Nomadic Journeys for Social Justice

Two East Bay-based coffee and poetry purveyors interrogate systemic racism within their disparate industries.

You may think of your kitchen as an unlikely venue for an open mic — or that those coffee beans sitting in the cabinet are little more than a means to attaining a morning jolt. But fans of Nomadic Coffee know their breakfast nook is a cafe table and that their java is a spoken word artist. To quote the slip of paper tucked inside a recently packaged bag: “Voice and blood conjoin / under a sky of blasted / chrysanthemums.”

The poem, “Tonight Calls for Poultice,” was written by Randy James, who holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. James is just one of hundreds of poets whose work can be discovered in local grocery aisles through a collaboration between Nomadic Coffee and Nomadic Press, a worker-owned cooperative coffee company and a literary nonprofit respectively.

It was serendipity that brought Nomadic Coffee founder Thomas Landry and Nomadic Press founder J.K. Fowler together years ago. After realizing their brands shared the same name, Fowler asked himself, “What would it look like if the press and the coffee merged in some way?” 

Kim Shuck, the seventh poet laureate of San Francisco, was featured in Nomadic Coffee’s bags. Photo courtesy of Nomadic Coffee Facebook

The answer is a two-year-long project that blends the best of their worlds — poetry and coffee in every Nomadic Coffee bag. The Berkeley and Oakland-based outfits assign quarterly editors to pick a new piece each week.

“I do think it’s unique. I don’t know of any other companies putting poems in coffee bags,” Fowler says.

Landry believes that the power of poetry rests in its ability to serve as a kind of visionary catharsis — a premonition of what could be. “It’s not prescriptive, and it opens people’s minds to other possibilities,” he says. 

In the beginning, however, the Nomadic partnership was limited by its roster of dead white poets. As the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized more protests in 2020 than any other year in United States history, white folks in the deep-blue Bay Area joined the debate of what allyship looks like. And Fowler and Landry realized that they could be doing better.

“The representation wasn’t reflective of the Bay Area [and] writers in general in America right now,” Fowler says of the poems.

The two decided that white writers should only make up 10 percent of the selected poets for their coffee bags. They applied a similar lens to their editors, recruiting more writers of color to join their ranks. 

This work was perhaps made more urgent because of coffee’s history, which is inextricably linked to colonialism and exploitation. For example, it’s common for a coffee buyer to go to coffee farms and take photos of farmers and their families without permission, without compensating those people, or without translating the consent forms into the appropriate language. These images — commonly of Black, Latinx, and Asian farmers — are usually published on the bags of coffee as a marketing tactic. The practice is so pervasive there is an entire book aimed at countering that narrative called Coffee, Milk, Blood, by writer Vava Angwenyi.

“Coffee is trying to do its part, but there’s a long, long way to go,” Landry says. “We’re challenging hierarchy. So many work environments, even non-profits, emulate traditional top-down approaches. Both of our organizations are trying to say ‘relationships can be different.’” 

Fowler agrees.

“Guy on the donkey in the canyon,” Fowler says, referring to the U.S.-made fictional character of Juan Valdez, ever-prevalent on certain Colombian-coffee-packaging. “We operate within an ultra-capitalist society, and coffee is an ultra-capitalist enterprise.”

Fowler and Landry are keenly aware of the colonial history of the products they are pursuing. While the structure seems impenetrable, they believe that it is in those small moments that make change.

They’re not alone. Tongo Eisen-Martin, a Bay Area born-and-raised activist and San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate, was a recently featured poet and editor. Writing to SF Weekly over Instagram, he says he believes that the Nomadic project is an instrument of the people.

“They flow from and into Black and brown resistance so seamlessly and completely; they are a rail of track in the circulatory system of the radical imagination,” Eisen-Martin said.

The unrest and momentum that came in 2020 was long overdue in these two men’s minds. “The ‘what happens in a pinch moment’ might be the most important,” Fowler says. “Speed is a partner of white supremacy. If we slow down, a lot of those power structures fall apart by themselves because they survive on a false sense of urgency.”

“White supremacy has always been present in the literary community. Consciousness and intentionality has been big for Nomadic Press for years. We just keep doing the work,” Fowler adds.

And for Nomadic Coffee, the work extends well beyond poetry, especially in the coffee supply chain, where pay is rarely ever fair. Landry hopes for a future where progress, liberation, and equity can be actualized, with one cup of coffee and one poem at a time.

“We have to lift up people who are part of the food chain of coffee,” Landry says.

An earlier version of this story identified both Thomas Landry and J.K. Fowler as white men. Fowler identifies as a person of color. The story also stated that the Nomadic Press and Nomadic Coffee poetry partnership has been ongoing since 2012. That is incorrect. The partnership is about two years old.

Paolo Bicchieri is an intern at SF Weekly. Twitter @paoloshmaolo

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