"I think we have a debt to pay."
Fingers speaks with J Nikol Jackson-Beckham, Ph.D., about building pipelines and burning down institutions in the U.S. craft beer industry
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I first spoke with J Nikol Jackson-Beckham, Ph.D. back in 2015 for this piece that maybe-annoyed the country’s most prominent Black brewmaster. Then I called “Dr. J,” as she’s enviably known professionally, again for this cultural history of malt liquor that Ice Cube declined to participate in. (Side note: How dare he!)
More recently, I centered her in my first/only story in the New York Times, examining her newly minted status as the first-ever “diversity ambassador” for the industry’s largest trade group.
That last story ran in January 2019, approximately 14 lifetimes ago. Everything has changed since then, both outside the beer space and within it, and notably the mainstream reckoning over America’s hand-in-hand legacies of disaster capitalism and white supremacy—neither of which, prior to the coronavirus pandemic’s debut in March and a white cop killing George Floyd in May, were as firmly planted in the mainstream as they deserved to be.
Meanwhile, hard seltzer has continued to matter-of-factly disembowel American craft brewers’ closely held fantasies about the importance of quality and independence, while some (certainly not all, and definitely not none) of those very same brewers show their asses by posting #AllLifeMatters, boasting proudly about gentrifying “dying” neighborhoods, and generally cavorting about as though they’re run by a cohort comparatively wealthy and privileged white folks at lower risks for death-by-COVID or -cop than their BIPOC fellow citizens. (Not surprisingly: they mostly are!)
Since way before any of this, and right up to the present moment, Dr. J has been hard at work on a bunch of different projects aimed at making the craft beverage space more equitable, inclusive, and economically empowering for marginalized Americans.
In late July, we spoke about some of her latest projects, and how things have changed, and how that change—and more—can happen. Check out two of her projects, Craft x EDU and Crafted for All, and consider making donations if you can afford to. (Disclosure: your Fingers editor is a monthly donor to Crafted for All.)
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dave Infante, Fingers: Let’s get right into it. What are you drinking, and how much are you drinking these days?
Dr. J: Less than usual. Like, a lot less than usual. Just now, I went and bought a lot of saison, because summer is for saison. And then a lot of decently made and fairly inexpensive lager.
Decently Made and Fairly Inexpensive is going to be the title of my lager-themed novel someday.
Yeah [laughing politely at my bad joke], that has a special place in my heart right now.
Yeah, I have like a significantly limited contract [with the BA] because a good portion of my contract was traveling and speaking to state guilds, and that arm of state guild support is no longer in place at the BA. But I still work with the [BA] Diversity Committee; I'm still developing resources and helping them build some programs.
Maybe it had been gestating before this, but the #IAmCraftBeer hashtag was sort of a catalyst moment for Craft x EDU, right?
Yeah, it had been in the works since last summer, so like literally yesterday I got the “your Twitter account is one year old” [alert.] But you’re right: we chose to go public in conjunction with #IAmCraftBeer, because I was like “Okay, I don't know that I'm [ever] going to command any more attention than I am right now.”
It seemed like the opportune moment to kind of put the project out there. We did some board recruitment, founding documents, all that stuff over the fall, and then January 1 was our kind of, first day of operation.
When you say “we,” who are you talking about here?
So me, and the board of directors is just four other people.
Gotcha. But no employees for now, right?
No, no. Just me. I am the employee!
Can you describe the work you were hoping to do with Craft x EDU, before the pandemic hit?
Our kind of core programs were going to be these events called opportunity fairs. They are one-day events, usually held on the site of an educational or training institution. Our first fair was going to be at a historically Black college and university. We’ve been particularly looking for host institutions that serve communities that are traditionally underrepresented in craft brewing.
Each event has kind of three pieces. There’s a career expo: kind of like what you’d imagine, a job fair in a big room, lots of tables, people walking around to learn about what's going on. We don’t imagine this would be just a room full of breweries; in fact, breweries would probably only be a portion of those participating. We’d also be looking at [companies] from allied trades, distribution, raw ingredients… completely across the spectrum.
A lot of support from the industry, in terms of scholarship-making and granting and professional development, has been focused on technical brewing. Which is great, but there really are only so many technical brewing jobs…. There [are other] careers across the craft beer industry that we're trying to present with Craft x EDU.
Another piece [of the events] is what we're calling the Equity and Inclusion Academy. That would be essentially like a 1-2 hour professional session for the sponsor organizations that take place in the fair. That would really be about hiring and retaining diverse talent.
And then the final component is like a tasting/networking reception for attendees who want to have a little bit more of a one-on-one conversation with folks in the industry. [This] will also give some of our higher-tier sponsors a chance to share their products in their and get their brands in front of people.
Most of this came from my work traveling the country and talking to brewers. So many people have said, “We would like to hire more ‘fill in the blanks,’ but ‘fill in blanks’ don't apply for our jobs.” And I was always like “I really want to take away that excuse.”
I read your interview with Good Beer Hunting, you and Garrett Oliver, and you had that line in there about the “no pipeline” excuse. What is the biggest obstacle to pipeline development?
For me or for them?
For them, for brewers. Like, brewers that want to hire more “fill in the blanks.” You want them to develop that pipeline to make that possible. What’s the challenge?
I think the biggest challenge is intellectual. I think they’ve just never thought about a pipeline, and particularly as something that they have the power to shape, monitor, and alter. If [a brewer says] “We put this on our social [media] and we get the applications,” well, that's not an intellectual concept of pipeline, right?
That’s a very short pipeline, I guess.
It sounds so self-evident, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people and said “Who do you think looks at that? If you only post your job on BrewBound or ProBrewer, who do you think is gonna see it?” Often times it just takes them a moment [to figure out alternatives.]
There is a measure of restorative justice that the craft beer industry needs to do.
To me that’s such low-hanging fruit. I think another really important part for me [was] that these events take place in the spaces where under-represented populations are not under-represented. I wanted to get people out of the brewery and allow them to traverse spaces in which they are not at home, in which they are not ones holding the cards. Because I think there is also a little bit of a lack of awareness of the inherent politics of space.
That makes sense.
The other program areas [for Craft x EDU] we're looking are scholarship and grant programs. And that, we have not to do any curtailing of [due to the pandemic.]
Where does that money come from?
All from donors. For individual donors, we’re perhaps approaching 50, which ranges from people who have thrown us 20 bucks, to a five-figure donation from New Belgium [Brewing Company.] And then we received huge pop of donations quite recently as a result of several breweries donating their Black Is Beautiful proceeds to us.
2020 was going to be a development year for us in terms of scholarship and granting programs. We’re going to start scholarships and granting in 2021. That's more or less what we're doing. We've done some micro-granting, we gave away several “Business of Beer” bundles… we gave away three of those to Black-owned breweries in planning. But again, from the beginning we felt that technical brewing was a limited way to grant, and frankly, covered [by other organizations.] In terms of making an impact, we’re looking at [assisting] breweries who are starting up who are undercapitalized, or maybe they want to join their guild or join the [Brewers Association], or go to [Craft Brewers Conference], we can try to close some of those gaps.
Something that we talked about a year and a half ago was the need to “grow the pie” [i.e., enlarge the craft beer customer base] because the United States’ market is maturing. Can you do that without active participation of workers and owners who already have businesses in this space?
There has to be a workforce component to it. I don’t think it’s just about winning new fans. I think that's a simplistic way to think about it. Maybe like most rudimentary sense that might work, but I think there is a degree to which… I think the industry has to deliver on some of its promises in terms of being these community pillars. Personally, I think there is a measure of restorative justice we need to do.
Observationally, I don’t think anybody can argue that our industry hasn’t benefited from the dual forces of gentrification and displacement. Craft beer, at least in part, has been built upon inexpensive real estate in post-agro-industrial cities, or in urban spaces. That has contributed to race- and class-based gentrification. So for me, there’s a piece of restorative justice that I am deeply moved by. I think we have a debt to pay.
I would love for [the restorative justice] to be direct, like in the in the places where [displacement] has happened. But in some ways, I think that toothpaste is out of the tube. So I so I'm aiming for it to be abstract, and more more widespread.
You hear a lot that it's not Black people's jobs to do this work for everyone else. But I literally fucking signed up for this.
I think there’s a measure of community empowerment to conscientious community wealth-building that should be part of this equation. I think it starts with maybe not thinking about this as a transactional relationship: I need to be diverse so I need to get the diverse employees. It needs to be more like: We're taking, and we've been taking, but what do we give?
As the country has turned its collective focus much more closely to the ideas of racial and social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, it seems like a lot of people are coming to you looking for answers on what this means for the industry and how they can participate. Can you tell me a little bit about being on the receiving end of that interest?
Ugh. Jesus. Yeah… [sighs.] It’s been brutal. I’m not a deeply emotional person, but I’ve done more crying out of exhaustion, anger, and frustration over the last month than I think I’ve ever done. That’s related to why I’m not drinking as much—this is just too tenuous a time, and it’d be too easy to develop some unhealthy habits. The strain is crazy.
One of the narratives you hear a lot right now is that it's not Black people's jobs to do this work for everyone else. But I’m like… actually I literally fucking signed up for this.
So I think [I feel] an enormous sense of personal responsibility to try to respond to everything, and I can't because I’m one person. That's very hard. I think [I’ve had] a realization that there are those folks who [just] want to be responding, and those folks who want to do some like actual work. I’ve been having to learn how to separate those two.
If you want to call yourself an anti-racist activist, you can't wield privilege as a weapon.
There is [also] an unbelievable amount of like strain, as far as like, everybody who seems to be rowing the boat in the same direction [as] anti-racists… we all have disagreements about how that what that work should look like and how it should be done. It's almost like you're not just fighting racism, you’re almost fighting fellow activists sometimes. And that’s exhausting.
Well that’s the story of the American left, right? Eating its own.
I read a thread you posted a little while ago about the difference between “canceling” someone versus allowing for growth and education, and how you prefer the latter. It struck me as something Beer Twitter is wrestling with a lot lately. Can you articulate why canceling is not how you prefer to handle things?
Can you be a little more specific? Beer Twitter is…
Chaos. You’re right, good point. I’m talking about brewers who make offensive comments and get posted on @WorstBeerBlog and maybe double-down and then Beer Twitter seizes on them, and the dunks are brutal… like, there's an opportunity for growth in those instances, but brewers sometimes react like they’ve been attacked and then don't want to grow.
God, it’s so hard. There's two kind of prevailing schools of thought that are often out there. So I have very publicly kind of chosen to step into this space saying, “I'm not the police. I'm not going to be the arbiter of who's doing what wrong. I'm interested in learning and growth, and, and I will help you from there on, and I don't care how bad you fucked up because I’m going to be radically compassionate.” That's just how I feel. This work needs to be done.
Now, one question I get is, “Do you not recognize that the kind of space to learn and grow is one that is disproportionately offered to people in privilege?” Privileged people get to learn and grow; they get to fuck up and rebound. A lot of people don't get that, so by [giving some people that room] I am like perpetuating a power structure that is not positive.
If you’re going to tear it all down, tip me off so I can get out… but I’m going to work with what we have while we have it.
Secondarily, there is something important about being held to account, about accountability. The way that I do my work is light on accountability.
I accept both of those critiques as implicitly true. But I don't think I am a [solitary] force. I have always seen myself as part of a community of activists and people who are working for social justice. I'm bad at accountability politics! I did that for a good portion of my life, and I was a crazy bastard. I was just cutting down anything and everyone indiscriminately in ways that were ugly, and wielding my educational privilege, because I know how to make you feel stupid. But if you want to call yourself an anti-racist and an activist, you can't do this. You can’t wield privilege as a weapon. So I made a conscious decision to step away from that space.
There are others who are really good at making incisive critiques that hold people to account. I can point to others and say, “Yes, you're doing, you're doing this better than I ever could.” Will I give somebody a pass who doesn't deserve one? Yes I will. Will the politics of all that work itself out between me and all the other people who are doing this work? I think so.
People will often will reach out and say “I really admire that you have so much grace about this; like you don't seem to bite anybody’s head off.” One of the things that I always wish people understood is how much fucking energy it requires to swallow it all. I’m over here listening to early-‘90s hardcore, screaming my head off, just like, “Ah, fuck these people!” I've chosen not to work that way; it doesn't mean I don't feel upset. It doesn't mean I'm not angry as hell. It just means that’s not how I’ve chosen to do the work.
That strikes me as a good enough segway to the question I wanted to ask you about the BA situation. They've come under a ton of criticism recently, with people accusing the organization of being an antiquated, capitalist institution that gives cover to racism within its ranks. How do you have dialogue with people who are increasingly at odds over that?
At some point, I’m like, '“Yeah, you’re right.” It’s a trade institution that’s in the business of catering to the interests of business owners. That’s what it is by definition. I’m not going to argue with that. But it’s also one that for better or worse has been granted the power to do a lot of work. So I’m like, “Hey, if you’re going to tear it all down, tip me off so I can get out. [Laughs] But I’m going to work with what we have while we have it.”
I’ll say on-record that the BA is in a space right now where its leadership and membership are thinking about the intersections of social justice and business practice perhaps in ways it’s not dug in and thought about before. I think it’s been able to operate as if the two are wholly separate spheres. I think that might be true in a lot of trade organizations. In some ways, nonprofit status perpetuates that fiction. You run a certain kind of nonprofit, you’re not supposed to do certain types of advocacy.
I think, some of the things that have been said by Bob [Pease, the president and CEO of the BA] as he’s been speaking more frequently publicly, is that as a big, dispersed trade membership with a bureaucracy that was not quite ready for crisis… it is struggling to catch up right now. Layer on top of that a 66% drop in annual revenue and a 35% contraction in staff, and you have a situation that no organization can handle super-gracefully. It’s been a very challenging moment for the BA.
[Editor’s note: At this point, Dr. J asked to go off the record, and I agreed. We spoke for several minutes before picking back up with…]
I think they’re understanding their responsibility and capacity to respond to these types of issues in new and different ways. And I think a lot of that specifically comes from members speaking up.
It sounds like you feel like there’s still utility in that structure, in the BA, as a major opportunity to shift the conversation and reshape the industry. In other words, that it’s not obsolete. Accurate?
I don’t think it’s obsolete. If for no other reason—and this is the educator in me talking—than because they have created and formalized the amassing of knowledge. Bringing people together, offering all these manuals, doing the ambassador series… I think that body of knowledge that already exists is so incredible valuable. The systems that put in place to disseminate that knowledge are valuable, but can be better.
There’s still just some really important ways that the association mobilizes the industry. I think it’d be really reactionary to not carefully ask what s going to fill the vacuum of this organization if we were to burn it all down. As much as there’s a very limited and curated public face for the organization, I always find it hysterical that they come off so stuff and bureaucratic. The personalities over there… I mean it’s not even that many people!
I think there's been some kind of perception of ambivalence or even maliciousness on the part of the BA and I just know it personally and I’m convinced that’s really untrue. It’s tough when that kind of narrative is already running, because there’s not much we can do to stop it.
At least not in that collapsed context on social media.
Yeah! I also feel like it’s a good idea to listen and hear these critiques, and implement them. Some of the things that the BA is doing right now are absolutely because they’ve been listening. So I’m not going to come out on social media swinging. The BA and myself as a partner of the BA, we hear it.