By Ted Lam

A hidden gem on the outskirts of East Oakland is doing amazing things to help refugees in the Bay Area. Refugees, asylum seekers with work permits, asylees, and special immigrant visa holders are taught critical customer service skills at the training center of Coffee 1951, a non-profit coffee company that trains and employs refugees to work in the coffee industry. The interesting name holds the key to their mission: “[i]n 1951 the United Nations first defined and set forth guidelines for the protection of refugees. These protections were further expanded in the 1967 Protocols giving the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] a global mandate.”

Last week I saw a posting looking for volunteers to be mock customers to help train Coffee 1951’s barista students and I signed up. More than a dozen volunteers showed up along with me. Melanie gave us a quick orientation, and we got lots of play money to start our morning. I went in and ordered a small black coffee from Michelle. I learned that it’s called a “pour over.” Michelle carefully wrote down my order then said, “That’ll be $3.50.” I gave her the the fake $5. She gave me change.

While waiting for my coffee I chatted with Shawnim of Coffee 1951 and Melanie, from Americorps. The barista students go through two weeks of training; that day’s event with mock customers was the students’ graduation from the program. The four students were supported behind the counter by Dee, the training program manager. The students came from different backgrounds. I overheard one was from Sri Lanka.

Coffee 1951 has a convenient location on Telegraph and Channing in Berkeley, and is popular with Cal students and many others. They’re planning a kiosk on Shattuck Ave next to the downtown Berkeley BART station in the near future. Although not all graduates of the program get hired at Coffee 1951’s cafe, they’re given the skills, and a certificate proving that, giving them a leg up when applying for barista jobs at other coffee shops.

Coffee 1951 photo by Ted Lam
Coffee 1951 baristas with their skills certificates

It was a full cafe experience. My pour over was very good, and all of the other “customers” also enjoyed themselves. The cafe was bright, comfortable, and had upbeat, mellow music. I chatted with practice customers Jenny, Daphne, Stephanie, and Gracia, who all seemed to enjoy the coffee and overall ambiance. The barista students were very friendly and helpful, and I saw pride in their customer service and accomplishment — Coffee 1951 can be very proud of their work.

I found this a very satisfying volunteer opportunity. If you’d like to learn more or want to volunteer, please check out Coffee 1951’s website at and click on “Contact” to let them know you’re interested.

Ted Lam is retired from the USCG and currently works as a civil engineer. Ted is a member of the Indivisible East Bay Governance Committee and is co-lead of the Indivisible CA-11 team. Photographs by Ted Lam.

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