New Amherst cafe combats human trafficking in India

By Chelsie Field

One free cup of fair trade caffeinated beverage at a time, café general manager Dan Johnson believes he can help end human trafficking in India.

The newly opened Freedom Café, located across from Totman Gym on the University of Massachusetts campus, is entirely volunteer run, and the prices are completely donation-based. Patrons are asked to donate what they would normally pay for their tea or coffee product in order to fund the building of vocational centers in India. These centers will teach job skills to survivors of human trafficking, mostly women and children, through Jubilee Market, an organization building such centers in India.

A ministry of the Amherst Project, the Freedom Café operates out of what was originally planned as a first-floor office in 768 North Pleasant St., home to the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship fraternity. Johnson, 35, of Chicopee, along with co-manager Shane Adams, 39, of South Hadley, opened the Freedom Café on March 25. Both have actively led on-campus Christian-oriented student groups in recent years. And though neither has been to India nor personally knows any trafficking victims, the pair felt they needed to take action.

“We wanted to do something about it, it just broke our hearts,” said Adams of when he and Johnson were first introduced to human trafficking around 2007.

“We’re not experts on the issue,” Adams added. “We don’t pretend to be experts. And that’s the thing: you don’t have to be an expert on something to know you’ve got to do something about it.”

According to Kevin Bales, founder of the organization Free the Slaves, there are 27 million slaves in the world today—a figure now used in Trafficking in Persons reports by the U.S. Department of State. Statistics on human trafficking in India, specifically for sexual exploitation, are hard to come by, and when such information is available, the data points to countries in South and Southeast Asia, according to FBI reports.

The United Nations Office on Drug and Crime reports that women account for two-thirds of trafficking victims, and that the majority of traffickers are males. Sexual exploitation accounts for nearly 80 percent of all trafficked persons globally, though it is most common in Europe, Central Asia and the Americas. In the countries of south and east Asia, 44 percent of all slaves trafficked were trafficked for sexual exploitation, according to the report.

“Just by choosing where you drink your coffee can change a person’s life,” Johnson said. Johnson said he wants to create a culture of “other-centered” community members because he thinks American culture is too “self-centered” and not focused on helping others.

The strategy of the Freedom Cafe is simple, according to Johnson: at 40 customers a day, five days a week, giving an average of $3 for a total of two semesters, one $18,000 vocational center can be built every academic year.  This is the ultimate goal.

Johnson sees this “drink to freedom” strategy play out “three-fold.”

“There are those who will drink coffee here … and then I have those who work for freedom and they volunteer,” Johnson said. “But eventually, I want to start sending students to India to work alongside the women in our shelters … to help end human trafficking, to restore and rescue women that are being trafficked.”

All of the coffee and tea products, down to the sugar packets, are fair trade and organic “because you can’t stop slavery while you’re encouraging it,” Johnson said. The café also features its own mini Jubilee Market consisting of handmade goods from centers in India that Johnson and Adams hope to one day play a part in building.

All bills and utilities of the property are paid for by four tenants living on the second floor. The café also receive funding through churches and private donors, to ensure the entirety of the café’s profits go to its intended cause, according to Johnson.

When Johnson and Adams acquired the residential property in 2011, zoning laws slowed the opening process. The café was originally slated to open last spring, but Johnson and Adams soon realized that the café’s status as a nonprofit didn’t exempt it from certain zoning laws. For example, not having a handicap accessible bathroom meant the café operates as only a take-out service, and being situated on a residential property means parking cannot be offered to patrons.

Johnson said the café focuses on human trafficking in India as opposed to the United States because it is easier to make a tangible change there, as it is cheaper to build the vocational centers. A second Freedom Café branch, which opened last spring on the University of New Hampshire campus, is more focused on domestic human trafficking. Johnson said he hopes for more Freedom Cafés in the Pioneer Valley in the future, beginning on the campuses of colleges in the Five College Consortium.

“Students are ambitious and they’re not tied down. We’re hoping we can inspire people to help eradicate this issue,” Adams said of being located on the UMass campus He added, “A coffee shop’s not going to eradicate the issue, but we can inspire people.”

“Honestly, the reason why we started the cafe is just simply to create a culture of students who are ‘other-centered’ and to build vocational centers for survivors of human trafficking,” Johnson said. “Even if we help one person, it’s worth it.”

Between 18 and 25 patrons visit the café each day, the majority of which are UMass students or faculty members. Johnson said “pretty much” all the growth the café has experienced in the past couple weeks has been through “word of mouth.”

The volunteer base grows the same way, currently standing at about 20 volunteers, mostly UMass students, who barista at least one shift per week.

Undeclared freshman Kimberly Soum volunteers three times a week, sharing one Monday afternoon shift with two other friends she introduced to volunteering at the cafe.

“I was always interested in like, human trafficking and like, stuff like that,” said Soum, who learned about volunteer opportunities at the cafe through a documentary event Johnson hosted in her Northeast residence hall.

Soum’s fellow freshmen friends, biology major Vicki Bortolussi and classics and Spanish double major Meghan Kebernick, said they value their experience at the Freedom Cafe because it gives them both volunteer and work experience.

“It sounded like a really good cause … and it enlightened me on stuff I didn’t really know and I learned a lot,” Bortolussi said. “It’s a great opportunity for volunteering and work experience, but also helping people who need the help.”

“I love coffee, so this is fun to learn how to make coffee and learn how to make it better so I can make my own coffee taste good,” Kebernick added.

Johnson and Adams hope to have a grand opening—as opposed to their “soft opening” happening currently—in the fall to boost their presence in the community. The pair is always looking for more volunteers, they said, especially those with marketing and computer science experience, though anyone can barista.

“Basically what I say is that if you love people, you can work here, ‘cause that’s what we’re all about,” Johnson said. “We want people … centering their life on helping others.”

The Freedom Café is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays.

Chelsie Field can be reached at [email protected].