Get Woke on Power

Script of my Tamper Tantrum NYC talk

In September, I spoke at Tamper Tantrum NYC about power dynamics, using anonymized, solicited stories to illustrate my points. This is my script (remember, it was written to be read aloud, not on paper). This is not an exact word-for-word of my talk, since I only used notes, not the script. I’ve added in my slides, because I’m pretty damn proud of the LEGO cafe I made. I also added in reference links.

The above video & audio is courtesy of Tamper Tantrum, where you can also view the other presenters from that day. When the entire day’s worth of talks and panels have been released, I highly recommend rewatching them in order, as the talks flow (unplanned by the speakers) well into each other.

I’m tackling a massive topic today: power dynamics.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, you are undoubtedly familiar with the idea of power dynamics. It underwrites nearly every interpersonal interaction we might have, from being an older sibling to getting past the TSA agent at the airport. Power ebbs and flows throughout the day.

Before diving in, here’s my bio, briefly: I’ve been in and out of specialty coffee for seven years. I work with companies & organizations like Acaia, Coffee Quality Institute, KaffeBox, and Mr. Espresso, to make them look awesome online through writing & photography. Earlier this year, I worked up enough courage to write about my personal experiences on Medium, called “On gender and racial equity in the coffee industry.” The article has opened up unexpected opportunities, like standing on the stage here today.

In the past few months, I solicited stories about how power dynamics have affected your coffee career and I received a number of them. I’ll be sharing them, anonymized with fake names and with their permission.

Today, I’m identifying a few power dynamic categories that are present in the coffee industry. More specifically, in coffee consuming countries. I only have 20 minutes, so I’ll talk about three common dynamics, mostly found in a retail setting. These three stories are: employer-employee, barista-customer, and peer-to-peer.

Power does not have to have a negative connotation. The first stories are negative to highlight how power can be used poorly.

Following the categories, I’ll highlight some solutions. I hope you learn a little more about power dynamics today and find some implementable solutions.

This first story is mine.

I was being driven home from a client meeting by, let’s call him, Adam. We were contracted at the same company and in a hierarchical sense — coworkers. We’re making small talk. And eventually we get to the topic of living in San Francisco. It’s a city of transplants.

So he asks, “Why did you move to San Francisco?” I give him my standard response: “The winter of 2014 with two polar vortexes in Chicago really sucked. I needed out of Midwest winters and I’ve always wanted to live in SF. I work remotely, so I can move anywhere. Also, my boyfriend happened to find an engineering job in the city. Great timing all around.”

His takeaway? “Oh, so you moved for your boyfriend.” It didn’t end there. He asked about my boyfriend’s job, talked about how much he must make, and how that must be great for me.

I love my boyfriend very much and like in any good relationship, we make important life decisions together. However, I am also capable of making my own decisions, pay half of everything in the outrageously expensive apartment, and support myself with my own work.

This first story is an illustration of multiple power dynamics at work. Let’s break it down.

Power is the potential for an individual or group to influence another individual or group.

Definition is from Harvard Business Review’s “Power Dynamics in Organizations.”

Here, there was a pretty blatant illustration of sexism. There’s also the fact that we work together. And, the fact that he was driving the car — literally having power over my physical presence.

Influence is the exercise of power to change behavior.

Because he was driving the car, I felt like I couldn’t say anything too angry. We were also peers in the same small company, so I felt a need to make nice. Instead, I controlled my anger, politely corrected him, and only was able to react after he dropped me off.

Power dynamics run a whole gamut. There’s organizational power, such that you would find in a company. There’s also social power dynamics, like the ones I’m listing here. A lot of the stories today intersect in multiple areas. I hope you’ll be able to identify them as I tell the stories.

The most common organizational power dynamic in coffee is that of the employer and the employee.

This is structural, named power. You have managers who have the literal power of controlling your schedule, your pay, even your outfits. You can’t change this power — it will always be there. And I am not saying that this is a negative thing. It’s really how you use the power you have and if you’re able to relinquish some to the person with less power.

Here’s the story.

Brian is in college and at the beginning, really into coffee — learning about it and willing to do anything to work in a cafe, with an ultimate goal of being a roaster. He was hired as a barista at a local drive-thru cafe. The company also happened to roast, so this was ideal.

A few months in, Brian realized that he needed to take on a second part-time job to support his rent and tuition, so he was hired on at the same company’s roastery as an assistant production manager.

By this time, he was working 7 days a week, but still under 40 hours. A few months later, the owner moved him back to being only a barista at the drive-thru to compensate for a coworker’s lack of work ethic.

Now, Brian is unhappy. He asked for a 50-cent raise, which the owner did approve, but not before verbally insulting him. Six months later, the owner talks about how Brian is lazy and not caring about his job. Brian is not only a student, but he’s also working 7 days a week — most definitely not lazy! Remember, this is Brian’s first coffee job — what a terrible intro into our industry!

This was just one story in many of employers taking advantage of their employees.

Moving onto the next power dynamic…

In the barista-customer interaction, there is more power being held with the customer.

You are exchanging money for a service or goods (or in this case, both). You are also being tipped (though, I learned last night that Australia does not have tips; therefore, this dynamic is lessened a little). The customer, in the higher power, may feel entitled to say whatever they want or act however they want, because they paid for it. If you’ve been in service before, you have encountered the entitled customer.

This particular dynamic can be harmful for mental health, which is a topic that has been covered at Tamper Tantrum before. I recommend watching Talor Browne’s talk, “Coffee, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” This barista-customer dynamic puts pressure on the barista to perform and to absorb micro aggressions. It very often overlaps into the social power dynamics of racism and sexism.

Here’s the story.

Hannah was working as a barista and had several occurrences where a man, let’s call him Matt, would come in with coworkers and make comments about her outfits. One day, Matt leaned over the counter and said he wanted to see what pants she was wearing.

Hannah’s coworker called him out and said, “That’s creepy.” The guy replied and said, “Oh, it’s creepy? That’s okay!” The coworker replied with, “No, it’s not.” Hannah’s manager asks if she wants to take action against Matt and she says no.

The guy returns on a different day and notices Hannah’s coworker watching him. She says that she wants to make sure he doesn’t do anything creepy. Matt jokes, “You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?”

At this point, the manager asks for and receives approval to confront the customer, letting him know that he would be unwelcome if the behavior continues.

Other short stories I’ve received about customer interactions include:

For a mixed-race female barista: One white woman, with her Asian husband, asked her race, because she was hoping her baby would look just like her. Another said, “mixed race babies are the best-looking ones.” While a third, but definitely not least, brought her friends over to look at the barista, saying, “Look how pretty she is.”

For another female barista: “Are you married? You should meet my son.”

For a different female barista, a comment made from an older male customer to the male owner, “What are you doing behind the counter? That’s for the women!” The owner laughed.

These are only a few examples of what baristas can receive at their workplace and it doesn’t even cover the stares, objectification, or the pressure to perform for the customer.

The final power dynamic I want to identify today is that of the peer to peer.

There isn’t an organizational power here at play here. Instead, you have social power, like who has been in coffee the longest or who has more connections in the industry. There are peers within the same company or peers across the industry. This dynamic can come up at trade shows or company events.

Dr. Dacher Keltner, psychologist at Berkeley writes in his book, “The Power Paradox,” about how we are given power by others in a social environment. The people who rise to power are those who contributed to the greater good. He talks about five attributes that people consider before giving someone power: enthusiastic, kind, focused, calm, and open. People who were recognized to have these attributes were acknowledged as leaders.

Paradoxically, Dr. Keltner says that those who rise to power may become addicted and forget about the greater good; therefore, more prone to abusing their power.

Here’s a story about Sarah and Michael

Sarah was a trainer at a coffee company and the sales and marketing director was essentially her peer. At an industry event featuring a producer, Michael took an up skirt photo of a manager and commented on her sexy dress.

While the producer was speaking, Michael loudly complained about how loud and boring the speech was. He was disciplined on the sexual harassment, but kept his job.

There was a sexual harassment workshop that the company offered, but he didn’t get the point of it, saying, “Isn’t provocative clothing just asking for trouble?”

How this relates back to Sarah: she was asked to take a day trip out to visit a wholesale account with Michael. She cited several incidents of Michael’s harassing behavior and how she felt uncomfortable being with him by herself.

She was told that she should “stop complaining. Let go of the past and move on.” And that he would never be fired. He is still the public face of the company.

This second story is short.

It happened a few months ago to my friend, Rachel, at an industry event. She had talked to someone about the multitude of micro aggressions she had experienced at the event and someone came up to her and said, “I heard you had been raising a ruckus. I’d punish you, but you’d probably like that.”

These are two examples of peer-to-peer dynamics at play.

So, I’ve shared a number of negative stories. I also want to share some positive ones. These are possible solutions to give those in lesser power, more power.

First, active listening.

When I mean active, I mean listening to what your baristas say, watching their body language, and acknowledging their worth. You can solicit feedback anonymously on a regular basis. You can have one-on-ones with your subordinates. You can also provide multiple avenues of feedback for management, in case they feel uncomfortable with their direct manager. Everyone wants to feel like they are contributing and being listened to.

For Aaron, a barista, he was frustrated by how disorganized the inventory management was in his cafe. His manager was overloaded on work and wasn’t able to properly address the problem. Aaron had been studying Lean Principles and wanted to see if he could apply the theory to the cafe. He set up a Kanban system for communicating orders. The most rewarding part of all of this for Aaron, was that he was listened to. This is the only person who is not anonymized today. You can learn more about how to use the Kanban for your cafe by checking out Aaron Clark’s article on Medium, titled “Inventory Management Through Kanban.”

Second, having an anti-harassment policy is important.

This applies for events, for internal company communications, and should extend out to the retail environment. And I don’t mean the generic “Be nice.” Having a definition of what harassment is and what the consequences are for harassing is important. If you have a generic “be nice,” then it’s open to interpretation and the person who worked up enough courage to report the harassment ends up having to prove themselves.

To tack onto the anti-harassment policy, is training to recognize what harassment can look like. When you’re part of an oppressed group, you don’t always speak up, because you don’t want to be seen as the person who is complaining all the time. Being an ally is not just about active listening. It’s also about taking action when you see or hear something that is not right.

Lastly, I’d like to see a union for baristas, roasters, and general coffee professionals.

Something that will offer collective bargaining, help people understand what their rights are as workers, and what steps they can take if their employer is out-of-bounds. I don’t know if that means the BGA should hire a lawyer or a different solution, but the number of stories I received about employers taking advantage of baristas, most often financially, were more than I wanted to hear. A number of these employers are prominent — they have an ability to hire at low wages, because there’s a never-ending supply of people who are interested in working for them. This industry is not immune to worker exploitation. We do not work in a bubble. There are bad employers out there and we need to recognize that.

Through the stories I solicited, I identified three common power dynamics that exist in the consuming specialty coffee industry. There was the structural power of manager and barista. The money power of barista and customer. And the social power dynamic of peer to peer. There are many more and in reality, they shape every interaction we have on a daily basis.

One power dynamic that is prevalent today that I don’t have time left to speak about is that of the coffee roaster and the producer.

A 2014 research study called “Power Dynamics: Disrupting or Maintaining of the Coffee Industry as an Institution” found that because roasters have control over the symbolic system of the industry, market inequities were not visible to consumers. This system affects producers’ capital, giving them no tools to access items like government agencies. This has, of course, started to change with Fair Trade and Organic certifications. This power dynamic affects the small-scale coffee bean growers.

We present coffee producers in a way that roasters hold the power. Sometimes, they literally control the livelihood of producers through what they pay for the green. Other times, it’s borderline colonialism, in the way we portray producers, using their faces, their families, and their stories to sell the coffee.

At which point do the producers get to have control over how their stories be told?




SF-based freelance coffee marketer, writer & photographer. Inspired by donuts, colors, and culture. / @thejennchen

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Jenn Chen

Jenn Chen

SF-based freelance coffee marketer, writer & photographer. Inspired by donuts, colors, and culture. / @thejennchen

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