Young, Deaf Entrepreneurs Are Brewing Coffee With a Purpose in Jamaica

The official opening of Deaf Can! Coffee in Kingston, Jamaica on March 17, 2015. Image courtesy Deaf Can! Coffee, used with permission.

The official opening of Deaf Can! Coffee in Kingston, Jamaica on March 17, 2015. Image courtesy Deaf Can! Coffee, used with permission.

How about a cup of delicious, freshly roasted Jamaican High Mountain Coffee? A Honey Latte perhaps? Or a Nitro Cold Brew? The menu here might not be so out of the ordinary for a coffee place, but this cafe is anything but.

Carlyle Gabbidon, 27, and his colleague, Fabian Jackson, 21, two young men with irresistibly warm smiles, served us on a recent visit to the headquarters of social enterprise Deaf Can! Coffee. Both men are deaf.

Engage. Equip. Empower. This is the tagline of the venture, co-founder and mentor Blake Widmer told Global Voices:

Engagement is getting the young men involved and excited about the enterprise, ensuring they have a genuine sense of ownership. Once the interest is there, then it's important to be equipped — not just with the right skills — but the mindset and ‘I can’ attitude, along with the physical equipment. Empowerment just happens. It grows, naturally, as the business develops.

Deaf Can! Coffee headquarters is situated on the sprawling Kingston campus of the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf — an educational institution with three schools on the island (the other two are in Montego Bay on Jamaica's north coast and in Knockpatrick, west of the capital). Walking there, we passed a large area of worn grass where sports are played and made our way to their new building where overseas volunteers were busy on a painting job.

The bright headquarters, with large windows and plenty of natural light, received funding for solar energy power from Digicel Foundation, which has a focus on disenfranchised youth in Jamaica. Deaf Can! Coffee had its grand opening on March 19, 2015. A year later, it opened its new, fully equipped training facility, also funded by the Digicel Foundation.

Here, students learn not only how to make coffee, but how to run all aspects of the business and have confidence in their skills. At present, Deaf Can! Coffee does not have a “drop in” cafe open to the public; however, it is very much mobile, packing all its equipment into a van and going out on the road to serve coffee at meetings, expos and commercial events. The venture also sells roasted coffee and merchandising including T-shirts and mugs bearing its striking logo: two fists placed on top of each other, with the top one turning in a grinding motion, representing the Jamaican Sign Language expression for coffee.

Gabbidon, the manager and head barista, who originally trained as a tiler, explained:

We work together as a team. The important thing is to keep developing, practicing, and improving, knowing that mistakes will come but they are learning experiences. We don't want to sit back and do nothing. We want the whole world to know about us, to know that we are just like any other person.

Both he and Jackson, whose parents moved from rural areas to the capital, Kingston, said they feel hurt by the labels that Jamaicans unfortunately still use for deaf people. Jackson commented:

We're not ‘disabled’. Everyone has their own talents. I hate it when people call us ‘dummy’. We are not dumb. Ironically, some people who call us dumb don't even have the literacy skills that we possess.

He continued:

We are always told, ‘You can't.’ But we don't want others to see us negatively. We want to challenge the world and tell them: ‘We can do anything!’ We are not nervous any more. We are very confident.

Evelyn Clarke, the deaf farmer from St. Elizabeth and the inspiration for Deaf Can! Coffee, trying something out during a visit to Kingston. Image by Emma Lewis, used with permission.

Evelyn Clarke, a deaf farmer from St. Elizabeth and the inspiration for Deaf Can! Coffee, trying something out during a visit to Kingston. Image by Emma Lewis, used with permission.

Inspiration for the venture came from a field trip that a group of 17 of the students took to the village of Top Hill in rural St. Elizabeth (the birthplace of Widmer's wife, Tashi Bent-Widmer). There, they met Evelyn Clarke, a deaf farmer who grows and roasts his own coffee. He became their role model.

The students went on to found a campus coffee shop with the help of faith-based Harvest Call of Jamaica. The doors of that cafe are now closed to the public, but Deaf Can! Coffee stays busy with its coffee catering services. During our visit, we got a chance to visit the original coffee shop, where we saw a traditional pestle and mortar that Clarke used to grind his coffee, as well as the students’ original equipment that they had saved for and bought with their own funds.

Not long after Deaf Can! Coffee was founded, Sidecar Coffee in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in the US, flew down to Jamaica to give the young men an intense two-day training in coffee-making. They also received instruction from a local trainer in coffee art. Afterward, the roles were reversed: when Clarke next stopped in, the students showed him their own coffee-roasting and preparation skills.

Strong partnerships like these have been key for Deaf Can! Coffee's development. Deaf graphic designer Justin Forbes is working on the logos for two of their new products, Nitro Cold Brew and Cold Coffee Energy Drink. Kemoy Campbell, an alumnus of the school currently studying computer science at Rochester Institute of Technology and a tech entrepreneur, designed Deaf Can! Coffee's dynamic website, and will be visiting in the summer on an internship to design a “self-order kiosk.” The beautiful, glossy counter of blue mahoe wood was made by residents at the Jamaica Deaf Village, still a work in progress in Central Jamaica. These are deaf people supporting and helping each other.

Carlyle Gabbidon, the chief barista. Photo by Deaf Can! Coffee, used with permission.

Carlyle Gabbidon, the chief barista. Photo by Deaf Can! Coffee, used with permission.

Deaf Can! Coffee even welcomed a very special guest in February: Claudia Gordon, the first deaf, black, female attorney-at-law in the United States. Born in rural Jamaica, she moved to the US at age 11 and became a government advocate for the deaf community, serving President Barack Obama's administration as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement as an adviser on disability issues, among other positions.

Deaf Can! Coffee plans to branch out from drinks to a cafe menu in the near future. While we were there, supervisor Stephen McFarlane took us on a quick tour of some new equipment waiting to be put into service, including an oven for baking and a salad bar stand.

Creating “a collective, healthy and supportive culture in Deaf Can! Coffee” is the goal, co-founder Blake Widmer said:

It is a social enterprise with purpose, and we also want it to be sustainable. It must be an inclusive culture, too, that draws people to it…

With a number of Jamaican non-governmental organizations such as Respect Jamaica working towards a more inclusive and tolerant society, ventures like these can only help to break down the barriers of discrimination. Find out more about Deaf Can! Coffee on their website, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.


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