What we award when we award awards…
A career might be compared to a meal at a new restaurant’s community table: you find a seat and introduce yourself and start slowly, cautiously; you might introduce yourself or sit back and watch the others for a bit. Perhaps you’ll have a sip of wine, or, more carefully, a glass of iced tea, maybe even a bite of bread. You’ll look to see what others order, and who knows whom.
You might start out with an appetizer or a light snack. This first course could be considered your internship or probationary period. Then you dive into the main course — years of hard work. If you’re lucky, and you love what you do, this is the best part. Dessert, obviously, is where you sit back and reflect on the entire meal, the company…you may have gotten to know a couple of people at the table over the course of the meal; you may feel persuaded, especially if you’ve had a glass of wine or two, to make a toast to someone who you believe added something special to the evening.
It is that toast at the end of a glorious meal that an industry award might be compared to. We want to recognize those who added to our enjoyment of the meal, even if we both eyed the same drumstick, or rib, before yielding up one for the other.
Granted, a forty-year career is a much more complex undertaking than an evening’s meal, but the sentiment of wanting to acknowledge those who contributed to our enjoyment and nourishment is the same.
In the coffee industry, and in the specialty coffee industry especially, this comparison works particularly well because so many of us enjoy the companionship of a great meal. We also appreciate the craft, artistry, and artisanal expertise that go into making a great meal come together, perhaps because that effort is so similar to all that goes into making a great cup of coffee.
The official awards that our trade organization, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, has bestowed upon the various participants and allies of our industry, over the years have been a group effort and a work in progress. As a group, we’ve wanted to acknowledge past accomplishment but also to motivate and inspire future breakthroughs and success. It is hard to say which aspect is more important.
Competing with and sometimes enhancing those two desires is a third more complex endeavor, one that is not as manifestly selfless but finally just as important. We want to ally ourselves with and nurture those who can bring future benefit to us: through their good name; through their recognition of us; or through the resources they can bring to us, whether out of their own good will or mutual benefit. It may be viewed as crass to consider this third aspect, but it is sometimes the sole reason many non-profit organizations give awards to their community members at all. Rather than ignore the fact that we want to praise those whose prominence might bring more to us than our award will impart to them, we are better off acknowledging this as a natural part of the award dynamic and ensure that it is conducted transparently and forthrightly.
It must be noted that not all awards or motivations driving them originate from a genuine desire to help the industry as a whole, but rather to help particular persons or companies. It is even possible for certain individuals to gain a reputation for the ability to ensure that certain awards are granted to certain members. Whether this is done out of some notion of camaraderie or –worst case– cash up-front, it obviously doesn’t serve the interests of the industry as a whole and tarnishes the process, and the meaning of the award.
This past year, thanks to the efforts of the SCAA’s immediate past chair, Paul Thornton, a codified procedure was put into place for collecting nominations for the SCAA’s Annual Recognition Awards, vetting them, and presenting them to the board for approval. In the past that process has lacked coherence, much less commonsense, in some cases.
The SCAA’s board and membership have adopted a number of award categories over the years to acknowledge and motivate excellent achievement in a number of categories. Some of these awards are more naturally presented to someone in mid-career (or earlier) and some others, the Life Achievement Award in particular, at the conclusion of one’s work-life.
An example of an award designed to motivate and inspire both the awardee and other members of the industry is the SCAA’s newest award, the Distinguished Newcomer Award. This award, being presented for the first time in 2015, is designed to acknowledge “a coffee professional of 5 or less years whose significant contributions have made an impact, change of course, significant insight or added value within the coffee industry.” Such an award, it is hoped, will not only inspire others to excel in their contributions to the industry at the earliest stage of their career but also encourage the recipient to continue with his or her contributions well into the future.
Speaking of “his or her,” it should be noted that every effort is always made to solicit as many nominations as possible and that the awardees, as a group, invariably represent a cross-section of those nominated. Those that claim to have an interest in greater diversity after the awardees are announced perhaps should consider participating earlier in the process next year when the call for nominations is made, rather than after the fact. Ironically, the call for nominations was reopened twice this year, and yet the complaints with regard to the overall diversity of the awardees were the shrillest.
Healthy democracies with diverse, representative legislative bodies depend upon active, engaged participation, barring any impediments to that participation. The awards process of our industry also depends upon its members bringing forth as many deserving nominees as possible in time for them to be considered. While perhaps addressing an area of concern and starting a discussion, complaining after the fact does little to directly correct the situation.
Perhaps, it is time for us, as an industry, to encourage more diverse participation from outside our trade than presently exists. Despite the vibrant participation of a relatively few very dynamic women, our trade is still male dominated, especially at its highest echelons of corporate leadership. One look around the room at any industry gathering will quickly show that our group has more work to do with regard to ethnic diversity. The person or group that spearheads that initiative might even be deserving of an award, perhaps The Special Recognition Award*, and surely a toast.
* “…is an individual award in recognition of a person’s special contribution of self to the SCAA. These contributions may include but are not limited to dedication of time, volunteerism, contributions of professional skill, exemplary work on a specific SCAA project, or other notable contribution of self. Importantly, the contributions should be above and beyond the everyday and have had a long lasting impact on the Association.”