How A Little Faith In Me Changed My Life
By Dean Cycon, Schepp Scholar 1979 – 1980
Founder and CEO, Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company
Sitting in a circle of indigenous coffee farmers in the highlands of Papua-New Guinea talking about how respecting women can lead to greater opportunity for themselves and their families can be a tough sell. Working with men and women to overcome gender violence in Rwanda challenges the participants to go beyond traditional norms and embrace a more inclusive future. We help set up a community-based cervical cancer detection and treatment program that saves over three hundred women’s lives in the first year on the ground. How did I end up doing these things in so many different countries when I am but a humble coffee roaster? It really began in earnest when the Leopold Schepp Foundation gave me a scholarship to attend New York Law School in 1980. I wanted to teach. I wanted to do good works in the world. I thought at the time that law would be my path for social change and education. In fact, my path since law school has been a ping pong process through law, indigenous rights, ecology, trade, social justice and international development.
I often lecture at universities around the USA and overseas about social justice, the environment and responsible business. Students usually ask how i knew what I was going to do with my life, and how I had the courage to leap into the unknown and live by my deepest held values. I have to be honest and say that none of the major turning points in my life were pre-planned. Rather, they were opportunities made available to me, and there were always helping hands like the Schepp Foundation guiding me forward. This dynamic in my life has fortified my desire to do work that not only supports my family, but also brings opportunity and hope to disadvantaged peoples worldwide.
I came to the world of coffee via a circuitous route. I was a lawyer and an activist, with one foot in the mainstream legal world and the other in indigenous rights and environmental issues at home and abroad. I thought the law would be a great vehicle for social change. It can be, but ultimately I did not have the constitution for it. I couldn’t stand the paperwork, the legal maneuvering, and, frankly, the stacked deck of corporate power and money within the justice system. At one point, I was working on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, trying to get the U.S. and state governments to require an environmental impact statement for the world’s largest cyanide heap-leach gold mine (never happened!). During one really rough patch, Charlie, a longtime Indian activist, asked me how long the reservation could survive if there were no jobs for the young people. But if the only jobs were dangerous, low- paying, and disruptive to the local culture, were they any better than no jobs at all? We both came to realize that until businesses changed their fundamental operating principles, our efforts would only amount to putting out brush fires started by greed and lack of awareness. I left the formal practice of law in 1985, when I was awarded a fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic institution researching and lecturing about the impacts of development on indigenous communities. I continued to provide free legal work to indigenous peoples in the areas of environmental protection and human rights. Word-of-mouth among those communities brought me meaningful opportunities for service and adventure in several countries.
My next evolution was a direct result of involvement in this work. in 1987, i gave a lecture at the university of Rhode island on the many causes of rain-forest destruction in Brazil. Afterward, I was approached by professor David abedon. He asked me if I could talk to a friend of his who had a coffee shop, bought coffee from Brazil, and wanted to give something back to the farmers. But, at that time, there were no organizations doing focused development work in coffee communities. Since the vast majority of coffee growers are indigenous peoples, doing development work in the coffee lands seemed like a good combination of my skills and interests. We met, and the three of us immediately founded Coffee Kids, the first development organization dedicated to coffee communities. Bill Fishbein, the coffee shop owner, would raise money from the coffee industry to support our efforts. I would go into the villages, meet with the farmers and their families, assess needs, and evolve programs and strategies to address the problems identified by the farmers. I was deliriously happy. I had the perfect job (even though Bill, David, and I weren’t getting paid for it). We set up micro credit banks for women in Guatemala and Mexico, a water project in Sumatra, and several other initiatives. It was solid, grassroots development.
Then one day something shifted. I was thinking about a well project in Guatemala. A charity- minded coffee company would give us five thousand dollars to build the well. The company would take pictures, tell the story, and trumpet their good works to the consumer. But the company would continue to pay very low prices to the farmers. Nothing would really change. In fact, the consumer would be getting a false impression that things were fine in the villages, that the industry was “taking care of its farmers,” as one corporate executive put it. I wondered what would happen if the company simply paid the farmers real money for their coffee; maybe the farmers could afford to build their own well and would not need the “charity” of the company. What would happen if the company took a level of responsibility for the conditions found in the villages it was buying from and became involved in the lives of its suppliers through direct development work and other forms of support to the community? Could the dynamics of poverty, which seem endemic to coffee growing, be challenged and overcome? Could the company still be profitable? if so, what excuse would other companies have to behave otherwise? In that moment of clarity and reflection, Dean’s Beans was born.
It was 1993. I started with a little roaster and eight bags of coffee. I was teaching part-time and still doing a little law on the side. I would buy only organic coffee because i was aware of the impact of pesticide use on the third-world environment and farmers’ health—many of the common coffee pesticides were banned from use in the united States. I would buy only from small farms and cooperatives that were made up largely of indigenous peoples trying to maintain their cultures and dignity in a hostile world. Development assistance and activism would be an essential part of the relationship. This would be our acknowledgment that the price and structure of the world market reflected a century of unfair dealings that left coffee communities in a state of chronic underdevelopment. And I traveled and continued my lifelong love affair with the lands and peoples of the planet.
Twenty-three years later, we have robust development programs in ten countries – all managed and owned by the coffee communities themselves. Thousands of farmers have benefitted from our fair trade pricing, development assistance and advocacy (there’s that legal training again!). We have received enormous international recognition for our work from the coffee industry, UNFAO, UN Women, the Oslo Business for peace Foundation (“The Nobel prize for Business”), the Fetzer institute and many more. We continue to educate consumers and the industry, as well as the farmers.
It was all kick-started with that scholarship from the Schepp Foundation so many years ago. You never know where your life is headed, but a little help along the way can bring amazing results down the road.