Tyler Phillips has worked in the service industry since he was 15 years old. He’s witnessed the power imbalance firsthand — wealthy customers making rude comments or taking unwelcome advances toward younger, minimum wage workers. “Sexism, racism — is endemic to this industry,” the coffee brewer says. But he also admits that he, like hundreds of others in the industry, has no professional guidance on how to intercede in these situations.
So Phillips joined several others after work to attend a sexual harassment seminar at The Potter’s House. The 57-year-old Potter’s House has made a name for itself in Washington as an alternative to mainstream chain coffee shops, offering safe spaces for discussion and creative expression. Its business model is practically unheard of in the industry. It is a non-profit business, charging “pay what you can” for a cup of java.
Discrimination Workshops in Demand
Melissa Yeo and another volunteer facilitate the training from Collective Action for Safe Spaces. CASS started eight years ago on a mission to erase sexual harassment and assault in the Washington, DC, area. The demand for their workshops increased substantially last month as powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was outed for longtime sexual harassment and an avalanche of accusations followed for many other influential men.
Yeo says witnesses are reluctant to step in and stop harassment because it’s a matter of “often not knowing if it will work, not knowing exactly what to do, or thinking it’s none of their business.”
The coffee workers in this training session are from all over the Washington, DC, area. They share personal stories, which prove how prevalent the problem is in the industry. Some explain what they did to stop the abuse. They start by saying their first name and what gender they identify with.
“My name is Sam,” one participant says as he relays what he witnessed. He says a customer made a co-worker so uncomfortable with comments about her body that she left the area. Sam confronted the customer and asked that he “refrain from making comments on the appearance of people who work in this space.” Instead of backing down, the customer argued that he was raised in the 1950’s. “That’s no excuse,” says the facilitator.
The exercise continues until all have shared their experiences. The group determines how severe the discrimination was and place it on a continuum spectrum erected on the wall in the front of the room. Then Yeo adds four more actions on post it notes — “Misgendering,” “Leering,” “Assault by Police,” and “Following” — all discriminatory practices that the group rates as extreme or not. The two-hour session ends with role-playing.
Future Coffee Seminars
Mike Balderrama, another participant, is the acting general manager of The Potter’s House. He says the topic of intervening and stopping discrimination is “very near and dear to our heart.” Balderrama says the next wave of training for coffee professionals is expected to be on mental health and first aid. So, The Potter’s House will once again create the safe place for exploration of those topics.