About 15 years ago, Dr. J Jackson-Beckham was attending a rare beer fest in Boston. There were 300 or so people milling about the booths. Brewers wove through the crowds holding pitchers to pour tastes while attendees chatted and roamed with glasses.
“People kept walking up to me and holding out their glasses,” she said. “The first couple of times I held up my glass and cheers’d them. Then I realized what was happening.”
These people were not being convivial. They were asking her to fill their glasses. As the only Black person at the event and one of the very few women, they assumed she was staff.
Jackson-Beckham, who goes by the nickname “Dr. J,” is a former college professor whose area of expertise is communications with a focus on the brewing industry. Today she is the founder of Crafted For All, an organization which works with the craft beverage industry to integrate DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) practices, build an inclusive mindset, and implement just and equitable business practices.
In the first years of Crafted For All, she kept a tally of the mission-driven work that needed to be funded to help emerging BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) professionals in the industry. “There are tremendous, undercapitalized opportunities,” says Jackson-Beckham.
And so, she founded CraftxEDU, a nonprofit which advocates for inclusion, equity and justice in the craft brewing community through education and professional development. Both organizations are headquartered in her home state of Virginia but serve the beverage industry nationally.
CraftxEDU is gathering the demographic data needed to create national benchmarks and standards about the industry and the people working within it. “Data creates action,” she says, “and enables conversation.”
When a beverage business — Crafted For All works with beer, wine, spirits and cider — contacts her, it’s usually because something bad has happened or is happening.
“I wish more [businesses] came preventatively, but it’s [because of a] crisis,” says Jackson-Beckham. “You can go for a long time without realizing how close you are to a dumpster fire just waiting for that match.”
The central challenge of DEI work, she notes, is that in other areas of a business, if you are not prepared or are under-performing, you will see it immediately — the inefficiencies are really apparent. When a beverage company experiences a crisis related to racial injustice, they are often taken aback by the disturbance and attention.
“People need to be aware of the social, political and economic ecosystems in which their businesses exist,” says Jackson-Beckham. “People tend to equate their business with their personality. They think that if they keep being ‘nice’ and following their moral compass, the business will be fine.”
The United States has racist practices and attitudes built into its infrastructure. This historic truth does not need to be the nation’s future, nor does it have to continue to affect the beverage industry. Change, however, can only happen with acknowledgment, education and a willingness to improve racist systems.
Jackson-Beckham notes that folks in the industry tend to make it personal and go after an individual rather than questioning the environment that allowed that person and their behavior.
“Making it personal doesn’t help things along,” says Jackson-Beckham. “If you run an organization that allows assholes and you get rid of that problem person, there will always be another to take that one person’s place.” To eradicate this dynamic, a business must be willing to make systemic changes and integrate equity as a cornerstone, not lip service.
The craft brewing industry has many more women and BIPOC professionals now than it did back in the mid-2010s when Jackson-Beckham was assumed to be staff at the beer fest because of her race and gender. That behavior and lack of diversity at a festival would be “uncommon” today, she says.
According to data gathered in 2021 by the Brewers Association, the average American beverage consumer is increasingly female and BIPOC. Hopefully their purchasing power will help steer the industry into creating strong equitable business practices and diverse leadership structures.
“You seem to have energy for this work in the Pacific Northwest,” says Jackson-Beckham, calling out the advocacy work of Barry Chan of Lucky Envelope Brewing and Pamela Brulotte of Icicle Brewing Company, whom she met through the Brewer’s Association.
Since 2018, Jackson-Beckham has been working with the Brewer’s Association as a Diversity Ambassador, traveling to state guilds across the country and speaking with their members. The Brewer’s Association has recently launched THRIVE, a joint DEI, human resources and wellness program meant to build a healthy, equitable and accessible culture within the craft brewing community.
“We work with the full human to improve health and productivity. If people run out of energy, they can’t work,” says Jackson-Beckham, with a nod to the recent lingering effects of the pandemic. “We have to think about personal wellness as well as equity and safety, as well as trust in companies and coworkers. THRIVE touches all these things. We want holistically thriving humans.”