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Keynote Speech at Commencement

Sunday, May 18, 2008

By Dean Cycon, owner of Dean's Beans Organic Coffee Company

Dean Cycon
You are ready to launch. And the world is waiting for you. You are launching into a rapidly and profoundly changing world. A world where the dynamics of all major systems are in flux. Ecology, war and peace, religion, women's rights, indigenous self-determination, human rights, economic fairness, gender, availability and safety of the very food we eat. The list goes on.

At the same time, you are ready to launch into a contextual world. We are swaddled by the social and cultural contexts of each society we encounter, as well as the contexts that assault us through media. Thousands of images each minute tell us what we should think, what we should wear, what we should eat, who we are.

Fortunately, you have spent the last several years here at Hampshire, where even within the tumult and chaos of our world you have had space to breathe, encouragement to explore for yourselves and in your own way who you are, and how you are preparing yourself to engage the chaos outside.

But who are you? What are the values you hold dearest? What is the moral and ethical lens through which you view the world? How much are you prepared to give up or to put at risk for your values? My experience has shown me that it is less important to know what you are going to do, than to know who you are. Doing unfolds.

You will probably do many things before you settle in and merge your true being with a doing that is true to who you are. As you ready to launch, that will not be an easy path. Besides the assault of society and culture mentioned earlier, you have other dynamics to deal with. Banks will tell you to go for the best buck so that you can pay back your loans and begin the march towards whatever level of material comfort you seek. Your parents may be anxious for you to get into a career track to satisfy their own, well-intended vision of who they want you to be, of who they think you are. Fear may hold you back from stepping into your full power.

After graduating Williams College in 1975, and much to the chagrin of my parents, I began a two-year odyssey around the world, searching for my elusive self and trying to find the doing that felt right. The Vietnam war had just ended, Richard Nixon left the presidency in disgrace after Watergate, the Beatles were no more. There were no cell phones, no laptops, no email, no web, not even any ATM's. What a primitive world! I took to the road. I taught English in Japan, so that I could live in Asia and see for myself how people actualized all that I had read about Zen Buddhism, Taoism and other philosophies of the East. I lived with Karen tribespeoples in Thailand and Burma, turned cow manure into methane gas in India during the Emergency and an Ira on the brink of an Islamic Revolution, got thrown out of Iran for threatening the life of a public official and had to hitchhike from Tehran to London through a crumbling Yugoslavia and Bosnia. I was traveling the Asia overland route into Europe at a time when the great debate was how to structure a New World Economic Order, with a fairer distribution of wealth between the North and the South. A struggle that continues today.

My experiences overseas strengthened my desire to participate in social change, to make the world a fairer, better place. I applied to Law school, Nursing school and Anthropology graduate school, thinking that any of these paths would give me valuable skills to use in service to whatever world community I focused upon. I was accepted in all, but as it was already October I chose Law school, which allowed me to begin at January midterm and gave me a hefty scholarship. So my life's path was determined not where my soul sang its song, but where the time and money made an easier path.

During law school I worked part time for environmental groups, and when I graduated I went to a Wall Street firm, thinking that for a few years I could get the best training and really get into the belly of the beast. It was the hardest three years of my life. Not because of the long hours and intense research work, but because I was so often in boardrooms where the conversations took on the tones of Ludlum or Tolstoy novels, where ethics gave way to plotting for a favorable outcome for the client. I must say it was not always like that, but the highest good for society was rarely the goal and that was too much for me. At the same time, while helping organize the famous No Nukes rally in Manhattan on behalf of an anti-nuke group, I met several Native American activists, who told me that if I really wanted to understand nuclear issues, I needed to get out to the reservations, to see where the fuel cycle started. I did, and my life was changed yet again. I went back to Yale Law School for an advanced degree, which allowed me to dig deeply into the evolving regime for indigenous rights internationally as well as continue studying environmental law. I spent two years at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, researching and writing about the impact of development on indigenous fishing communities around the world. I practiced international business law in Providence at a firm that allowed me to continue volunteer work on reservations, and I taught part time at URI.

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 is, but 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 long-time 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 brushfires started by corporate greed and lack of awareness.

Does this sound like I was out of control, careening from one thing to another? Yes and no. The doing was changing, yet I was still seeking my path, the one that was right for me morally, spiritually, temperamentally.

My doing shifted again after I gave a public lecture on the real causes of deforestation in Brazil. A professor came up to me and said that he had a friend who owned a coffee shop in Providence, bought coffee from Brazil and knew how poor the farmers were. He wanted to help, would I be willing to talk with him? The three of us met and immediately formed Coffee Kids, the first nonprofit development group dedicated to the coffeelands. Bill Fishbein, the shop owner, would raise money from the coffee industry and I would go into the villages and design projects that met the needs of the coffee families. Since the majority of farmers were indigenous peoples, a fourth world within their own nations, I was delirious. For several years we did good, solid development work throughout Central America and a great water project in Sumatra.

One day, things shifted again. I was watching the inauguration of a small well project in Guatemala. A charity-minded coffee company would give us five thousand dollars to build the well. The company would take the pictures and the story and trumpet their good works to the consumer. But the company would continue to pay very low prices to the farmers. Nothing really changed. 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 thought, "what would it look like if the company simply paid these people a meaningful price for their coffee? Could they ultimately build their own well if that was their choice and not need the charity of the company?" Further, I thought, "what would it look like if instead of just buying the coffee and walking away, the company took some responsibility for the chronic state of underdevelopment of these communities, caused by centuries of unfair trade systems, colonialism and socio-political oppression by the majority culture within their own state?" And if the company was a for profit company and could still make a profit under this totally unique business model, what excuses would all the other coffee companies have to behave any differently?

In that moment of clarity and reflection in 1993, Dean's Beans was born. I started with a little roaster and eight bags of coffee. I was teaching part-time, still doing a little law on the side. I would only buy organic coffee because I was aware of the impact on the third world environment and farmer's health from pesticides used on coffee - many of which were banned for use in the U.S. I would only buy from small farms and cooperatives that were largely made up 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 underdevelopment. And I would travel and continue my life-long love affair with the lands and peoples of the planet.
Dean Cycon of Dean's Beans
The ideals of Dean's Beans and the quality of our coffee soon took hold. We grew slowly, steadily and conscientiously. Many people said we would be "the Ben and Jerry's of coffee," but that company was transforming rapidly into just another big business ultimately owned by a multinational, with rich but disgruntled founders. No thanks. I wasn't doing this to become a "grow it and sell it" millionaire. Nor did I want to cash in on my "social responsibility" as the new owners kept the public personae but hollowed out the core principles of the business - a frequent dynamic with "progressive" businesses these days. I was trying to develop and prove a new business model - one based on respect, ethics and justice - to support my family and employees, and to have a good time doing it. The model had to be flexible, as well. We needed to be able to change our approach to development, pricing and any other aspect of our relationship with the farmers that time and experience revealed might need adjustment. This approach drove my mainstream business buddies crazy, as flexibility and being more dedicated to the process than to the ultimate size of the bottom line clashed with their world of plans, projections and growth targets.

To me, the heart of our work is what we call People-Centered Development, based on the model I created at Coffee Kids. It is not fancy and does not require a PhD. It requires an open mind, an open heart and the ability to listen and think outside of the box, sort of like what I expect is at the heart of the Hampshire experience. We meet with the farmers, women's groups and other local organizations and discuss their goals and their priorities. Then together, we design a project that addresses some of these expressed priorities, and we fund it from the sales of Dean's Beans coffee, not from governments or churches but from our own business money. The projects are as diverse as the cultures and situations we meet. In Nicaragua we started the first café/roasterie in that country, with all profits going to support a prosthetic clinic that gives free prosthetics and therapy to landmine victims and rural poor. This was in reaction to the need to provide such support for the many landmine victims, men, women and children, who continue to be hurt by landmines for old conflicts. As this project matured, we found that landmines were a significant problem in coffee communitiea round the world, so we expanded the program into a Trust, partnering with the Polus Center from Petersham, to provide prosthetics, therapy and job skills to affected peoples so far in Colombia, Honduras and Nicaragua, with Peru, Vietnam and Angola on the immediate horizon. At the café in Nicaragua, post therapy clients can work if they choose in a good paying job with high visibility, helping to bring dignity and the ability to support their families to our partners.

In Guatemala, we have been working for years with an indigenous women's health training program called APROS, and we combined the program with a microloan/village bank to allow the women a meaningful economy as they were getting health training and to support the health program over time. Within four years of inception, the program became self-funding - the world's first self-funding women's health care program. This year the program expanded to include indigenous teen aged girl self-esteem and empowerment. That program is incorporating a scholarship fund so that girls who participate in the program will have a chance for an education that gender politics and economics too often deny them. As you may know, I am donating my speaker's fee for today to CHICA! The girls group facilitating the program was founded by three Amherst high school girls earlier this year. One of them is my daughter, Sarah, of whom I am immensely proud.

Our People-centered development program created a revolving loan fund for wells in Ethiopia, funded training of the first organic inspector in Kenya, created a reforestation program reclaiming sacred lands of the Ashaninkas in Peru, is sponsoring men overcoming gender based violence training in Rwanda, and much, much more.

Our model evolved. Three years ago we began a profit sharing system with all of the far coops we work with. Every year we deliver an amount equal to six cents per pound for every pound of Peruvian, Ethiopian and so on that we sell, directly back to the farmers for use in whatever way they deem appropriate. In Peru, the money has been used to fund a women's microloan project. The first woman used her loan to send her son to university. The first coop member ever to do so. In Timor, the profit share is used annually to buy medicines for the rural clinics staffed by Timorese doctors and nurses. In Ethiopia, schools are being built in part with this money.

Our commitment to trade justice includes fair trade in the toolbox. Far beyond a price floor for the hard times, fair trade brings for the first time to many communities democratic process and a voice to marginalized farmers in their own economic lives. Fair Trade provides a place where women can claim their power and place within the cooperative structure. It is no accident that half of the coops we partner with around the world are managed by women. These are the aspects of fair trade that the dabblers and the marketers neither know nor understand. Yet these are the dynamics of justice that are bringing meaningful change to international trade in coffee.

The doing unfolds. I have told you my story because of my profound belief that justice, that our engagement in this world is a process, not a formula. I had no idea that the vehicle for my life's work, for the ability to challenge myself to manifest my highest values would be as a coffee roaster. When I was ready to launch in 1975 I didn't even drink the stuff.

The lesson here is that your next big challenge is not to find the right job. It is to find yourselves in our chaotic and confusing world. The world needs you right now not to be a lawyer or a professor necessarily, but to be your authentic self, exactly who you are. As you go forward and keep working on your selves, your values and your relationship to the world, the vehicle for your life's work will unfold before you in time. You are truly ready to launch.

Thank you.

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