Beyond Fair Trade: Building Just Relationships

Jan Taddeo and JenJoy Roybal travelled with the UU College of Social Justice to Nicaragua in February 2017 to explore the power of fair trade to improve the lives of producers and help consumers live their values in collaboration with UUSC partner Equal Exchange. To learn more about this program or register for the next journey visit


It’s been eight months since I journeyed to Nicaragua with the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) for their Beyond Fair Trade: Building Just Relationships immersion journey. Every morning when I drink my coffee, I am reminded of the many intricacies associated with this journey. Nicaragua is a beautiful country, with a very complicated historical relationship with the United States. The people we engaged with during our journey were warm and welcoming, and their lives are complex. The Equal Exchange coffee I drink each morning takes an intricate journey to arrive at my breakfast table.

Preparation and trust

The preparation for our journey to Nicaragua included several weeks of reading, learning, and reflecting on the history of the country, and the history of U.S. involvement in Central America. Not knowing this history prior to committing to the trip, I was overwhelmed with the stories of our entanglement, interference, military involvement, and economic influence. I wasn’t quite sure how we would be received by the other participants. On the one hand, Nicaraguans have many reasons to be wary, distrustful, and fearful of Americans. On the other hand, many U.S. citizens came to Nicaragua to support the people in their struggle. However, I need not have been concerned; we were met with great hospitality and trust.

The greatest example of the trust placed in us showed up in our first meeting with the leadership of the farming cooperative in Quibuto. After an enthusiastic game of “Todos mis amigos y vecinos” (all my friends and neighbors) to break the ice, the co-op leaders gave a presentation about their needs and concerns as farmers. Their presentation included details of their costs, from planting the seeds to harvesting and processing the crops. They shared a breakdown of how much money they receive from the larger co-op that buys the crops from the small farmers, how much that co-op receives from Equal Exchange, and their understanding of how much Equal Exchange makes on a pound of coffee. They explained the challenges they face in obtaining deeds for the land so they can plant more coffee, and the hardships of weather, blight, and infestations that can wipe out crops that take three years to mature.

Representatives from Equal Exchange engaged in a deep conversation about the forces that impact the creation and distribution of coffee with the co-op leaders. It was a difficult and fascinating conversation, even when everyone was speaking the same language. We asked questions which led to more discussion, and it was an honor to be invited in and trusted. We learned that even though this is a fair-trade relationship between Equal Exchange and this small farming cooperative, it is still a difficult life, in part because coffee is a complex crop.

Experiential learning with UUCSJ

I never thought too much about what a coffee plant looks like, how it grows, or how it turns into the coffee we drink. On this journey, we followed the trail from coffee seed to coffee bean to coffee tasting. We drove by fields of coffee bushes devastated by rust. We saw seedlings that were just a few months old and learned that they would not produce fruit for three years. We climbed the side of the mountainous landscape to reach the coffee bushes living under the shade of giant eucalyptus trees (did you know coffee grew on bushes?). We were taught how to tell when the coffee cherries are ripe and had the opportunity to harvest them. It’s much harder than it looks!

Back at one of the homes in the village, we helped unload giant bags of coffee cherries, dumped them into a bin that was attached to a depulper, and ran the cherries through it. We assisted in washing the naked beans, gently swishing them in the trough with a large paddle to allow the good beans to float to the top and the unripe beans and debris to sink to the bottom.

Then we took buckets of beans up to the large drying racks in the front yard. There the farmers would carefully sort through the beans, separating the top-quality beans from the lower quality beans. The best beans are the ones that move forward to the next level of processing at the larger coop, which then ships the beans all over the world. In touring that facility on our way out of the village, we also got to visit the tasting room! Yum!

The coffee we drink that comes from Nicaragua, and from many other countries, has a complicated history with the land, and a complex life from seedling to the cup of steaming coffee on the breakfast table. The people who grow the coffee work harder than I ever imagined, and they lead humble lives compared to mine.


This was not a service journey; this was a cultural learning experience that challenged me, and transformed me.

We stayed three days in Quibuto, living with the families, getting to know their children, grieving with them when the sudden death of young man shocked the community, and celebrating with them at a big community party on our last evening together. We discussed a wide range of topics with the people we stayed with, depending on our language skills. Some heard their stories from the revolution or enjoyed deep theological conversations. Not knowing Spanish, I got to know my family through dancing with them to the rock music their 17-year-old nephew put on the radio. I brought color pencils and paper, and the children and teens drew beautiful pictures for me. I managed to learn that my host’s niece is attending nursing school at the university. Being a vegan, I was a bit of a mystery to them, yet they accommodated me with great generosity and the best rice and beans I’ve ever had. I promised my family that I will return, next time fluent in Spanish. This is a promise I intend to keep.

There is so much more to share about this journey…this was just one small part of our experience. We visited many places, met incredible people, and heard profoundly inspiring stories of resilience, perseverance, and the power of love to overcome great challenges. This was not a service journey; this was a cultural learning experience that challenged me, and transformed me. I look forward to returning.

This post was originally published at and has been slightly edited.

In Their Own Words: Keeping the Flame Alive

An Interview with Dick Scobie

Dick Scobie was executive director of UUSC from 1972 to 1998. The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Scobie about UUSC’s history.

Leveraging UUSC’s work for maximum impact

How do you leverage? How do you focus? How do you have real impact in terms of social justice outcomes? These are key questions that UUSC started to look at during my tenure. On one hand, if you want to have any lasting impact on institutional oppression, you have to pick specific leverage points very carefully and be very focused. You need staff who are very good, very expert, sometimes very courageous people, and who are able to work with very small budgets. At the same time, since you are an organization that is trying to serve as an instrument for Unitarian Universalist individuals and congregations to engage in some of these issues on a more general level, you’re looking at a very different set of actions.

One important accomplishment related to this was the establishment of UUSC’s new mission with its focus on human rights. Another was to reorganize our program so that there would be synergy between three major components: (1) local projects and partnerships in the United States and internationally, (2) educating and mobilizing our members for action, and (3) lobbying for our policy objectives in Washington. Times when I would be most happy around the office was when I saw these pieces working together — when I saw a staffer in Washington lobbying with information that we had only because of projects at the local level and having with them people who were UUs active in the congressperson’s district able to speak knowledgeably about those issues.

Focusing on justice

Another example of leverage is when it came to disaster relief, we needed to ask how we could appropriately get involved, given our small size and our focused on advancing justice rather than simply serving human need. So we tried to work with communities that were, even before the disaster, precarious, maybe for reasons of race or class or gender. And to do empowerment work, not just simply relief work. I think we first began using that approach in Eritrea and Ethiopia during the mid-‘80s when there was a horrific famine throughout the Horn of Africa, made 100 times worse by the fact that there were civil wars going on.

I feel very gratified that the motivating ideology of the organization remains focused on human rights and social justice, and I think UUSC is also constantly looking for opportunities in which a small organization can really bring about change to a degree that is disproportionate for its size. I see this in the water justice work UUSC is involved with. It’s a vital issue that opens up all kinds of questions about power and distribution and allows people to empower themselves.  

Empowering women

The work we did on women’s rights and reproductive rights was very important, and I see the international women’s movement as one of the most vital international movements that is happening. A lot of what we did provided opportunities for people in local nongovernmental and human rights organizations to get together in conference and workshop settings to learn from one another. They would tell us, “We appreciate the grant you were able to give us, but what really was most important was that it connected us to the broader movement and we learned from other people in other countries who were facing the same problems and who shared ways that they have approached it.” Thanks to significant funding from the MacArthur Foundation, we were able to support grassroots reproductive health projects in India, Africa, and the Caribbean.  

Working in Central America in the ‘70s and ‘80s

This program involved some risky, dangerous work by staff and our partners in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. We started with some programs in Guatemala and El Salvador that were empowering local campesinos [farmers] who had been subject to decades of political and economic oppression. Around this time, the repressive government and military started using death squads to eliminate anyone who was courageous enough to challenge the establishment. Some of the people who we had been working with were getting killed.

At a particularly grim moment in the late ‘70s, there was a protest in San Salvador that was crushed by the army. John McAward, who was the international programs director, and I went down and met with Oscar Romero, who was country’s Catholic archbishop. We sat in a little room with this very small, gentle man, and said, “What can we do?” And he said, “Tell the world — particularly tell the United States — what’s happening here. Because we really need help badly, and no one knows what’s happening.”

So John and I talked about what we could do as a small organization. We interviewed people who had been witness to the massacre. There was a young Peace Corps couple who saw trucks of bodies going by. We talked to doctors who had been at the hospital when the flood of wounded protesters and bodies came in. We wrote this all up and gave the report to a member of Congress, who was convening hearings about the situation in Central America.

John said, “What if we could get a member of Congress to come down and see with their own eyes what’s happening?” We thought they could talk to people who had been victims, to the press, to the priests, to the labor unions, to the farmers. We got Father Drinan, a congressman from Massachusetts, to go with us. John took him down, and it was an electrifying visit. Drinan then helped us identify other members of Congress and over the next decade, we took more than 30 from both the House and the Senate. I’m convinced that our work with Congress accelerated the shift away from seeking a military solution to seeking political solutions to each of the civil wars there. I’m convinced that this work hastened the end of the wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Keeping the flame alive

I think one of UUSC’s roles is to keep the flame alive, even in dark times. That may be more important than the particulars of any given program — to keep reminding people of what we’re all about and what values have led us to create and maintain and strengthen an organization like UUSC. Keeping the flame alive, knowing it’s an endless road and that the job is never going to be done. Hasta la victoria.