Three weeks ago, I was standing in the back of a pickup truck winding its way through the wild mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. Coffee seeds were laid to dry on roofs of homes while women carrying children swept their stairs and waved at Jose, our driver (and also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and coffee farmer). We were on the way to his community, a small group of indigenous farmers and artisans who reside in the deep resplendent hills of Mexico that people rarely visit. I was with my friends from Kickapoo Coffee, a Wisconsin-based roaster out of Viroqua, WI, and a group of delegates associated with On the Ground Global, a nonprofit committed to sustainable community development in farming regions across the globe.
As we drove further, I noticed kilometers of piping following the road and weaving through clusters of banana trees until it disappeared. The piping is part of On the Ground’s Chiapas Water Project, an initiative that helps indigenous farmers gain access to clean water. A van followed closely behind driven by Bruno, a determined and high-spirited man who works alongside community members and helps implement the system. He explained how each installation is similar to a small workshop with an appointed team of leaders who participate in the topographic survey, project design, piping installation and overall execution of the water system. The members are trained to work with local materials and taught to troubleshoot for future repairs. After this months-long process, there is a ribbon cutting ceremony and celebration of the community’s hard work. Bruno’s face lights up as he shares stories about women who start crying when the water flows from the tap over their hands. Women who have spent three to five hours a day trekking through the hills to gather water. Women who now have the time to start a vegetable garden, to weave more textiles, to send their children to school instead of asking them to help gather water.
I’ve worked in the Fox Valley coffee scene for more than a decade, but I had the opportunity to collaborate in opening Timshel Café in Neenah with Umer and Trish Sheikh almost two years ago. We made a commitment on day one to be intentional about the products we served. When we installed a water tap for customers, we made the decision to support clean water. Our relationship with Kickapoo allowed us to purchase Miir cups that featured the water project logo to help spread awareness, and we donated $5 to the project for every cup we ordered for the cafe.
This is not charity; it is empowerment at its finest. It is the collaboration and education of people who cross our paths daily without our realizing it. The seeds we sip are often grown by people like Jose, people with dreams and ambitions. People who have experienced hardships but have not become hard, but instead graciously adapted to continue their creative pursuits and to share their gifts with the world.
Text: Noelle McGinnis
Photos: Simon Winograd