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Community Building Equal Exchange and People of Faith

by Peter Buck

This week’s guest blogger is Peter Buck of Equal Exchange.  EE is a worker-owned co-operative of fully committed fair traders, founded in 1986. They purchase, process and sell coffee, tea, chocolate, nuts, berries and bananas from forty small farmer co-operatives in twenty countries. Read on to learn how one of the pillars of success is Equal’s unique relationship to communities of faith.

Adrienne Fitch-Frankel pointed out in a post to this blog that, ” . . . communities of faith are among our society’s most important champions of social justice”.  This is certainly true in Equal Exchange’s experience with investors, partners and customers:

  • In the late 1980s, several congregations of Catholic women, including Dominican Sisters and Sisters of St Joseph, were among our early, critical investors.
  • In 1997, we recognized the importance of our faith relationships when we started a “Coffee Project” partnership with Lutheran World Relief, to jointly market coffee and other Fair Trade products to Lutheran congregations.
  • In thirteen years, the Interfaith Program has expanded to twelve such partnerships, including with Catholic Relief Services, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Islamic Relief and other national, faith-based relief and development organizations.
  • Our relationships also include many allies like Heartbeats and the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America in Cleveland and the Jubilee Justice Task Force of the United Church of Christ.

With the help of partners, allies and hundreds of local activists, the Interfaith Program sells over one million pounds of products from small farmer co-operatives to ten thousand communities of faith. This represents about a quarter of Equal Exchange’s sales.

As a Catholic, and a Worker/Owner and Interfaith Program Representative, I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to put my faith into action. I also find that action strengthens my faith.

I spend a lot of my time-visiting churches and schools and attending conferences-with people who are faithful, engaged and inspiring, and who are willing to put a lot of effort and creativity into “moving coffee (or chocolate, or tea) for the farmers”. Our Interfaith Partners put in long hours organizing marketing and education to promote Equal Exchange; parishioners bring coffee to their churches for fellowship after services, and organize regular sales; activists promote Fair Trade in the regional conferences of their denominations; clergy spread the word to other clergy; campus ministers and their inspired students bring us to their campuses.

Over the last ten years, Equal Exchange has led about 300 people of faith on delegations to visit farmer co-ops. I have led four delegations, to El Salvador and Mexico. Delegations can involve some physical discomfort, and emotional challenge in confronting the realities of poverty, injustice and struggle. It is inspiring to see a delegate facing these challenges-maybe for the first time-struggling to make sense of their experience and think about how to bring it back home. It is even more inspiring to participate when the delegates help each other process our experiences, in the light of our faith.

This community of farmers, activists, investors, Interfaith partners, customers and Equal Exchange worker/owners is the Interfaith Program.

1 Comments

  1. HI Peter,

    It was great to hear about yours and Equal Exchange’s interfaith program. What an amazing collective of networks and alliances your community of faith represents.

    It is interesting to note that while fair trade morphs and re-morphs into various new forms (it seems almost on a monthly basis), the support that spiritual communities have offered since its inception seems to remain constant and unswerving.

    Tradewinds is a wonderful Australian fair trade and community aid organization with a similar spiritual base and supporting community.

    The one aspect of spirituality and fair trade where I have reservations is the potential for fairer trading support to become a platform for achieving ‘missionary’ objectives and imposing spiritual beliefs among the producer groups?

    I was wondering if you would be willing to offer your thoughts and experiences in relation to this possibility.

    Many thanks
    Scott

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