From sea level to altitudes of about 7,000 feet, the world’s tea – the second most popular drink behind water-is cultivated primarily in Asia. Americans consume twice as much coffee as tea and nearly four times more soft drinks. Knowing these few facts, it may seem odd that tea is the product we chose to sell in an urban community in Memphis, Tennessee. For sure, there are those moments of doubt, but six years into the journey we have learned packaging and selling tea fits us to, well…a T.
The Market vs. The Metaphor
Assisting women in Orange Mound with employment posed a number of challenges. Many of those most desperately in need of a job lacked authentic job skills. They possessed talents and aptitudes for sure, but any significant employment history or employment-related proficiency was rare. Any opportunity we provided had to include roles consistent to the level of ability and knowledge the women brought with them – at least initially.
Time was a factor too. Empty cupboards, dark apartments and houses, malfunctioning vehicles and some that didn’t run at all created a heightened sense of urgency. Years or months of training was not practical. Women needed work now.
The chance to buy Mary Beth Bryce’s tea business met our initial criteria. The business could provide meaningful jobs for women that could be learned in a short timeframe. Mary Beth had established relationships with tea blenders and other reliable vendors. She also had a loyal customer core that would continue to buy tea as long as the quality remained high. Most important, Debbie Hert, who operated the tea business for Mary Beth, agreed to remain as the operations manager.
It is probably hindsight, but tea is an apropos metaphor for the women who work for My Cup of Tea and the support we hope to provide. Tea in its final form, with the steam and aroma wafting upward from the cup is all at once soothing, elegant, complex, and reassuring. Until you have experienced your first really good cup of tea, you won’t know these things.
Before it can be harvested, tea (Camellia sinensis) must be grown for three years – a lifetime in agriculture. Commodities like corn and soybeans can be harvested in as little as 60 days. The women at My Cup of Tea did not arrive here because of a single missed utility bill, one-time drug use in their youth, or by witnessing a single act of violence. No, the women find themselves here because of years of abuse, neglect, and poverty.
But, despite the long growing season, tea leaves are delicate, so delicate they are harvested by hand because the machines break and tear them. This is not to suggest that the women at My Cup of Tea are weak, their emotions and psyches are delicate, but they are strong as evidenced by all they have survived.
When the tea is finally harvested, it is not ready for market. Most teas are withered. From the website teaepicure.com, withering is controlled by “monitoring humidity, temperature, and air flow over time.” This process allows for the development of aroma and flavor, which is what we all love about tea. Here, we monitor, in a sense, ancillary factors in the lives of the women. Through growing authentic relationships, we listen and learn about how the women struggle, what they fear, and what needs are being unmet, then we adjust.
After withering, tea is dried to enhance shelf life. The goal is to reduce the moisture content of the leaves to 2-3%. Enhancing shelf-life, that is what we do at My Cup of Tea. Our mission is to help women overcome poverty, improve the quality of their lives, and establish a spiritual and economic foundation to sustain them. We provide jobs, job skills, authentic relationships that become a network, and a faith built on the Bible.
There are more practical products to sell and arguably more marketable skills to teach. But we believe that we didn’t choose tea, tea chose us.