Para Sa Tao

By Amy Cosio


"We are all connected; to each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically."

- Neil deGrasse Tyson

In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic and the ubiquity of social media, the daily paradox of isolation in the midst of extreme connectivity is a personal and institutional problem. While we all have instant messaging apps at our fingertips, more and more struggles about communication arise in our relationships. Even with so many platforms to broadcast our images and ideas, many of us feel undervalued and unseen. This is a challenge that affects anyone and everyone, regardless of gender, age or upbringing. It is, sadly, the very thing that unites us – loneliness.

In El Union Coffee, we’ve long kept our hearts on our sleeves about the kind of world we desire to live in. Our founders started with a yearning for community, for a sense of belonging, a place of our own making. That earnest hope has birthed a brand and a business that strives for multiple bottom lines. In celebrating our 10th year this October, I look back on the ideas that have matured with us over the years. I address the staff to clarify one of the many phrases they have seen and heard in our captions, merchandise, and caffeine-induced conversations at the shop. While many would consider ideas to be abstract and insignificant to their actual lives, the entrepreneur’s task is actually to pull ideas into reality, and envelop people in it. I begin with talking about a core value that is of utmost importance. SOLIDARITY. It’s not typically found in corporations, but in civic organizations. Businesses that enshrine profit as its sole objective choose other words – teamwork, cooperation, unity. But solidarity is grounded in our belief that “no one is free until all of us are free.” And it speaks hope into our human desire to belong and to be seen. In our company’s vernacular, there is a phrase that has emerged – I tackle it here as a challenge and comfort to all.

Para Sa tao

When you hear this, do you think of yourself as the giver or the receiver? Para kanino? Sino yung tao, ikaw ba? This concept is not about identifying who should give versus who should receive; who is required to help vs who deserves help. The simple answer is both; Para Sa Tao enshrines a culture of humanizing work for any person in the value chain... whether customer, owner, supplier, delivery guy, cook, bartender, part timer, or puka shell vendor. Some people in El Union do not know how to straddle the two sides of Para sa Tao. I’ve seen some of you hastily appoint yourselves as the receiver, and are quick to complain when decisions don’t directly benefit you. I see this when a passive aggressive employee jabs at the delays in getting HMOs, without any care or research as to how much work is required for a small business to afford this benefit. A benefit that was initiated by the very person they were jabbing at. This behavior only frames us as receivers, outsourcing any sense of responsibility to others.

On the other hand, there are those that deem themselves solely as givers. They miss the mark just as much. El Union is a business, not a charity. And we most definitely are not a church. Sure, we like to be generous; hindi lang pera ang binibilang natin. But we do not give preferential treatment to others simply because they are poor. Dole outs aren’t bad, but that’s not El Union. We give to others because there is an EXCHANGE OF VALUE. We acknowledge that some people are rich in currencies that don’t make it to the bank. Neighbors that can’t afford specialty coffee but make the community feel safe. Artists that ignite our imagination. Surfers that represent a love and respect for the ocean. Children that remind us that people deserve to be fed, clothed and sheltered, regardless of one's productivity. These people are not just helpless receivers, and to treat them so diminishes their dignity. They have something to give, and we have to affirm it. They contribute to our success and quality of life. Para sa Tao means we recognize their value.

Now, how do we straddle between being givers and receivers in the concept of Para Sa Tao? How does an El Union team member embody both sides? The truth is, our nature is already to be both. To be human is to be a relational being. We are in constant exchange with others, and our hope is that by participating in the back and forth of value, we build a community that is resilient and kind. In our healthiest relationships, there is a delicate balance between getting what you need and giving others what they deserve. This balance is important in institutional policies like compensation, but it’s also important in individual behavior, like how we speak about each other. Grave imbalances caused by individuals would be called abusive. Institutional imbalance, on the other hand, is called exploitation. Whether personally or as a collective, this is something we all need to guard against. Initiate ways to make someone else’s work easier. But also, learn to accept help. When a relationship is skewed beyond repair, it won’t last.

Over time, balanced relationships bear fruit. In the case of El Union, we’ve been doing this for 10 years. It’s never been perfect, but the diligent attempt matters. The fruit is this diverse community in Surftown, where people can live in simplicity and relative comfort. Humane hours, job security, lifelong friendships, and a culture of respect. That’s our legacy. Back in 2013 we believed that riding waves while watching the sunset was enough to make us happy. This company was founded by a bunch of Manila surfers – Kiddo, Mia and myself – because we yearned for that balance; to give to San Juan as much as we had received. That’s our origin story, and our chosen medium was coffee. Kape Para sa Tao. Your employment in El Union is quantified by an exchange of wages for labor. It is also qualified by your participation in community building. We are both givers and receivers. You are part of this story, and you have the power to throw it off balance if you don’t embrace the responsibility of Para sa Tao. We make and we take in equal measure, and over time we nourish a network of healthy relationships. Walang dehado, walang utang na loob. Tumutulong at tinutulungan. Human dignity cemented through service. All our dreams - whether societal, financial or political - sit on a foundation of solidarity. That is what El Union stands for in La Union, and that is the kind of world we are fighting for.