for me and my perspective.

Why were you afraid to go to Africa?

I’m an American and I have been entrenched in the belief that Africa is this place where it is unsafe, in constant turmoil. I mean we’re all persuaded by the environment in which we live. I was kind of in this weird spot with that, because I’m a descendant of Africa–I think we all are–but a direct descendant. My African heritage and physical attributes obviously, but growing up in the US and not African, and Africa being perceived, even to this very day, as a place where you would not want to go. And it was a woman I met named Phyllis Jordan, who had cafes throughout Baton Rouge. I met her briefly at a conference and I told her what I wanted to do and she said, “well, if you’re afraid to go to Africa and you don’t want to go Africa, why don’t you just go to Costa Rica?” And I thought, “well, that’s good advice and I did that.”

Then after Costa Rica, I scheduled my first trip to Africa. In 2003 I was invited to go to, what at the time I would have considered the scariest place in Africa, Rwanda. I remember the local newspaper wrote “local entrepreneur heads to war torn Rwanda,” and it talked about the genocide. So I was afraid, I was truly afraid. It took some growing up to realize that danger is everywhere. What the world is presented as being something that’s violent and in turmoil, this exists everywhere, in some places more so than others, and not necessarily just in Africa. That in itself was an education for me. So I went on in spite of my fear because I felt that something was there and I received a welcome among the kindest people that you could imagine

I think there are two types of fear. Sometimes we have a fear of, physical harm or physical safety. And sometimes there is a fear that’s a little bit more emotional or intellectual, like fear of failure and that kind of thing. Obviously acknowledging that fear is there to protect us, there are times when it hold us back, and I think it’s interesting that often when we push through fear, there’s usually something positive on the other side. If we allow fear to be a wall that we don’t go over, then we miss out on the thing that’s on the other side.

Right. I started to go there and I realized when I would visit potential customers, they would be like, “well we hope you come back.” I could make great relationships on the ground because I wasn’t the norm of what they would see buying coffee and I could make great relationships on this side because they knew that I went there and they knew that I had built those relationships. Being that bridge, that connector, paid off on both sides. Had I been too afraid to ever take that risk, then I’m sure that several other people, primarily white people may have not traveled there or may not have used coffee from those countries. Because I went, small Midwestern roasters, for the first time, offered coffee from Rwanda. There were women for the first time able to sell their coffee to my company. There were all types of opportunities on the other side of fear. Sometimes it’s just being that conduit that listens.

How do you think the coffee industry has changed this those days? I guess it’s a two part question. One, how has that changed or how has it expanded and two, do you think that it has expanded with good intentions or with not just good intentions but with good impact?

Yeah, I do. It has changed in a lot of ways. I remember the whole idea of talking about gender equity with folks in coffee who had been around for many years. First you talk about gender equity and then you put Africa on top of it and they’re like “that’s like the code to get into Fort Knox if you think you’re going to do that.”

Things are changing and it’s not necessarily based on what I did personally, but it’s based on a movement of what’s happening in world. I was just thankful to be a part, and have my hands at work in the early stages of this change. That’s what I’m proud of. I’m not a late comer to trying to make change in our industry. When I walked in the door I said, “something’s not right, but I can’t put words to it.” And it has taken me 19 years to finally start to put words to the things that I think need to be changed.

I’m having a series of the phone calls with African women leaders in coffee and I had with a young lady who works for a trading company in Uganda about what has changed and the obstacles. Women are running into obstacles that you’re glad that they have, like “I’m challenged because I can’t get to Portland to renew my Q grader instructor license.” Years ago when I started, that wasn’t a problem, [because women weren’t even at that level] but I believe we need to solve those new problems too. I broke it down to her and I said, “so what you’re trying to tell me is that you were born and raised in a country that produces coffee, but you don’t have the money to fly to the United States for people to tell you’re a qualified grader of coffee. What is wrong with that? You said prior to the three or four people in your country being certified instructors, then there was a team that flew over to train you, where you have grown this coffee and your country had to pay them to come over to train you?”

When you have to unpack that kind of stuff you know you’ve come a long way.

In the perfect world, we as westerners should not be going to tell them and to train them. Even with that conversation I had I said, “you don’t find that strange that we’re telling you what quality is?” She said, “well, you know, it’s all based on who the buyers are and what they’re looking for.” It’s really based on where the power lies.

I was having a conversation with one of my fellow panel members, I said something about the disparity in coffee, you know, why we in the consuming countries are doing quite well, whereas those in the producing countries are not. Someone said something about, “well we roast the coffee,” and I said, “but if they didn’t grow the coffee we wouldn’t have anything to roast.” I could tell there was a struggle for her to get her mind wrapped around this idea that we don’t deserve more, because that has been ingrained into our heads or we’ve not even thought about it, and so to stop and think about it is something unique.

I think the consumer is changing, so that’s a good thing. I think the consumer will continue to evolve from where we are now to where it will be. In the next 20 years, based on the technology we’re using and all of that, consumers will have changed. But we market to consumers in a way in which we are kind of saying that, “we’re the ones doing great stuff.” I’m finding myself getting more and more impatient for things that we promote to basically to stay the same. Someone sent something out about a photo contest to celebrate women in coffee. I said to myself, “I do not want to see a GD photo of a brown or black woman leaning over a drying bed looking up and smiling.” That is not progress.

Show me a woman in the room. I have this picture, of a woman standing in a room in Tanzania. She’s the only woman in the room at a coffee meeting, at a meeting of stakeholders, and she’s speaking her piece and she’s wearing her women’s empowerment button. That’s the picture I want to see. The problem is that we get so caught up into the brown skin and the beautiful red headwrap. That’s beautiful, but we need to see ourselves making decisions. We need to fight more for that.

Every now and then you would just hope to see a little bit more diversity in people at these different levels.

Do you ever feel that as a business owner and as a business leader it’s difficult to balance the desire for change and the need to speak out about things?

I think about that a lot and I’ve gone from one stage to another with that. I think you always have to balance that, you always have to think about that. But I don’t want to get to a point to where I think so hard about it that I can’t say what I think or what I feel. I always believe in staying at the table. Keep a seat at the table as long as you can because if you’re not there, you don’t even have the chance to see the other side of it.

I always have to use my voice in the places where I can use my voice and not get caught up in what’s happening and miss out on the real opportunity of helping others, helping someone else to get there. Over time things will change. But at this stage in my life, I never feel like I just had to shut up and be quiet and listen to a bunch of crap because I would’ve lost in that situation. There are times when I will say what I think and there’s total silence and I know that people are offended, and then they’ll say something back that I totally disagree with, but that’s okay.

I also feel that I’m at a point in my life where I own my own company, no matter how small, how struggling, how poorly ran it might be, whatever it is, I own it, right? It helps to give me livelihood and takes care of the things that my family needs. Therefore I can actually say those things. If I reported directly to the CEO of the largest coffee company in the world, I could not speak what I believe as a person, as an individual.

The gift of having a company that gives me the ability to have voice is so incredibly amazing. As individuals, that’s what we have to do. We have to think about what gives us that leverage and for me it’s the company. I’m not going to go in and they’re not going to switch my roll out and someone else is at the table; I have that level control. But you could also see that as a big risk. You’re always doing a check and balance. But when you find yourself doing so much of a check and balance that you can’t say what your message is or what your belief is, it’s time for you to make some major changes in what you’re doing.

You should be able to communicate your beliefs. It may not be totally accepted, but it’s at least heard and you’re not penalized dramatically for it. I understand there’s a penalty. Don’t get me wrong. There is a penalty for talking about some of the things that I’ve talked about, but I think I’ll be okay with that penalty because the gain for the whole is too great for me to pull back on what I believe to be a small penalty for myself.

You have a platform that allows you to use your voice and I think that is such a good reminder of why gender equity is so important. We essentially haven’t been hearing from 50 percent of the population because women haven’t had the platform to use their voices, whether that platform is having a bit of an income so that they are contributing to the household, and getting to share in the decision making or having jobs where they are allowed to speak out.

When you start to open up the opportunity for women, you’re going to get a different outcome. I think we all have to say “where are the levers? Where is it that I can use what I have to get what I want to get out of all this?” You have to see yourself as that opportunity to help others get to the next level. I’ve worked with women who work in high level positions for large corporations and they’ve been able to work alongside me and help build opportunities for others, based on, what they have in that position. We have to put all of our skills together to make it better for others.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you?

Margaret Swallow. She was very instrumental in my life and still continues to be. She is someone that even in my toughest times when I’m just like, “I’m sick and tired, I can’t do it anymore, it’s not worth it, I don’t care,” she’s always there to say, “you do care.” She’s that voice that has always said “stay in the fight.” And of course my mother. My mother is my biggest hero. She grew up with a sixth grade education and just showed what hard work is and having a strong faith and hanging in there, in times when you don’t think that you can make it.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

I think I would tell myself to worry less, to give it all that I have, to have less fear, to believe in myself.
You’re never sure that something is going to work, so you’re just trying it and you’re hopeful that it will. But at the same time it doesn’t lessen the fear in doing it.

As I look back… I would say to not be so preoccupied with offending others. You know, as women we feel like if we’re successful, if we gain opportunity, we feel as though it’s something that we can’t totally be proud of. The one thing that I did when I was much younger, I was so busy that I didn’t take the time to celebrate the real opportunities that came my way. And looking back at them, they were all gifts, and going forward I definitely tend to do that a lot more: really experiencing what you have, no matter how big or how small. The time that someone will take to spend with you, not necessarily based on who it is, but what they have to offer you and what you have to give to them. To be able to celebrate in those moments, the potential for what life and relationships can bring. If I could have that sort of excitement and joy around things that I experience now and knowing that they could bring about major change.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

July 15, 2019 at 08:01

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