For the third year in a row, Cheese Grotto is donating 10% of all sales on Giving Tuesday to the Cheese Culture Coalition, a women-led organization dedicated to promoting equity and inclusion within the cheese industry by empowering BIPOC communities through education. We spoke with CCC board member and Public Relations Director Agela Abdullah last year about the group’s programming, what it felt like to be featured in Vogue, and what their team has in store for 2023.
Cheese Culture Coalition is more than two years old now! How was the organization founded, and what work have you been focusing on so far?
CCC was founded in the summer of 2020 by monger, cheesemaker, and educator Whitney Roberts. Our mission is to promote equity and inclusion within the cheese industry, and we do that by empowering Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color in their communities through education. We’ve been doing remote learning during the pandemic, but we're hoping that in 2023, we'll be able to do an in-person class, because we haven't done one yet. Kyra James is our education coordinator, so she is really spearheading the classes.
We really focus on the education of children, especially in communities where cheese isn't as prolific. I hate using the word “underserved”—there's a whole soapbox I could get on—but communities where cheesemakers are maybe not there, and cheese shops are definitely not there. Our primary goal is to work with young kids, and each class is customized for those students. We try to meet kids where they are. We’re showing these kids that this is a cool thing, and that this is something you could do—just opening that door and giving kids the option.
When I went to school, I did 4-H and cheese was never mentioned at all. I think exposure and education are how we get prepared for this next generation who's going to come up. We want some of those kids to say, “I want to be a monger,” or “I was thinking about doing something with aging,” or “I want to do animal husbandry.” We want to show that this is a really open, vibrant, and incredibly diverse industry as far as what you can do, and open that door for the kids.
CCC board member Agela Abdullah
You’re currently fundraising for your Cheese Education Grant. Tell us about that program.
The second part of what we do is help Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color who are already in the industry continue their education through small grants. There are already some large grants out there, but we also recognize the importance of doing small ones. For example, when I lived in New Hampshire, the Barnyard Collective in Long Island City was doing a one-day sensory evaluation program. It's an incredible opportunity—not just because of the education, but also the cheesemakers and affineurs you're going to meet, and Adam Moskowitz himself. But to do that, I had to take off two days of work. As a cheesemonger, if you're working for an independent store, you often don't have PTO. Maybe your boss is fine with you taking a day off, but you're also missing a day's wage. So how do we help you get that education when you can't afford to?
That’s what we're looking at with our grant programs—not just the big things, but the everyday things. We hope that we can send somebody to a conference or another big multi-day event someday, but the people who go still need help. This fundraiser is specifically to raise money for the grant programs in order to continue the education of people who are already in or just entering our industry. We don't see anyone else doing that. We see a lot of big grants. But in order to get to that big grant level, people need help along the way, so that's what we're here to do.
CCC founder and board member Whitney Roberts
Since 2020, Cheese Culture Coalition has exhibited at the American Cheese Society conference, launched educational programming, and even been featured in Vogue. What has that growth been like? What kind of impact have you started to see?
One of the most beneficial things is seeing that our community of Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color within the industry is a lot bigger than people might think. We do Feature Friday, where we’re featuring people on our social media who don't get to be in the limelight: mongers from abroad, from France, from Brazil, from the African continent, from South America, from North America. Just showing that we are already here is really incredible.
One of the things I’m most proud of as a member of the organization is that I think we’ve helped to make it safer for Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color in the industry to come forward and say, “Hey, I do this thing. I'd like to be featured.” There hasn't been a space for us. If we're looking at who gets featured on social media, or who gets to be in Vogue, how many Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color do you see in there? How many people from those communities are photographers or design layouts? That's something you can see in the cheese industry. How many of us are in positions of decision making? We focus on mongers a lot, because that's who’s visible. But who is the distributor? Who are the cheesemakers of color? Who are the sales managers?
I love being able to showcase other people. That's one of my favorite things to do with the CCC. One of the things we do really well is work to uplift others so that we don't seem out of place. It's wonderful to be the first. I think Kyra is actually the first Black woman who was an official ACS conference cheesemonger—I think she might be the first Black person. She gets her flowers a hundred times over for that, but man, it's going to be nice to not have those firsts. We have always been behind the scenes as makers and caretakers of the land and the animals and elsewhere in the industry.
CCC board member Kyra James
Aside from shopping with Cheese Grotto on Giving Tuesday and donating to CCC directly, what else can folks do to support the Cheese Culture Coalition and Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color in the cheese industry in their own communities?
If you're a monger, really supporting your teammates. Especially when we have customers who are not used to seeing Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color behind the counter, and when they do see us, there's an assumption of a lack of knowledge. Making your support visible through your actions is important. We all want to do the best we can in our chosen careers, and I think one of the best ways to make it a more welcoming industry is to support people along the way. You can do that with actions, words, and donations.