Finally, the surreptitious midnight moves, the anonymous death threats and the pervasive fear were—to the extent that they can be—a thing of the past. It took Jess and her family almost a year to receive political asylum status—a designation similar to that of a refugee, which is a person unable to return to his or her home country because of political, religious, ethnic or other persecution. That status also provided her with the documents necessary to work here.
She took a job as a teaching assistant with the Richardson Independent School District—the pay $10 an hour—just enough to support herself and help her parents (with whom she lived) with necessities. But as her supervisors realized that she was not only bilingual, but also generous enough to do extra work, they started piling it on.
Because she was a Spanish-speaker, her workload increased far beyond what her original contract indicated, so at the beginning of her second year, she asked for a salary increase.
"[T]hey said no," says Jess, who speaks English with only a hint of an accent. "They were nice. They wanted me to keep working there; they needed someone bilingual." But that year, everything changed: Jess got pregnant; she knew she couldn't afford the school district's health insurance package—"My paycheck was too little," she says—and when her baby boy was born in March 2008, she took a month off for maternity leave. But the district didn't pay her during that month, and when a doctor diagnosed her with postpartum depression and ordered her to stay home for one more week, Jess' money concerns grew. She went back to work until school let out for the summer and made up her mind to find a new job.
"I was tired, to be honest," she says, shaking her head, her long, black ponytail swaying behind her. "Physically, I wasn't good. I was exhausted." After taking a month off to recover, Jess went to the offices of the Human Rights Initiative to see if her case workers knew of any job openings. Her last paycheck from the school district had come in July, and already, with a baby who was often sick, money was getting tight. When she learned that It's a Grind was opening that November, Jess leapt at the opportunity—particularly because of the health benefits, but also because of the philosophy behind it.
"When they told me about the Demeter Project, I wanted to be part of that," she says. "My father was the kind of person that always worked for people and fought for people, so that is in my blood."
At about the time Jess was fleeing death squads in Colombia, Cannon Flowers, thousands of miles away in Dallas, had just left corporate America to become the chief operating officer (he's now the CEO) of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. While the nonprofit provided free legal aid to asylum seekers and helped them find housing, clothing and food, they needed jobs to restart their lives—jobs that paid a decent wage. Shortly after joining the Human Rights Initiative, Flowers, a pale, sprite-like 50-year-old with ice-blue eyes and a soft, twangy voice, started researching the concept of a living wage.
The more research he did, the more Flowers realized that the types of jobs some of his clients were securing also attracted a different type of employee—those who simply enjoyed the day-to-day interaction of a service industry job. But neither group seemed able to make ends meet in the kind of places—coffee shops, fast-food joints, bookstores and sit-down chain restaurants—for which they were qualified.
A question plagued Flowers: "How do we [help] people integrate into the workplace, plus create an environment where [they] can make a living, support their family and have health care?" He decided that if that ideal combination of livable wages and open-minded hiring policies didn't exist, he would just create it. From scratch. Like a cup of home-roasted coffee.
From the start, Flowers saw that a coffee shop was not only one of the simplest options for the Demeter Project's first venture—the inventory (coffee, baked goods, milk) and training requirements were pretty basic—but also one that could have a wide social impact, from being a meet-and-greet place for local residents and hospital workers to drawing in new faces for community meetings, children's events and live music on the weekends.
In 2007, Flowers met with the California-based owners of It's a Grind, who shared his enthusiasm for creating special workplaces. He says they seemed excited about the Demeter Project—named, somewhat obscurely, for the Greek goddess of fertility and agriculture. ("We chose Demeter as our symbol because we recognize the cyclical nature of life and desire a workplace that is flexible enough to embrace its employees through their ups and downs," the Demeter Project's Web site explains.)