Erica Chadé On Listening and Being Present With Yourself


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We’re re-airing an episode form June of 2020 with Erica Chadé (you may hear them referred to as Erica Jackson in the episode). Erica talks all about intention, getting to know yourself and offers some wonderful tidbits about slowing down and how working in service can offer moments of presence.

Also, we have shirts available now! Here are photos of Erica wearing them—order yours now.

There are a lot of reasons I continue to do Boss Barista, especially as the show has evolved and changed. One of the reasons is to connect with people I wouldn't have met otherwise. There are at least a handful of folks I know and consider my friends because of the show—people I've become closer with through interviews, through sitting down and having a really focused conversation.

Doing this show has also made me a better listener—I’m still learning how to listen, but I also listen for other listeners. That’s a little silly, I know, but I’ve learned a lot about how people listen by doing this show. It’s the moments where I hear others give people space to explore ideas, or repeat a question to make sure they really understand it.

And I noticed all these things when I listened to another podcast featuring today's guest, Erica Chadé. Erica is a barista, originally from Birmingham, Alabama but currently based in Charleston, South Carolina, and she was recently a guest on a show called Nicole's Hen House and their perspectives on identity and getting to know oneself really intrigued me.

In this episode, we talk about Erica's journey into the world of coffee, but we also delve deep into how we communicate and how we remain present in our own lives. A lot of these themes are mimicked in our coffee work—being a good service worker requires being present, and many of us are drawn to coffee because of the potential to build community and make connections with others. I think, more than anything, this episode is an encouragement to remain present in your own life and notice what's happening around you. Here's Erica.

Ashley: Erica, could you introduce yourself for everybody?

Erica: Yeah. I'm Erica Jackson. And is that it, or did you want me to say where I work or…

Ashley: You can say whatever you want.

Erica: Oh yeah. I'm Erica Jackson.

Ashley: I'm always really touched when people reach out to me or engage with me on social media, and I feel like you and I have actually engaged a lot on social media. I was telling you before we started recording that one of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation was a little bit selfish on my end: I really wanted to get to know you better because you and I exchanged messages or we see something on each other's social media and we’re like, “That's cool,” or “that's interesting.”

I was wondering if you can take us back to the moment right before you started making coffee—what did your life look like before you decided this is the thing I'm going to do?

Erica: Yeah, sure. Well, I want to say that the feeling is totally mutual of wanting to know you more. I feel like we kinda know each other in a weird way through social media, but it's great to have a conversation with you.

Life just before coffee? So I had graduated from grad school. I was studying occupational therapy and I was trying to decide what I wanted to do career wise. I was living in an apartment downtown Birmingham and in this transitional phase.

Ashley: What brought you to coffee?

Erica: That's really interesting. I actually had a lot of interest.

Okay, so I had a classmate in occupational therapy school. Her name was Kelsey and she found a roastery and had bought coffee from the roastery and she shared it with me and she was like, “You should go to this roastery and check it out and support these people because they're doing some really great things.”

By the time I got around to finding that roastery, it had opened a cafe and I really loved the atmosphere. I think this is a feeling that people can sometimes get when they walk into cafes that's intangible. It's like, “Wow, I really, really dig this place. I really like this place. I can't quite put a finger on it, but there's something special about this place.”

And that's how I felt when I walked into that cafe—and that was actually Seeds [Coffee]. I ended up volunteering for Seeds, I don't know if many people know this, but Seeds is a non-profit. So I volunteered for Seeds. I had a lot of fun. I was actually in their first group for volunteer training.

So I volunteered and then I went back to school and then, like I said, I got out of school and then I was really, really interested in tea and I went to India. I visited a tea garden, visited a tea factory, had the most exquisite cup of tea I've ever had in my life. I thought I was going to help my friends start their tea business, but I ended up back in coffee.

Those are kind of my beginnings of coffee, just being in awe of the atmosphere of the cafe and having fun, learning something new and just being fascinated with those parts of coffee before actually getting into some of the more nuanced parts of brewing and all of that.

Ashley: What was your relationship to coffee like before that?

Erica: Before I started volunteering?

Ashley: Yeah. Did you drink coffee at all or was it like a sudden moment of like, “Oh my gosh, this world?”

Erica: No, I didn't drink coffee. My mom drank coffee a lot, so it was around in our home, but I actually was a tea drinker. I still am a tea drinker. So no, I didn't really drink coffee before I got into it.

Ashley: I love those moments of something ineffable happening, something that you can't describe where you're like, “This is the place that I want to be.” Have you ever been able to look back on that moment and figure out like more of what that feeling was, that intangible feeling?

Erica: Hmm. I think what that feeling is for me is spiritual and I think that's linked to the ritual of coffee, which I don't think we talk about a lot in our cafes.

I think it's the ritual and people being centered and fixated on a ritual of someone preparing them coffee and then preparing to drink that coffee. Then the conversation and the being that happens as you're drinking coffee. I would say it's a ritual. It's spiritual.

Ashley: That's really cool. I just listened to an episode of the CxffeeBlack podcast and he just did this whole episode with a guy who talked about the ritual of Ethiopian coffee and just telling people to slow down and the way that we consume coffee in America is almost the exact opposite of that—it's fuel or it's a thing that you get before the workday or something like that. It's really cool that the thing that drew you was that ritual.

How did your coffee career progress from the moment of, “Oh, this is an industry I want to at least kind of work in,” into, “Oh, this is the thing that I want to do?”

Erica: That's a great question. So I actually didn't make coffee my thing until about two and a half years ago. I got into coffee and I was still questioning, “Is this what I want to do with my time? I do like this, I enjoy it. But is this what I want to do longterm?”

There were two people that I worked with that I would say really facilitated that shift for me. So one of those people was Jeff Healey and he told me—he, as a white man told me that coffee was a part of my heritage as a Black person. And that was really, really formative. I was like, “Wow, like I never thought about it that way.”

Coffee originates in Africa and I'm African-American, I don't know my African roots, but I did originate from there. That's when I started thinking, yes, it's really important for Black and brown people to be on this side of coffee and its consumption and its preparation. So that made me feel like I should really be a part of coffee.

Another person that was really influential was Blake Nail. When he got hired at Seeds, it was a very interesting time in that company because he came in with a lot of enthusiasm about coffee. Seeds, being a nonprofit, there's a lot of moving parts that are really beautiful and really important, but he was just really passionate about coffee and he really drew me into that.

He's actually how I got into coffee competitions—and why I know you and other people in the industry, he got me out of that Birmingham bubble and into the industry. I would say like having ownership of coffee in a way, maybe it's like a social ownership, and having awareness of the industry and other people in the industry that I can learn from that really catapulted me into a coffee career.

Ashley: Those are two really powerful moments—obviously for you specifically—but I think reflecting in general for people who are maybe still trying to find their footing in coffee or understand what the industry looks like, because the fact that you mentioned you could be working in a coffee shop and not really know what the industry at large looks like…

It's what I sit up at night thinking about, especially now living through a global pandemic obviously. I think about a lot of the baristas who maybe don't have access to the industry at large and how transformative that can be, but also being able to tie coffee to your personal identities is so absolutely powerful. It's something that I struggle with being Cuban: something that I'm actually trying to figure out is coffee grown in Cuba? It is, but I have never been able to get my hands on it.

It's really interesting finding those parallels in identity that are so powerful. I'm just so touched by the stories that you shared.

Erica: Yeah. I just think that those two things are really important and that's very insightful for you to bring up with our current situation. If I was a barista that didn't know about the industry and I didn't have my job and I wasn't connected to other people or other places where I could eventually get another job, that sounds like a really, really hard situation to be in. I didn't even think about that. So thanks for bringing up.

Ashley: No, thank you for inspiring the conversation to go in that direction.

I'm wondering about other transformative moments. We were talking about this a little bit earlier but I feel like you're someone who really pays attention and can make really big connections. So I was wondering if there are other moments in your coffee career that have felt really, really impactful or really important to the development of your career?

Erica: I think my experience on the tea farm, actually. It's a parallel industry and I think that roots and grounds me. Even though that was before I fell in love with coffee, I always think about that experience.

I think that propels me to keep looking at the world differently because on that trip, I got to meet some of the people who were picking the tea and I got to go into their homes and have conversation with them. That just that humanizes—we just see a lot of things in America as products. I have this experience where I've met someone who's working really, really hard to get this from point A to point B.

I would say that was really formative. I'm trying to think of some other “aha” moments.

Ashley: They don't have to be big “aha” moments and sometimes they're just not there.

I'm having a little bit of an “aha” moment, but again, I was telling you about this before we started recording. I really wanted to set the mood by having your bag of coffee here. I was wondering if you could talk us through that a little bit because I want people to be able to picture this too in their minds. You have a coffee that has your name, your face on it.

Erica: Yeah, that's a really big honor. I took this random selfie one day and that is a picture that the coffee bag is based off on in, in that picture. Also on the label I'm wearing a purple bandana and it's actually The Chocolate Barista.

There's no words to describe seeing your face in different shops and in different places, in a well-known shop in your hometown. It's really cool. It's really amazing to have a Black woman on a coffee bag. I mean, you just don't see that anywhere.

Ashley: Totally. How did this happen? What was the conversation like? Did one of the owners of Seeds just come up to you and were like, “We're gonna put your face on a bag?”

Erica: My friend Jonathan, we were coworkers at the time, he was my manager and he's a really, really talented artist. He's the one who designed the label. So it was his idea.

We were trying to think of specific branding for—[the coffee] is called Iron Fist. We were trying to think of what do we want to put on the bag?

He was throwing out ideas and he's like, “Erica, I have this one idea where you’re a cartoon and this is what you're doing.” And he told me his whole like vision.

I was like, “Oh, that's a cool idea. That's a fun idea.” I literally thought it was one idea of many ideas. Then he showed me the mock-up I was blown away and I was like, “Oh, you actually drew this it's actually a thing.” And it turned out it was the idea.

So it was a very big surprise. So yeah, that's how it came to be. He just had this vision and he drew it and there it is.

Ashley: As you were saying before, the power of seeing a Black woman on a bag of coffee, and as you mentioned, it was the main espresso blend for Seeds and seeing it all throughout Birmingham or at other wholesale accounts must be just so incredibly powerful. But also I would imagine, a little bit like, “Oh shit, that’s me. That's me right there.”

Erica: Yeah. It is really powerful. I love it. I love it so much.

Ashley: The name Iron Fist: was that the name of the blend specifically, or was that something that you folks collaborated on that was meant to encompass a part of your identity?

Erica: It's actually a part of Birmingham's identity. So Birmingham was an industrial city and it created steel—it had really big steel mills and part of that is iron ore. So this is a homage to the iron industry and the steel industry and all of that. So Iron Fist is actually honoring Birmingham.

Ashley: But you’ve also kind of taken it to be part of your identity too—I mean, maybe I'm extrapolating a little bit but it's your Instagram handle. I wonder how do you see that interweaving into how you view yourself or how that is expressed in your identity?

Erica: Well, it started off as a joke because my friends—I'm just a big personality. So my friends are like—I just feel I had become a character, but they're like, “Yeah, you're Lady Iron Fist.” We just laughed about it. It was just a joke.

Then my friend Chandler—he still works for Seeds—Chandler was like, “Yeah, you should make that your Instagram handle.” His Instagram handle is @latteartcan, by the way. But he's like, “You should make that your Instagram handle.” And I was like, “Okay, cool. I'll do it.”

So I did, I think it is more as a joke now. I think that it does encapsulate me because I was born in Birmingham and I'm actually pretty intense. And I think it's important for women to to self-actualize and come into their power. That's what I've been trying to do.

So yeah—and I love cartoons, so it’s a part of me. Not that I think strength is like purely physical, but there is also something about a portrayal, even if it's just like a portrayal in that actual real life, but a portrayal of an image of a woman that strong and a woman that will stand up for herself and a woman that knows her worth. You know?

Ashley: You mentioned self-actualizing your power. What does that look like for you? Because I imagine that that process isn't always linear, right?

Erica: Yeah, it takes a lot of reflection I would say. It's really hard to look inward and to hold yourself accountable for your actions—even hold yourself accountable for your thoughts, because thoughts lead to actions. Not that you can control them, but just recognizing them.

I think it begins by starting inward in holding—at least for me, that's been the processes—looking inward, evaluating my thoughts, evaluating my speech looking at the way that, like I enter a room or that other people enter a room.

Just taking note of when I say something or when I do something, how the room is being affected, or how other people are being affected, because we all have influence. We all are affecting each other's lives, whether we want to be or not. I think self-actualization, part of it is just taking stock of literally how your actions affect other people and affect spaces.

Ashley: You're someone who pays a lot of attention. I know that I've mentioned this to you before. Have you always been that type of person? Have you always been someone who's acutely aware of their surroundings? Or do you think that that's something that's maybe come later in your life?

I know for me I feel like I'm someone who likewise pays attention. That's one of the reasons I think that I'm very drawn to you. I don't think I was always that person, like by no means I was a stupid idiot until I was like 24.

Erica: I think I've always been this way and I've actually tried to reflect on that in the past couple of weeks and figure out why. I wonder if it's a middle child skill…

Ashley: I'm all about birth order.

Erica: Yeah. So I'm middle-ish. I have three sisters and I’m the third of four, so I think from a young age I just had to observe, “This is what my older sisters are doing and this is what my mom is doing and this is what I'm doing and my younger sister,” but we're all connected somehow.

There's actually a really big age gap between me and my older siblings. I have a sibling that's 12 years older than me and a sibling that's 11 years older than me. Then the next sister is just 11 months apart from me, not even a whole year.

Ashley: Oh, wow.

Erica: We were born in the same year. So I wonder if it's from just trying to bridge age gaps between me and my siblings and that's maybe the start of my observation…

I'm [also] a very physical person and what I mean by that is it kind of goes back to what I was saying about observing the way that you take up space or a observing way that your voice or your body language affects a room or affects other people.

I've always been aware of that and I think I'm just like a physical person—in the Enneagram, they break it up by body, heart and what's the other one….gosh, and there's another one, but I'm definitely like in the body category.

Ashley: I love talking about birth order because I love all of it. I love astrology. I love Enneagrams. I love Myers-Briggs, but I do think that probably more than anything, the person that I am is because of my birth order.

I'm an eldest child through and through. My sisters—it's interesting that you mentioned the age gap because my sisters are eight and nine years younger than I am. So I definitely lived in this world very separate from them for a long time, because our experience is completely different when I was 18, they were nine and ten.

I think so much of this insularity that I lived with for a majority of my life comes from that fact that like I was essentially an only child in certain ways. Then when I started working in service it forced me to interact with people in a way that I never had to.

So I think for me, that's why I'm interested in knowing if people are always inquisitive or always in tune with the world around them, because I owe that all to service. I owe that all to working in coffee. What do you think about coffee or about working in coffee that really speaks to you as a person?

Erica: I'll go back to spirituality. So another thing that my friend Jeff told me that was really formative was that providing a beverage to someone is also a spiritual service. The exchange of energy that takes place in that moment of me preparing a coffee for someone and then giving it to them that really attracts me and keeps me—I just love to make coffee for people.

Hopefully they will enjoy it and if they don't enjoy it, I want to know why they didn't so that I can make it better next time. Spiritual interactions with people, for sure is really important to me, whether I'm aware in that moment or the other person is aware in that moment of it being a spiritual experience.

Maybe it's not even that for them, but I always see it as a spiritual exchange. I really like all the smells and sounds and just like being able to use my senses. And again, I think that goes to me being grounded in my body, being a physical person. God, being a barista is a lot of work, being a barista is taxing sometimes. But the other thing that draws me to coffee is being able to move my body and use my body in a meaningful way. And while I'm doing that, I'm having this really awesome sensory experience at the same time.

Ashley: Yeah, that totally makes sense. I can imagine that the actual physicality of being behind the bar and serving people was really, really gratifying, but at the same time and something that I think is really powerful is that you seem to be really interested in those moments of exchange—of, “I am giving you a thing that I've made.” And that requires a lot of presence.

I know that for me sometimes, I kind of have to like zone out and I feel the best shifts for me are those ones that go by really, really fast and you're just like, “Wait, where did nine hours go?”

I feel like you're speaking to the opposite moments. The moment where you’re like, “Look at this thing that I've made for you. And this is a moment of connection, even if we don't know each other.”

Erica: Yeah, I do. I have a love/hate relationship with rushes at a cafe.

I love challenges, so that active, “All right, we have to get out these drinks and we have to get them out really fast and they need to be well done.” I love that feeling of doing that really well. Sometimes I don't and I get to take apart why I didn't. I love rushes because of the challenge, but I hate rushes because they lack intimacy to me.

In that moment I just have to get drinks or whatever out as fast as I can and try to still make eye contact with the person or thank then but it's a rushed exchange at that point. I would much, much rather be aware of the flow of the cafe, the literal flow of people in and out of the cafe and how they're experiencing it and how they're experiencing other people in the cafe.

I would rather be able to slow down and notice all those things and give someone their coffee and have time to talk about it with them or talk about something else that they want to share.

I know this is a can be really hard for a baristas—the emotional labor of it. I think boundaries can be crossed and sometimes people will treat their barista like their therapist. I think for everyone who is fine with that time being taken and who wants to take time to have a conversation with the customers, I want all of that space. I would love for that to just be a consistent thing in cafes.

So yeah, you're right. I'm speaking to like the slow moments.

Ashley: Those are still really beautiful moments. I think about those, even though I'm definitely a person who finds a lot of gratification from crushing a rush. That's really exciting for me, but the moments I remember, the moments that I go back to are the slow moments, are the moments where I took a moment…

The moment I took a moment? That was silly, but the moment that I was able to pause and see what was happening around me, I think are the most gratifying. So it's interesting to kind of think of those two moments, because they are part and parcel with being a barista. And you can get gratification out of both.

Erica: Totally.

Ashley: What does the future look like for you in coffee? What would you like to be doing in the next year, two years?

Erica: I would love to get back into a space where I can use more of my skills at my current job. My role is to be a really good barista and I can do that, but like you've been saying throughout this podcast, I usually am looking at big picture.

I'm in a frustrating place of like, I can't affect the big picture. I can't even speak into the big picture. So I would want to get back into a role where I can have an effect on the big picture of what's going on. That's the thing that comes to mind. I don't really have a specific job or job description I think right now, but I would love to just be able to have a more holistic approach to my work.

Ashley: I do love that you focused on the big picture as opposed to a specific job, because I don't know that we train ourselves to think about the conditions that make us happy versus the linear thing that makes us happy.

I'm not sure if I have the right language for that, but as as I get older, I think about less about “this is the job I want to do” versus “this is the environment I want to be around, and these are the skills I want to utilize.”

Thinking about what's your dream job is not as important to me as much as I want to utilize my ability to think big. I want to utilize my ability to be quick on my feet. Those things matter to me a lot more. So it's really cool to hear you talk about like, “I'm good at these things, and these are the things that I care about. How do I work backwards as opposed to that's the job I want?”

Erica: I think I got spoiled in a previous job where I got—he position didn't exist before I took it on. So I got to shape it and make it what it was going to be. Now, I give myself this permission to say “these are the things that I want to do.” I just need to meet the right people, get in the right space to do that. I don't need a title to do that. I do you want to be paid to do that work.

Ashley: Yes, definitely.

Erica: The title is not very important. But my actual work is really important to me.

Ashley: One of conversations I think about a lot in my coffee career is when I was working with this wonderful person, her name is Rachel. We were talking about the things that we're good at. I mentioned to her that I was like, “I think I'm good at this. And I'm good at that.” I kind of named some things. I was like, “I don't think I'm good at this other thing.”

I asked her, “What do you think you're good at?” And she was like, “I don't know.”

I was like, “That sucks. How has no one ever told you?” Not to say that you discover what you're good at through people affirming yes or no. But what I love about this conversation is that I don't think a lot of people are trained to think that way.

I hope that this conversation leads people to think like, “Who am I as a person? And what am I good at? Or what do I enjoy?” As opposed to like, “What jobs do I want?”

I don't know. I'm still forming these thoughts, but what I love about talking to you is that it feels like you think very critically—like, this is who I am, and this is the way that I'm going to move around the world and obviously learn and keep engaging. But at the same time, what's important to me is to honor like the person that I am.

Erica: What you're saying goes back to those concepts of self concept and self-actualization, and I think in my process of self-actualization, I'm just at that place of “this is who I am and this is how I'm going to exist.”

So I need to make a space, find a space to exist in that way. I do wish that more people were able to invest in that and to think about their formation and their self-concept and they're worth.

You're right. Knowing what you're good at doesn't just come from people affirming those things. But that is also important. I think that's a big part of self-concept because people can say that thing and then you can think about it and then you can either agree or disagree. But I think it's important—as much as I've been talking about looking inward—it's important to know how you are seen by other people and perceived by other people.

Again, even if it's false. I think it's important for you to have your self concept and how you want to be and who's the person that you want to be and how to get yourself there.

Ashley: I hope that people listen to this and feel empowered to have those conversations with themselves and think deeply and think inwardly.

Erica, it has been an absolute honor and pleasure for you to agree to be on the show and to talk to me, I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for stopping in. I feel silly saying that because we're not in the same place.

Erica: Yeah. Thank you for having me, Ashley, thank you for your time. I've really, really enjoyed this time. So we can have more like meaningful conversations like this.

That was Erica Chadé. A quick note—we talk a lot about their Instagram account, but you can now find them at @blkcoffee4life.

This Boss Barista episode is brought to you by Urnex.

One of Urnex’s latest advances is a range of environmentally friendly cleaners called Biocaf. Biocaf products are made entirely from plant- and mineral-based ingredients and are fully biodegradable. They're available for both commercial and household coffee equipment.

Urnex is also partnering with coffee pros—like me!—to highlight some of the best sustainability efforts in the industry with the Biocaf Sustainability Series. You can read my most recent piece on Onyx Coffee Labs’ switch to oat milk in their latest café, and learn more about Biocaf here. And be sure to read the dozens of pieces focusing on sustainability in coffee and beyond.

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