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An Interview with the Brewers Association’s New Diversity Ambassador

Beer News

We talked with J. Niko Jackson-Bekham, the Brewers Association’s very first diversity ambassador about how she sees diversity and inclusion in the craft brewing industry.

The craft brewing industry has an obvious lack of diversity -- look up from your glass the next time you're at a beer festival or even in some taprooms and you’ll see that there are likely more men than women and more white people than non-white people in the room.

It’s hard to know exactly how the demographics of the industry fall: There haven’t been any major studies of the racial breakdown of brewing employees or brewery owners, and the Brewers Association, the country’s largest trade group, doesn’t track that information either.

But it doesn’t take a case study to see that there's a problem. So that’s why Tavour was stoked to see the Brewer’s Association announcement last month: J. Niko Jackson-Beckham is their very first Diversity Ambassador. The position will take Jackson-Beckham across the country to speak on “best practices for diversifying both customer bases and staff and to listen to current challenges in this area,” according to the association.

Jackson-Beckham is a professor at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia and frequently speaks publicly about diversity in the brewing industry. Tavour caught up with her over email after her first official Brewery Ambassador trip to this year’s Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville.

Lester Black: How do you summarize the current state of diversity and inclusion in American craft beer?

Jackson-Beckham: In short, “unrealized.”

LB: Do you think American craft beer has a problem with diversity? If so, can you possibly be specific about what those problems are? (Not enough non-white people in ownership/management positions? Not enough inclusiveness in how beer is marketed and how taprooms/breweries are designed?)

JB: I am reluctant to frame these kinds of conversations in terms of “problems”. However, fixation on “problems" often devolves into fault-finding efforts and I happen to think we lose a lot of valuable time and effort debating where to place blame. So if you’ll humor me, I’d like to shift your questions a bit and talk about diversity in terms of “opportunity." Do I think American craft beer is letting opportunities related to diversity and inclusion go unrealized? Yes, absolutely. Can I be specific about some of those opportunities? Honestly, I think the opportunities are more numerous than I could possibly tackle here. But if, instead of asking, “who isn’t at the table and whose fault is that?” we ask, “what might we accomplish if more people were at the table?” you start to see the potential. A broader talent pool with new perspectives; new chances to collaborate in the kettle, in the taproom, and in the community; new markets and increased revenues; deeper and more authentic community engagement; alignment of business practices and professional ethics; visibility for overlooked colleagues in the industry; a general broadening of our assumptions about craft beer, the people who make it, and the people who enjoy drinking it, and the list goes on and on.

LB: What are some ways the industry can change to increase diversity?

JB: There is no one-size-fits-all ‘diversity’ initiative.” It’s starting to become something of a motto for me. Successful diversity initiatives are strategic and sustained efforts to identify and remove barriers to access in pursuit of concrete organizational goals. The nature and number of these barriers and goals are going to vary widely from brewery to brewery. So I could say something like, "try to avoid blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic,…etc. etc. marketing," but I happen to think that the overwhelming majority of craft brewers are intelligent enough to have considered the obvious stuff. Meaningful change will be the outgrowth of thinking about diversity with the kind of intention and specificity that are brought to other important aspects of operating a business/participating in a community.

LB: How do you plan on using this new role to improve the industry? Are there certain topics that you are particularly excited to work on?

JB: I am a college professor, so learning, teaching, and research are what I do best. I think I am most excited to do some listening…serious listening. In my experience, a lot of the pushback to diversity initiates (in general, not in craft beer) is a response to being “talked at” (often via soul-crushing webinar). I also think a lot of diversity initiatives have failed the populations they intend to support by being little more than well intentioned talk that doesn't address specific areas of need or opportunity. As a social-scientist (and a giant dork) and I am excited by the utility of research—and not just market and industry data. You don’t have to look too deeply to see that craft beer is more than just a supply and demand driven commodity. Those who make it (small and independent craft brewers) and drink imbue it with tremendous meaning and social and cultural value. So, I’m excited to continue the research I have been doing on craft beer over the years in ways that will respond to needs and questions and concerns of the BA’s members and stakeholders. And finally, as an educator, I am excited to get out there and interact with folks. I genuinely believe the craft beer community is special, remarkable in its willingness to be self-reflexive, to grow, to hold itself to a higher standard. Every teacher relishes the opportunity to interact with enthusiastic and engaged learners…and the learners I get to work with make great beers. How could anyone not be excited about that?

Written by Lester Black

Featured image courtesy of the Brewers Association

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