Do you want the quick or not so quick story?
It came out of a real passion for social justice in Latin America. Rather than simply giving moral support and emergency aid to rural communities in Latin America, maybe we could give them a fair price for their quality coffee and, thereby, some control over their own destinies, as Moses Coady would say. Simple idea, but it made sense, and it works if you do it right.
The not so quick story:
Jeff really wanted to get involved in Latin America in some constructive way, but what to do when you have three kids in school and you couldn’t learn another language if your life depended on it?
A few years later he got the same message. The summer of 1992, Jeff and Debra were attending meetings with L’Arche International in England. They heard of grand celebrations in Liverpool with big celebrities to mark the 500th year of Columbus’ “discovery of America”.
At the same time, leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean planned an alternative celebration entitled “500 years of Resistance to Colonialism”. Jeff passed himself off as a photojournalist and got to sit in on press conferences with Rigoberta Menchu, soon to be receiving a Nobel Peace Prize; and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, President of Haiti and others. Aristide gave a moving talk on how, at the banquet of life, we should all be able to come to the table, not some crawling on the floor, trying to pick up crumbs. Again, simple but inspiring.
The next year. Jeff was visiting L’Arche in Uganda and stopped to see his sister in Ethiopia. Travelling through the mountains, she suggested they buy some green coffee being sold by a farmer at the roadside and learn how to roast it. THAT WAS IT! For a coffee fanatic like Jeff, it was like a genie coming out of a lantern. It was magical.
Soon, all these dots connected when Jeff went in 1994 to a working solidarity conference in Havana, Cuba. The message again was clear. “We don’t want charity, just fair prices for our quality products”. What could be done?
Jeff immediately thought of coffee and the rest is history. He had a mission and nothing could get in the way, well, hardly anything.
After talking to everyone he could think of involved with the coffee business, co-ops, and international development and getting very little in the way of encouragement, just after Christmas 1995, Jeff jumped on a plane for Mexico with friend, Sean Dixon (Ria’s partner) for the adventure of their lives.
To make a long story short, they arrived in Chiapas, Mexico in the middle of a civil war. The war was being fought over coffee and control of the business.
In the 80’s, small coffee producers had begun to organize into co-ops and develop their ability to not only grow, but transport, process and export their own coffee without depending on the exploitive middlemen they called “coyotes”. The "coyotes" backed by the state and the US government, clamped down with a vengance.
Jeff and Sean witnessed the conflict first hand but more importantly got to visit the coffee farmers high in the mountains above the fray. They were proud of their small organic farms (they called gardens) and what their co-ops had accomplished for their families and their communities. They said it was the first time they had actually been hopeful for a better future and they were willing to defend these advances with their lives.
Jeff came home with the “good news” of what he and Sean had seen, but also the “bad news. To buy direct from the co-op in Chiapas they would have to buy a whole container of coffee - 17 tons. It just didn’t make sense for them to ship their coffee in smaller amounts, for all kinds of reasons.
Jeff was pumped, however, and convinced Debra (in spite of being scared to death), to go ahead and consider putting their house up as security for a first shipment of coffee.
They then approached David and Jane and Sean and Ria to form a co-op. Jane really wanted to support David but was already employed as a dental hygienist. She became an “investor” member of the co-op and made invaluable contributions as our logo designer, calligrapher and Board member. Sean and Ria, our only member with actual experience in the café business, decided it didn’t make sense for both of them to join the co-op, so Sean contributed some his beautiful Mexican inspired mosaics, handyman skills and much needed moral support in the early days.
They all brought so much energy and enthusiasm to Just Us! and miraculously pulled it off. The blessing and the curse was that they had to make it work. They all had their education and skills to fall back on if it didn’t work, but the Moores would have lost their house, which nobody wanted to see happen.
They grew rapidly, just rapidly enough to pay their bills, but it was chaotic. We don’t want to pretend for a minute it was all easy. In hindsight, it would have been better if they had understood business and the demands and risks involved. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have started. Then again, with all the apparent success of Just Us!, was it worth all of the personal costs? It depends on the day.