It all started with a few cups of coffee.
Four years ago, Sarah Adams Bigney was a student worker at the Oakes Room Café in the University of Maine’s Fogler Library, drinking down almost as many lattes as she was serving up, when she started to wonder about all that coffee she was handling. Where was it coming from? Who were the workers harvesting the coffee beans? Under what conditions does coffee go from tree to cup?
Those questions took her in her senior year at UMaine to the Chiapas region of Mexico, where she met, interviewed, researched and photographed workers for her honors thesis about fair trade coffee. That experience, in turn, led Bigney to her current job as an organizer for the Lewiston-based Maine Fair Trade Campaign, a coalition of around 60 organizations such as labor unions, environmental and human rights groups, and farm coalitions.
“I drink coffee every day, love it and a lot of people do. But I never even thought where it comes from, what it looks like,” says Bigney, who traveled to Mexico through the School for International Training, which gives its students a month of independent research time at the end of the semester.
“It’s mind-blowing. And once you start asking that about one thing in your life, you have to start asking that about your food, clothes, everything you buy. It can be very overwhelming, but for some reason coffee has been a product people can start that process with.”
The fair trade movement, an understanding of which has in recent years come into the mainstream, attempts to connect the producer of a product with its consumer, and therefore giving the consumer an understanding of where the product originates, and how and by whom it is produced.
Advocates feel free trade often does not go far enough in protecting workers’ rights or addressing environmental concerns.
For her job with the Maine Fair Trade Campaign, Bigney travels all over Maine to meet with both laid-off and employed manufacturing workers, environmentalists, labor activists – basically anyone who has a stake in trade policy. Her goal is to help them understand how they are affected by free-trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, and also encourage them to share their personal stories. The goal is to amplify the workers’ voices in the public arena, so that the real impact on people can be factored in to the legislative process when Congress is making decisions about trade policy.
“This is different from the fair trade work I was doing as an undergraduate but it’s still the same objectives of supporting workers’ rights and environmental sustainability,” says Bigney, who majored in international affairs and political science with a minor in peace studies. “Now I’m going at it from the policy side instead of the purchasing side. The manufacturing base has been hit hard by trade policy, so our work is really about trying to save the jobs we have and hopefully creating new jobs.”
Since the passage of NAFTA in 1994, Bigney says, Maine has lost more than 31,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector alone. The Maine Fair Trade Campaign claims, based on Department of Labor statistics, that those jobs have gone to workers in places such as Mexico, China and Malaysia.
Bigney traces her ability to build a rapport with Maine workers in part to the research she did in Mexico.
“I showed up on top of a mountain in Chiapas and said, ‘Hi, can you tell me about your life, about the coffee?’” she says. “For the most part, laid-off workers want to tell their story, and they’re really warm and friendly. But occasionally you do get, ‘Who is this girl coming here, trying to talk to me?’ It requires a similar set of skills.”
A Bangor native, Bigney had hoped to leave the area for college. But after taking a year off following her high school graduation, during which time she worked in an orphanage in Chile, Bigney enrolled at UMaine.
“Orono is so close to Bangor that it’s like your backyard, so it’s hard to get excited to come here,” Bigney says. “I told everyone the first four weeks that I was transferring. But then I fell in love with it and had a blast. I tell everyone everywhere I go that they should go to UMaine.”
She dove into student life, helping found the Progressive Student Alliance and working to draw students’ attention to statewide referenda involving social issues.
Becoming involved in those activities, combined with her love of coffee, helped Bigney form a connection for her thesis.
“The thesis what I’m most proud of from my undergraduate experience and what I learned the most from in terms of improving my writing and research skills,” says Bigney, a 2007 UMaine graduate. “Even though it was challenging, it was the best part of my academic experience at UMaine. And it’s still a part of my life.”
Indeed, in August 2010 Bigney, along with thesis advisor Mark Haggerty, the Rezendes Preceptor for Civic Engagement, and Stephanie Welcomer, the associate dean of UMaine’s College of Business and an associate professor of management, presented Bigney’s thesis at the Academy of Management Conference in Montreal.
Welcomer and Bigney will co-lead a group of UMaine-based Maine Business School graduate students on a trip in December 2011 to Nicaragua, where they can earn course credit and get an up-close look at the connections between coffee and fair trade.
But these days, coffee isn’t just an academic exercise for Bigney. Considering how much driving she does in Maine, she needs a jolt of caffeine every now and then.
“If it’s not at least fair trade, then I know where it’s coming from because I’ve talked to the owners,” says Bigney, who was pleased during a recent visit to campus to see the pro-fair trade stickers she put up years ago in the Oakes Room were still there. “I’m pretty picky about my coffee.”