Welcoming Refugees Through Coffee with Doug Hewitt

  
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When a refugee—someone who has fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country—comes to the United States, they’re typically given very little help when resettling their lives. 1951 Coffee Company hopes to change that, using the coffee industry as a tool for empowerment and self-determination.

In this episode, I talk to Doug Hewitt, co-founder of 1951 Coffee Company, which is based in Berkeley, California. 1951 created a barista training program specifically aimed at refugees, and helps trainees find placements at its own cafes or at other partner cafes in the Bay Area.

The goal isn’t simply to train new baristas, but to give people control over their lives—without expectation. Plenty of folks go through 1951’s training program and ultimately decide to move on to other fields, or to go back to school.

Ultimately, the goal is to help people feel safe making their own decisions, and to give them the tools to figure out what their goals are, instead of forcing them to make choices out of necessity or scarcity. Doug believes that coffee can be a tool to give power and control back to displaced people—one that extends far beyond the Bay Area. Here’s Doug.


Ashley: Doug, I was hoping you could start just by introducing yourself for everybody.

Doug: My name is Doug Hewitt. I'm one of the co-founders of 1951 Coffee Company. I came to the work of 1951 Coffee Company by having worked as a coffee roaster. I worked with Boot Coffee Consulting on a project they had called Aleta Wondo coffee for a couple of years.

While doing that I actually got involved with the International Rescue Committee, volunteering to teach English to newly arrived refugees. I spent some time while I was roasting coffee getting more deeply involved in the refugee community and then eventually got a job at the International Rescue Committee working on helping newly arrived refugees secure employment before finally overseeing the Oakland office of the International Rescue Committee and overseeing the resettlement department.

In 2015, I left that work to start 1951 Coffee Company to create a coffee organization that would help newly arrived refugees find jobs in the coffee industry.

Ashley: What about your work—working in coffee and then working with the International Rescue Committee—made you think, “Oh, these are two intersections that I can solve a larger problem with,” or, “There's a need here that I see that both of these things can work well together in?”

Doug: So it's actually interesting. The first time I actually met someone who was a refugee here in the United States, I was working at another cafe. Had began working there as a barista. There was another guy who was hired to work alongside me as a barista and we became good friends.

One day we were just chatting over lunch and he was telling me a little bit about himself. And then I said, “Well, how did you come to the United States?”

And he began to tell me his story of coming from Eritrea—fleeing Eritrea into Sudan, from Sudan fleeing across the Sahara desert to Libya, from Libya attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea twice and eventually succeeding. The first time he tried one of the boats he was on sank and he was rescued by the Coast Guard.

So just this whole long process of sitting there in this cafe, hearing the story—for me, it kind of began both at the same time, my first job in coffee, working as a barista, and my first time meeting someone who was a refugee had happened in the same moment.

We went on to become good friends and I got to know his community more. I was working on my master's program and finished my master's, started working as a coffee roaster for that one year and continued to get involved more deeply with the refugee community.

I think in my time getting more involved, learning more, understanding more of what it's like for someone to come from outside of the United States, fleeing war, conflict, violence, to try to find safety here in the U.S., I began to realize that it was a very, very difficult system.

It's also a difficult path to navigate and a difficult system to be integrated into. In my time, working at the International Rescue Committee on helping refugees find jobs, refugees when they arrive have about six months—[this] is what the U.S. government says that they have to be economically self-sufficient here in the United States.

And these are refugees coming from all walks of life. Some who have very high levels of formal education [like] PhDs, and people who have had very little formal education in their life. There are people who speak fluent English, people who have never spoken English before in their lives—and the system is made the same for everyone.

When a refugee arrives, [there is] about a thousand dollars that is designated by the U.S. government to help them resettle per person. Here in a place like California, that resettling money is almost gone immediately just paying rent and the rent deposit just to get their lives started.

That's the only guaranteed funding they're ever going to receive to get their lives started here. So that means for refugee resettlement agencies that are there to help with that process, getting employment is one of the most important pieces.

I realized that because of the breadth of experiences that people were coming into the U.S. with, finding that survival employment—as we call it in the refugee resettlement sector—is extremely difficult. It's extremely difficult to land that first job in the amount of time needed to be able to really take care of yourself, to be able to take care of your families.

I think seeing that process over the years that I was working at the International Rescue Committee, I realized that the refugee resettlement agencies had this Herculean task, this task that is extremely difficult to accomplish. The funding that they're given to accomplish that work is very, very limited. I realized that there needed to be something—companies that could come alongside, something in the private sector that could come along and say, “Hey, we're here to step beside you and make this better.”

I knew that the coffee industry is all based around hospitality, around welcoming people around building community. And I thought, “What better way for cafes in the coffee industry to step in and be a part of the solution for the challenges refugees face when they want to resettle in the U.S.?”

Ashley: At what point does 1951 step in? At what point do you find people to be part of the community—of your community—and then help them get from that first initial point of, “We're looking for a job, we're looking to resettle our lives,” to, “We are financially independent?”

Doug: So 1951 Coffee—we work with a lot of the refugee resettlement and assistance agencies in San Francisco/Bay Area. What we do is we let them know about our services. Our initial thing is primarily focused on the most recently arrived refugees, those most in need of that survival employment.

Usually a refugee, when they arrive, maybe for the first month there'll be a lot of things they have to do—go to social services, getting IDs, setting up their legal existence here in the United States and all the paperwork to prove it and all of those things. That's usually the first month when someone arrives [when] a lot of that happens. But by the end of that first month, they're usually enrolled in some type of employment assistance program. Something that will help them build a resume and search for a job.

There are very few, if any at all, training programs that are out there to help someone learn a skill or acquire a skill that is immediately transferrable here into the U.S. workforce. And so that's when we step in. We have told all of these refugee resettlement agencies that we are offering a free two-week barista training program to any refugees, asylum seekers—or there's another group called special immigrant visa holders who come from Iraq or Afghanistan who were somehow involved either with the U.S. government of the U.S. military. Because of that, their lives are threatened. So we also work with that group if they are resettled in the United States as well.

We're really trying to step in, in that earliest stage, to provide this free training so that people can become baristas and find jobs in the coffee industry.

But we don't limit it to just those [groups]. We realize that people are going through life and they're operating here in the United States—maybe they found a survival job early on washing dishes at a restaurant or working somewhere. And then [they realize], “This is not the job that I want to do forever, but I'm not really sure how to transition out of that. I want to transition into a more public-facing job.”

We don't limit the time or the scope of which someone has been in the country for them to be referred to us. So other agencies will have someone—maybe they're finishing high school, maybe they're at a transition point in their life, or they just want to change paths in their life. They’ll be referred to us, go through our training program. From there we'll step in and help them find employment either at one of our cafes or in our growing number of partner cafes here in the Bay Area.

Ashley: I think that's a good thing to point out. Not only does 1951 provide job training to help refugees find jobs, but you also act as intermediary between Bay Area coffee companies and refugees in order to find them placement.

I was wondering what that process has looked like, because it seems embarrassingly simple—of course coffee can do this kind of work, and we should be doing more of this. But I know as somebody who's covered 1951 Coffee pretty extensively when I was working at Barista Magazine, I had never heard of a program like this.

As I was reading more and more about 1951, I was like, “Why haven't we made this a system?” Especially because in coffee, it is about hospitality and it is about being public-facing at the same time. You don't need a lot to do it, and you don't need a lot that we can't teach you how to do.

Doug: Right. I think the way that I've looked at the coffee industry is that there a lot of skills [required], especially when you're in the specialty coffee industry, right? There is a high value on quality, on focus, and making a drink really, really well for each and every customer that comes in. When we were actually in the process of starting 1951 Coffee, we spent a lot of time … initially, we were just going to open our own cafe. That was the only [thing]—we’ll open our own cafe. We’ll empower refugees to work at our company, they'll grow and that kind of thing.

But then as we went to the other coffee companies, we noticed there were so many people in the coffee industry looking for baristas who would come and work for them and stay for longer than six months to a year that would really make a home in the coffee industry.

So we toyed around with the idea of, “Well, what if we just had a training program? We're going to have to train our staff anyway, but what if we trained more people than we could employ?” And then we were going to these same coffee companies that are looking for baristas that want to be a part of their companies, that want to put down roots in those companies. Then it can be a mutually beneficial thing for both the refugees coming to the U.S. and the same coffee companies. So we began the process of doing that and creating this training program and then networking with cafes.

I think anecdotally—I kind of knew this inside of me—that the coffee industry is very, very well grounded in American society. Sometimes I think we'll say that coffee is one of the most American things, but it’s one of [the most] international things at the exact same moment. Coffee comes in from all over the world, but it's almost [like] some people will say, “There's nothing more American than a cup of coffee.” Because of that, coffee companies, cafes are located throughout all over the United States in all different kinds of neighborhoods. And it really provides a place—it's kind of a microcosm of American life.

I knew that it was a place where we could begin to plant those seeds of what a welcoming society in the United States was—working within the coffee company and then seeing it grow from there.

Initially when we began to think about this, we were really nervous—we thought maybe coffee companies wouldn't be into this. Maybe this wouldn't be the thing for them, but we found that we could do two weeks of training and yes, you don't know everything. You're not an expert by the end of those two weeks, but [our trainees knew] a lot more than a lot of people do when they start their first barista job.

We realized this was an opportunity to help refugees be competitive when they went to job interviews. We had actually some early success with some pretty major coffee companies here in the Bay Area saying like, “Absolutely, we want to be a part of this.” I remember one HR person that said, “Doug, I know that you're probably worried about whether we're going to do this,” she said, “but we're going to make this happen because we want this to happen.”

To me, that was so encouraging that the coffee industry would be willing to step up and say, “You know what? Yeah, we can do this. We can bring people into our team.” As we worked with these different companies, we're not asking people to hire 25 people at one company, but to bring one person in, help build that one person up, help make them a part of your team, welcome them into your cafe, welcome them into your community.

Then we'll all go from there because if we're all doing those things cumulatively, it adds up to a really, really big impact. We have that opportunity to do that in our cafes.

Ashley: Absolutely. I think what you said about community makes so much sense—the idea that there is nothing more American than a coffee shop. Everybody knows what one is. Everyone's been to one and it's also incredibly international as well. They can be incredibly reflective of the community that surrounds you and to make them welcoming for people who are new to this country, who are now part of our community, we're specifically saying, “You are here, you are part of our community,” and finding a way through that door is incredibly powerful.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what founding 1951 Coffee was like in the sort of cusp of the Trump administration, because I imagine that a lot of what 1951 does has been affected by the political climate. So I was wondering if you'd walk us through a little bit of that.

Doug: Yeah. That's a great question. It's very interesting because we actually opened our first cafe the day after Trump's inauguration. I mean, three days later, travel bans were happening. I think a lot of people thought that we specifically opened this cafe as a policy or an opposition to those policies—if only opening a cafe only took between the time that he was elected to the inauguration.

Obviously it took much, much more time than that. We started this long before Trump was really on anyone's political radar because we were already seeing the challenges at that time. I think in 2015, when we actually formally set out to create 1951 Coffee, [there were] these debates raging about how are refugees coming here. What are the real facts about someone coming here? Is it safe? Is it not safe? What is this all about?

It was in that environment of an already difficult system with a lot of misinformation that we said we wanted to start this to provide a better start for refugees, but also to inform the public about what it really is like for a refugee to come to the U.S.

That's where we started when we moved into the Trump administration—obviously those initial weeks were a whirlwind for us. We had people who were coming to us and were like, “Oh my gosh, I am so glad that you all are open and doing what you're doing right now,” because, for a lot of people that really wanted to be in support of refugees, or even just immigrants in general coming to the United States, there were limited number of places where they could really go and show immediate support to those communities.

You could show up at an airport and protest, you could protest around your city or at city hall. But you really couldn't go into—I mean, you could—a refugee resettlement agency or something like [that]. You could go sit in their lobby and tell everybody, “Hey, I'm glad you're here,” but it didn't really work the same way. Because it just wouldn't be the most effective way to do it.

The work that we're doing at our cafe has provided a tangible way for people to immediately interact with the refugee community in a very positive way. We had people who were coming in during that time, especially early on. And they were having groups where they would gather together and write letters or cards or whatever to their elected officials saying, “We've gotta get behind people making changes to [these policies].”

I think as we went on through the years and knowing that the system was threatened, I think that it provided a place for us as a staff, with the people who had come through the refugee process here to the United States, we had a lot of discussions about, “What does all this mean?” Because for a lot of our staff, they had family members that were blocked from coming to the country. They had people that were on their way that suddenly their flights were canceled—families that are separated.

We had to have a lot of conversations about that, but it also provided a place for them to vent, to talk about that, but also to constantly be able to be reminded that there are people who aren't the official part of what this policy is that are saying, “You are welcome here. You are valuable, you are a part of our society that we want to be here and we want to welcome you in and make this work.”

I think that was all—a lot of it was just that touchpoint, to always remind people that no matter how dark this overall political climate is, there are people in the community that are saying, “This is not the way that it should be. That is not the way that it's supposed to be.”

And honestly, even historically, refugee resettlement and welcoming refugees has been a largely bipartisan thing. Even though our commitment as a country to the U.N. had always been to welcome about 50% of the recommended number of refugees each year, we often exceeded that even up to 70, 75%, which for America following an international agreement and far, far exceeding it is, is pretty amazing.

That's something we really wanted to remind people, even in those darkest moments of the four-year period, that there is still work to do. But I think one of the things we also did is during that time—obviously the number of refugees being allowed to come in was cut very, very, very small. But the number of asylum seekers, people who were already in the United States in some other way, but are now applying for basic humanitarian permission to stay here in the U.S. so they're not sent back to a dangerous place, that number actually was a very large number still during that period. And so we expanded to working a lot more with asylum seekers here in the United States during that time.

Ashley: That's really cool. I dunno, that was a lot to take in—I’m kind of buzzing a little bit from all of that.

One thing though that I think is not to be overlooked is some of the signaling that you do at 1951. So it's not just about, “We have a barista training program and we find jobs for people,” but you walk into 1951 and the story of America's relationship to refugees and finding safe places for asylum seekers to go is very much ingrained in the physical space. And I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit because it seems like 1951 was thought of as a very multi-faceted approach to a very large problem of how we treat refugees in the United States.

Doug: Correct. Yeah. Our three pillars at 1951 are obviously job training, employment, and then advocacy. And the piece that you're talking about is advocacy. We realized, I think any of us who've walked into a cafe know that, especially when the cafe's busy, you're going to spend a lot of time waiting for your drink to get ready. Back in 2015, when there was so much disinformation about refugees, we realized that refugees coming to the United States had these huge challenges to get here only to just have this skeptical public not really know, [for example], “Did it really take that long? Did it really take on average 17 years—from the time a refugee leaves their home to get here?” So we decided we need to find a way to just make this information readily available.

We knew that waiting time in a cafe is the perfect moment to inject as much information into these discussions as we can. When you walk into our cafe on Channing Way in Berkeley it's almost in some ways like a museum—we have a curved wall actually near where our condiment bar is. So when someone's putting sugar in their coffee, they can look up and they can see what are the general steps and path that a refugee takes to come to the United States. There's stats and information there from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on the number of refugees in the world, the number of refugees that are resettled every year, and again, like I said, the flow of what that path and that resettlement process looks like.

But we also try to help people understand and know, why is it important for us to welcome refugees here in the United States? Right now there are around 26 million refugees in the world. There are countries outside of the United States that are hosting refugees. I think Lebanon host refugees up to—about 25% of the population of Lebanon are refugees. If you realize that if the United States hosted refugees at the same rate, we could host every single refugee in the entire world. Looking at those things and having these pieces of information in our cafe, we hope that people will one, have truthful information. And second, will realize that, “Wait a minute, there's so much more that we can do here to really solve a major global issue.”

Ashley: I imagine when you're thinking about these big goals for 1951, at some point you distill them down really basically—you take all these goals and then you're like, “What's the core of this?” And the core of this, it seems, is we are here to help people in need.

Then when you go to the other end of it, when you think about where people are afraid, what are people resistant to, and trying to distill that down—and it's mostly fear-based. Like you were saying, there's a lot of misinformation about what it actually takes to get to the United States. What are the needs of refugees? And you're seeing people talk a lot more about that now, especially when it relates to coffee, like you were talking about Eritrea, and now I'm thinking about Central and South American countries where we basically—the United States—very much caused political instability.

Now we have people fleeing to the United States to seek asylum from unsafe environments. As you distill these themes down, how does this affect how you talk to people? Because I have to imagine that for the most part, people probably come into 1951 and they're already bought in—at least to some extent. They're like, “We get this, this is amazing. I'm learning so much, but at the same time, I'm here for it,” but I wonder on the converse, how do you approach people who maybe don't have that perspective, who are maybe on the more fear-based side of this? I imagine there's some tension there on both ends.

Doug: Yeah. I think one of the ways that we do that is again, some of it is just to provide truthful, factual information information that we have, like a lot of statistics in the cafe, things that are not necessarily immensely controversial. It's just being able to inject those discussions with the right information, with the clear definition, legal definition for who a refugee is, so that when we even begin that conversation, we know exactly what we're talking about.

I think one of the approaches that we've taken, and this has been whether it's customers in our cafes, people that come and volunteer at our barista training program, or even times that we've had trainings for cafe managers that we've done, who work at other cafes on how they can welcome refugees, is we really try not to shame someone for whatever questions they need to ask in order to get the information they need to really form a good opinion about welcoming refugees into the United States. And that's sometimes really difficult. You hear people that you're like, “This is the most outlandish thing. How do you not know and understand this?” But at the same time, I know from my own experience, growing up in the foothills of East Tennessee, I wasn't exposed to a lot of people coming in from all over the world.

I grew up in a very close-knit environment that people looked like me, that acted like me, that walked like me, that talked like me, that had the same assumptions of life. If I hadn't had someone like my friend, when I was first working at that cafe to just blow my mind away with information that I had never heard before, I wouldn't have the opportunity even be where I am at this point. So we really try to make sure that we can—we try to be truthful, we try to be straightforward, but really try to give opportunity for people to see that refugees are people who, if they are coming to the U.S., a lot of times, like my friend, he told me about what it was like those nights, walking across the Sahara Desert, just to get to a small town in Libya where the first thing that happened to him was that he was put in jail for four months for entering Libya illegally, but he spent days walking across the Sahara Desert.

And I think that that strength and determination that it takes for someone coming that path to end up here in the United States—if you want to build a strong society, those are the kinds of people that you need, you know? When we're able to really distill it down to that basic core human element of what we're talking about, I felt like a lot more people then understand, “Hey, this is a lot different than what I had originally perceived we're talking about.”

Ashley: How do you think about storytelling? Because it seems like it's a pivotal part of what 1951 does. And as you rightly pointed out for a lot of people, big themes, like the need to help people seeking asylum, maybe don't always land until we hear firsthand experience, or maybe we see it in action.

That's perhaps a blind side to growing up with privilege. I think we just defined privilege right there. How do you balance the other end of it where we don't need, I guess I don't want to say like poverty porn or trauma porn, but how do you balance telling a story that matters? But at the same time, you're not trying to exploit people's stories. You don't want to put them out there just for the sake of creating this sense of tragedy to prove worth.

Doug: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. That's something when we had initially started creating our cafe—I think anyone who has ever turned on the TV, or if you're following some organization, you see that you immediately connect [with] and you know, “Okay, this group of organizations or whatever, they're attempting to hit my heart and they're attempting to hit it hard, but what they really want is my wallet. They want my money.”

You see how this happens. There's this almost undignified element that they tend to portray when they're trying to advocate for a group of individuals. And I think from the very beginning, we want it to be really intentional of avoiding that style of advocacy.

I think a few different ways that we did that, even in the physical design of this cafe and the information and the way that it looks and the colors and all of that scheme, was done in consultation with a group of refugees to help guide us in, “What kind of an environment would you want to work in, and would also advocate for people who have come through the experience that you've come through? How do you want that story to be told? What are the key pieces of information that you always wish Americans knew about that endeavor?”

So I think one of the first things was engaging with the community and allowing them to have some say in what this advocacy looks like. I think another part of that is with the staff that work at our cafes or with the people who go through our training program, we always give them full autonomy over their own stories. If someone is coming to us and like, “Hey, can someone from your team, can they share their story about coming to the United States?” We never promise that someone will. We always go and we talk to our staff like, “Is there anyone who's willing or interested to do this?” If they're feeling like they want to do it, but they're a little bit nervous about it, someone from our team will accompany them.

We always tell them at any moment, if someone asks a question, or if there's something you don't want to talk about, you don't have to talk about it. Those stories are your own. You own them, no one can ever force you or push you to tell those stories. And I think for us, a lot of that comes from just giving our team autonomy. If they're interested in telling it, but they're just nervous about how to do it, we'll coach them through it. We'll help them navigate that process.

I think those are the main things that we try to do. Again, like I said, my friend who told me his story, like no one asked him to do that. He told it out of his own heart, out of his own desire for me to know and understand. And that's always more true and authentic. That's exactly what anybody would want when they're hearing someone's stories—the true, authentic story. I think as an organization, we've just tried to really make sure that's always the way we approach any storytelling from our team—is that it is their choice, their desire and in their power.

Ashley: It seems like authenticity is really tied to self-sufficiency, which I think is a bigger theme of 1951. I think you can say we are here to give refugees barista training so that they find jobs. But I think if you really widened the umbrella even more it's we are here to help people be self-sufficient.

Doug: Right.

Ashley: What does that look like for you?

Doug: Sure. And I think we would even take it one step further. A lot of economic programs are here for, but we're also trying to help people have self-determination. What I mean by that, and maybe this is a distinct difference—self-sufficiency is, “I can survive. I can survive on my own,” but self-determination is when you have the tools and the abilities to make choices that affect your own life and with some guarantee that those things will actually come to fruition.

So what we're trying to do with people who come through our training program or to work at our cafes, we don't tell them how long they can work with us. We don't tell them how long we'll help them look for a job. We don't tell them, “Oh, you have to have been here this amount of time, or that amount of time, or you have to be this age or that age…” If you are able to work and you want help navigating the system, we will help you navigate the system through the coffee industry.

However, we also say, “Hey, if you decide that you go through our training program and you want to apply for a job that's not in the coffee industry, we're going to help you apply for that job too.” Because again, we want people to have the ability to make their own goals, their own choices. Some people have gone through our training program and immediately they were like, “You know, I'm not ready for work, but I'm really glad I did that because now I'm coming away with a group of friends,” and we continue to count that as a success because they're connected to a community of people now through that training class.

Just getting the economic piece may not have been the piece that made the difference for them. And so we really try to look at how we gauge success. Success that the people who come through our programs and say, “Hey, having been through this, my life is now better and moving forward in the way that I want it to move forward here in the United States.”

Very often, yes, that is economic, but it could be through community-building. It could be through having access to a network of resources and information. I mean, if someone wants to buy a car and they've never bought a car before or buy a cell phone or something, that's something that we can help people with that maybe a normal workplace, a normal job program wouldn't help someone do. But again, we're trying to help people navigate what their goals are. We're just trying to use coffee as one potential opportunity to do that.

Ashley: It seems like no matter what you do, if you do something new, or if you're in a new environment, there's going to be some lack of control of your life or control of what's going on around you. And it seems like 1951 really steps in and says, “We will give you that control. We have tools that will help empower you to take control over your life.”

So like you were saying—I’m really glad that you defined self-determination because I think that could be one of those terms that's [lumped in with] “the American dream,” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but what you're saying is that people need tools to make that happen. People need tools to be able to apply for a driver's license or know what it is to access community resources. Or like you said, buy a car if you've never bought a car before. Once you get people those tools, they can take control over their lives.

And it seems like a lot of the goals of 1951 are to give people those tools and not necessarily to say goodbye to them, but to say, “We don't expect anything in return.”

Doug: Exactly.

Ashley: “You take control of your life. And if you need us, we're here. If you don't, we're always here, the door's always open, but you don't owe us anything.”

Doug: Right. We've had people work with us for six months—they just needed to transition to life here. We've had people who stayed with us for years because they wanted to put down roots. We've had some people that are like, “Hey, I only want part-time [work]. I'm going to school. That's what my real desire is. I don't want to work in coffee forever. I love you guys, but that's not what I want to do.” And we're 100% okay with all those things.

I think that's something as a company that we have to be flexible with. If we really want people to have the opportunities to do their own thing. A lot of other programs that are out there, they do a lot of really good work, but there's a lot of restrictions around it when someone's entering, whether it's time, age, what they have to accomplish, what they don't have to accomplish. And we just wanted to be different in that way, to give people the opportunity to be involved in something that hopefully lifts the burden from their shoulders and not adds a different one on their shoulders.

Ashley: How has COVID-19 affected 1951?

Doug: It's affected us a lot. To be honest, I mean, it just … if you look at cafe sales is one metric, and our cafe sales are down about 90% of what they were last year. We had three cafes prior to COVID. Right now, we only have one cafe that is operating. That's changed a lot.

We've gone down from a team of about 25 people to a team of about six people and thankfully we are still operating and I think that's, in this climate, when so many other cafes and restaurants have closed their doors, we're thankful to be at that point.

I think for us, something that has been challenging is that we're a non-profit coffee company. We do highly rely on the revenue from our cafes, but we also rely on contributions and donations to keep our programs functioning and our cafes operating.

I think in this year of significant need for everyone, the amount of funding that we've received, whether it's from foundations … a lot of that has changed. Foundations are saying, “Hey, we want to do these economic empowerment programs, but man, we have people that are losing their homes. We've got to shift to do that. Now we have people that are having health issues. We've got to shift to do that. Now we've got to figure out how to help people in this environment of COVID-19 just to make it through this period.”

We've understood that, but it means as an organization, our funding has gone down a lot. And as a cafe, the number of people coming in—we were actually really close to the University of California, Berkeley and this school year has been completely different.

It's been completely different. Where there's 30,000 people on campus, and right now the community here is about maybe 3,000 to 4,000, maybe 5,000 students that are on campus right now. That obviously makes a huge difference for us, and the number of people that are here. It's been a very different year for us. We're hoping, I guess in 2021, that things will gradually change. We're actually getting ready to reopen the cafe on Channing Way on February 1 to start serving the students who are here on campus and hopefully get things moving again, maybe in a more healthy way in this next year.

Ashley: What are the plans for the future besides slowly but surely opening up your cafes—bigger picture, five, 10 years down the line?

Doug: I think when we look at it five, 10 years down the line, I think what we do here in the Bay Area and the rapport that we have built with the coffee community is something that can grow outside of this area. Obviously the Bay Area is a place where people love coffee, it has a very thriving coffee scene with companies and roasters and all of those things.

But refugees traditionally have been resettled in about 221 cities across the United States. I would guarantee you that in almost any one of those cities, there are people who drink coffee and there are probably cafes. And I think there are opportunities for the work that we do, whether it's from creating flagship cafes in some of those key cities—maybe 10 key cities or something like that, where a large number of refugees are being resettled, not to replace the coffee industry—I think that's something that people often wonder, “Are you going to open up 5,000 cafes and take over and just have the refugees working?” No, that's not what we want to do. Our goal is to create a place that can be exemplary, kind of like the cafes that we have here in Berkeley that can show the coffee industry what can be done.

Our goal is to network with the coffee industry, to have a larger community of people integrating and working with the refugee community as they resettle here in the United States. Our goal is to hopefully be able to build those bridges, inspire more people and more cities through the coffee industry to do the same work.

Ashley: What would you want people to know about 1951 that maybe isn't as obvious or maybe we didn't touch upon in our conversation?

Doug: I think one of the things that people often wonder—people often don't realize that we are a non-profit. I know that we've talked about that already. And I think that's something that often catches people off guard as they come into our cafe and they're like, “Oh, this is so nice.” They're like, “It's a nice place to be.” But that we really are funded through people in our community contributing to the work that we do.

It's one of the few things that you can do where you can create, contribute to a global solution, but also see a very local response to that global issue. For people to support us, people to help us grow, people should come by our cafes, drink coffee, order our coffee online, all of those things enable us to be able to employ more people, train more people.

I think, even looking at the model of what we do, this was something that I was passionate about working in coffee. I was passionate about working with the refugee community and it just happened to be the skill that I had, but there's a lot of other needs that refugees have that go far beyond what our cafe will be able to provide. There are many other solutions out there and if you have a skillset, you have an idea, just start somewhere. Start somewhere, jump on it and try to get moving and see what you can do. So I think those are the things that I would kind of share with people.

Ashley: Doug, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

Doug: Absolutely. I thank you for letting me be here. I enjoyed talking with you.

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