The first time I talked to Lia Jones, she said something that bewildered me. Asking about a group picture she’d seen of a predominantly Caucasian international organization I belong to, the brown-skinned diversity, equity and inclusion specialist said, “Oh, no, my ladies will never go for that.”
As a white person, I felt taken aback. I’d joined the non-profit Pink Boots Society a full decade earlier and I knew it to embrace, educate and empower female-identifying members of all sorts, as long as they made at least one-quarter of their annual income in the alcoholic beverage industry.
Though I’m still exploring the issue, more than half a dozen interviews with beer lovers and producers of color have helped me begin to understand what should have been obvious but usually isn’t for members of a majority population: it can feel uncomfortable to be the only person in the room who looks like you. And when historical power dynamics make you wonder how you’ll be treated, it can feel safer to assume the potential for the worst and simply stay away.
Though I don’t know of any complaints of racial discrimination within the 14-year-old volunteer-based Pink Boots, Black North Carolina beertender Eugenia Brown initially experienced this perception problem first hand. Despite several acquaintances inviting her to local PBS meetings and events, she demurred until two things happened: the Charlotte chapter asked her to become co-leader and the international board provided her the opportunity to take over its Instagram page for a day.
Why did she hesitate until she’d fielded such proactive offers? The same reason Jones said the stakeholders in her own nonprofit, Diversity in Wine and Spirits, wouldn’t feel welcomed by a presumably well-meaning group whose photos don’t contain much color.
“Visually, you just don’t think it’s a space for you,” Brown says.
Likening this apprehension to visiting a strange city by yourself or scanning the school lunchroom at the beginning of the year to figure out where you fit in, Brown continues, “You associate safeness with what you’re familiar with. And based on historical race relations you think, ‘Maybe that is not a space for me.’”
Like many institutions nationally and world-wide, Pink Boots really began to reckon with the racial status quo in 2020, learning that to be a truly inclusive organization, it has to literally overhaul its approach to its existence. No longer is it enough to open the doors to women who meet membership requirements and expect they’ll all come, just as it’s not enough to continue to focus myopically on the general needs of an organization’s overall constituency. Blame privilege and unconscious bias for the fact it took 14 years, but to its credit, Pink Boots now has awareness that what its leaders have traditionally considered pro forma doesn’t necessarily equal standard operating procedure for all cultures in all places.
“We are re-evaluating the definition of ‘student’ membership, recognizing the fact that many womxn who enter the industry are self, family or community taught or a student in transition from another field,” emails president Jen Jordan, a brewer at San Francisco’s Laughing Monk Brewing. “So many BIPOC in our industry are entrepreneurs, making a new way.”
Jordan adds that Pink Boots is also rethinking the concept of merit—AKA experience and accomplishment—when it awards scholarships for educational programs to focus more on an applicant’s need and potential for growth.
These deliberations come as part of a succession of changes that started after the racial protests of last May. Since then, the board has announced it would form a diversity committee, hire a DEI consultant, set aside scholarships for BIPOC and make other related changes. Plus, realizing it knew very little about its membership, the board surveyed current and former members about their ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, age, and length of time in the industry. The survey also asked recipients about their sense of belonging, responses to their contributions, and their perceived ability to access the benefits of membership.
“It’s really important Pink Boots is realizing it needs to take a more proactive approach,” Brown says. “It didn’t necessarily cater to white women but that’s who typically makes up the membership.”
Lia Jones explains further, “Just because you want diversity doesn’t mean you understand making someone feel a sense of belonging.”
Brown has taken it on herself to put more faces of color into PBS’ photo frame. Not only does she raise money through her website to pay for women of color to take the Cicerone Certified Beer Server exam — an entry-level test that demonstrates a certain level of beer knowledge — to boost their chances of getting that first job in the industry, she’s collected funds to pay the $45 annual membership dues for four women to join Pink Boots.
One Black recipient just got promoted to manage the taproom at a North Carolina brewery; two of the three Hispanic award winners work as beertenders in the Mid-Atlantic; and the fourth Latina works as an assistant brewer.
“My goal was to encourage women of color to give Pink Boots a try,” Brown says, noting that on top of the emotional barriers to entry, of the scattered few women of color who work in the alcoholic beverage industry, even fewer know about the organization.
These days, Brown’s concentrating on getting more people of color into the beer industry via Cicerone certifications but thinks she may run another Pink Boots dues fundraiser eventually for those who’ve made their way in and want to work their way up.
Jordan says she expects Pink Boots to keep evolving right alongside them.
“We have endless work to do here, in order to stay relevant, responsive, and effective,” she says.
Brown supports that sentiment.
“It’s not an overnight thing we can fix,” she says. “But we’re headed in the right direction.”
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