Dominican Republic

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UT alumnus Mehul Patel is a co-founder of the coffee shop Dominican Joe, located on South Congress Avenue. Dominican Joe financially supports co-founder Sharla Megilligan’s nonprofit organization, Makarios, which aims to educate children in the Dominican Republic.
Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

To the unobservant customer, Dominican Joe appears to be just another Austin coffee shop. But underneath the hipster background music and mood lighting is a business run by two UT alumni that strives to give back to kids in Dominican Republic. 

In 2006, UT alumni Sharla Megilligan and Mehul Patel co-founded Dominican Joe, a coffee shop located on South Congress Avenue, to financially support Megilligan’s nonprofit organization, Makarios. Makarios aims to educate children in the Dominican Republic through the organization’s school, Colegio Makarios.

The partnership between Dominican Joe and Makarios began because of the abundance of Dominican coffee growers struggling to make a living selling their coffee at the low prices that the Dominican market demanded. Makarios stepped in and became a primary buyer for coffee growers, buying their coffee at fair trade prices. Makarios sells coffee to Dominican Joe, which turns around and sells it to under-caffeinated Austinites.

“[Dominican Joe] exists to support Makarios,” Patel said.

According to Patel, as Dominican Joe grows more successful, they increase the price at which they buy the coffee from Makarios, thus increasing Makarios’ profits over time.

 “The way we structured the shop is that we are just a regular for-profit coffee shop,” Patel said. “Our profits go to the owners just like any other shop, [but] over time, [we] raise the prices that we pay to Makarios. As we are more successful, we pay more to Makarios.”

Makarios uses profits from coffee sales, fundraisers and sponsorships to grow their school, which currently teaches children from pre-K through 6th grade, and plans on adding a grade every year.

“We plan to continue growing the school by one grade every year and are in the process of being a US certified international school,” Megilligan said in an email to the Texan. “We add new programs each year as well — everything from art to soccer to adult education classes.”

Megilligan started Makarios in 2004. Originally, she transported coffee from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. in her travel suitcases  to sell at fundrasiers for Makarios. The coffee sales were so strong that Megilligan approached Patel with the idea of building a business around supporting her nonprofit.

Patel said he was losing interest in his job at the time, and the idea of doing something socially productive enticed him.

“Neither of us were the types that are like, ‘We’re gonna study this for two years and learn exactly how to do it right,’” Patel said. “We just kind of dove in and started trying things.”

Patel said neither he nor Megilligan had any experience in retail or coffee, but they had a vision and a desire to make a difference. Dominican Joe opened 18 months later. 

“At the time, neither of us knew what we were doing. It was just an experiment — a fun idea to see if we could build this,” Patel said. “We learned a lot, and we did a lot wrong, but that was just a part of the process.”

Patel said Dominican Joe’s first year in business was a haze of broken pipes, flooding and sewage trauma.

“The first year was a nightmare for us,” Patel said. “Learning, growing, developing everything from scratch. But every year since then has gotten better.”

The Dominican Republic has become a notorious hotbed for Major League Baseball teams to find big-time players over the past few decades, according to Alan Klein, a Northeastern University sociology-anthropology professor who spoke at the University on Wednesday.

Klein was interviewed by Talmage Boston, a Dallas lawyer and sports writer, on his research in the Dominican Republic baseball and his new book “Dominican Baseball: Old Pride, New Prejudices.” With the population of professional baseball players in MLB from the Dominican Republic sitting between 20 to 25 percent, Klein began researching the Dominican baseball culture.

In the interview, Klein said the significant amount of Dominican baseball players in MLB today resulted from academies built in the Dominican Republic in the 1980s.

“Once we got to the mid to late ’80s, academies were being developed,” Klein said. “[Academies] took players who were coming through the Dominican amateur system, they signed them to contracts with major league clubs … they grew them into the kind of ball players that could move into the United States.”

Klein said that today there are a number of academies ranging at different levels. In charge of these academies are people who are known as “buscones.” Buscones are in charge of looking for young Dominican players who they can bring into their academies in hopes of sending them to the MLB.

“[The buscone’s job] is to find that 12- or 13-year-old boy and to literally train him to be a sufficient caliber of player so they might entice some team at tryouts,” Klein said. “It’s a process of up to five years.” 

According to Klein, this often leads to the children neglecting their education.

“When you approach this problem, you have a 13-year-old boy who neglects his education with the idea of investing all of his energy in, and future in, academies,” Klein said.

Boston said Dominicans live off very little income, which gives families incentive to have their kids sent to these academies and on to the MLB.

“[Players] start out incredibly poor making a dollar and a quarter a day,” Boston said. “He’s taken out of his family … they get put into these buscone arrangements … so that they’ll be in a position to get drafted.”

Communications professor Mike Cramer added that young Dominicans who grow up in poverty use baseball as a way out.

“The kids in the Dominican who grow up with nothing — they’re literally playing with sticks and rocks and newspapers on their hands instead of gloves,” Cramer said. “They see the way out as baseball. Sports has been a way out for years for people.”

Last week, Solidarity Ignite, an advocacy group promoting fair working conditions in factories, hosted an event to highlight the benefits of the University Co-op’s new partnership with Alta Gracia, a factory in the Dominican Republic that provides its workers with health benefits and a living wage.

Members of other groups, such as Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition, which last September occupied UT President William Powers Jr’s office, also attended the event.

 UT ended up joining the students’ preferred group, the Workers’ Rights Consortium, which independently monitors working conditions in factories worldwide. The University Co-op pledged to invest $35,000 in Alta Gracia products. This investment was well short of students’ demands of $250,000, but was significant. Similar investments have paid off at universities across the country, such as Duke, which effectively leveraged Alta Gracia’s reputation on workers’ rights to make the brand competitive at their campus store. However, the Co-op’s  limited investment highlights the university community’s financial limitations and reminds anti-sweatshop movements that activism cannot start and end with the university or overseas philanthropy. Solidarity Ignite, therefore, brought Alta Gracia workers Yenny Perez and Maritza Vargas to speak to students and  to put  hard-to-ignore faces on the struggle for dignified work.

The speakers pushed listeners to dispense with easy comparisons and to challenge students to go beyond one hour events. The workers encouraged students to be active in preventing workplace tragedies.

Students wondering about the local costs of oversight lapses need only to look to West, Texas, where a nighttime fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 first responders  and injured over 150, although no workers were killed.

Perez spoke about the years of struggle to bring a factory like Alta Gracia to the Dominican Republic, and of “before” Alta Gracia, at a BJ&B garment factory when many workers were beaten on the job and many of the organizations charged with monitoring the shops were “bought off.” According to Perez, monitoring organizations would ask workers about their conditions with management looking on. Perez firmly believes that Alta Gracia is different, citing Alta Gracia’s three-month paid maternal leave and the wages offered, which are three times higher than other factories in the country.

“It’s like the difference between heaven and Earth,” she said. Despite this praise, she reiterated that her intention was not to sell the audience on the Alta Gracia factory but to advocate for awareness in the U.S. She urged UT students to visit Alta Gracia and other factories in Dominican Republic.

Vargas discussed ongoing challenges, saying that workers were “counting on students” to take their activism beyond graduation. She conceded that the workers will, for now, focus on increasing investments on university campuses (more than 400 universities now support the factory). She argued creating a dilemma between the ability to stay in business and the ability to pay workers a decent wage is misleading because workers “make businesses run.”

I thought of the August protests to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers here in the U.S. and asked her opinion of that national conversation. I was expecting a tacit support for that struggle, but her answer surprised and challenged me. She contended that the minimum wage debate distracted from structural inequality and said that employers use the minimum wage to depress salaries for workers. She encouraged students to “turn this mentality on its head” and move to a fight for a “dignified” wage. Her message was clear: Mere idealistic slogans, easy mainstream solutions and pity will not help workers.

All in all, the workers’ presence forced those listening to pay attention to where UT apparel comes from and to rethink global paradigms. With growing inequality in the U.S., our raised voices in the Dominican Republic cannot be silent about exploitation at home.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.

Last week, Solidarity Ignite, an advocacy group promoting fair working conditions in factories, hosted an event to highlight the benefits of the University Co-op’s new partnership with Alta Gracia, a factory in the Dominican Republic that provides its workers with health benefits and a living wage.

Members of other groups, such as Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition, which last September occupied UT President William Powers Jr’s office, also attended the event.

 UT ended up joining the students’ preferred group, the Workers’ Rights Consortium, which independently monitors working conditions in factories worldwide. The University Co-op pledged to invest $35,000 in Alta Gracia products. This investment was well short of students’ demands of $250,000, but was significant. Similar investments have paid off at universities across the country, such as Duke, which effectively leveraged Alta Gracia’s reputation on workers’ rights to make the brand competitive at their campus store. However, the Co-op’s  limited investment highlights the university community’s financial limitations and reminds anti-sweatshop movements that activism cannot start and end with the university or overseas philanthropy. Solidarity Ignite, therefore, brought Alta Gracia workers Yenny Perez and Maritza Vargas to speak to students and  to put  hard-to-ignore faces on the struggle for dignified work.

The speakers pushed listeners to dispense with easy comparisons and to challenge students to go beyond one hour events. The workers encouraged students to be active in preventing workplace tragedies.

Students wondering about the local costs of oversight lapses need only to look to West, Texas, where a nighttime fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 first responders  and injured over 150, although no workers were killed.

Perez spoke about the years of struggle to bring a factory like Alta Gracia to the Dominican Republic, and of “before” Alta Gracia, at a BJ&B garment factory when many workers were beaten on the job and many of the organizations charged with monitoring the shops were “bought off.” According to Perez, monitoring organizations would ask workers about their conditions with management looking on. Perez firmly believes that Alta Gracia is different, citing Alta Gracia’s three-month paid maternal leave and the wages offered, which are three times higher than other factories in the country.

“It’s like the difference between heaven and Earth,” she said. Despite this praise, she reiterated that her intention was not to sell the audience on the Alta Gracia factory but to advocate for awareness in the U.S. She urged UT students to visit Alta Gracia and other factories in Dominican Republic.

Vargas discussed ongoing challenges, saying that workers were “counting on students” to take their activism beyond graduation. She conceded that the workers will, for now, focus on increasing investments on university campuses (more than 400 universities now support the factory). She argued creating a dilemma between the ability to stay in business and the ability to pay workers a decent wage is misleading because workers “make businesses run.”

I thought of the August protests to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers here in the U.S. and asked her opinion of that national conversation. I was expecting a tacit support for that struggle, but her answer surprised and challenged me. She contended that the minimum wage debate distracted from structural inequality and said that employers use the minimum wage to depress salaries for workers. She encouraged students to “turn this mentality on its head” and move to a fight for a “dignified” wage. Her message was clear: Mere idealistic slogans, easy mainstream solutions and pity will not help workers.

All in all, the workers’ presence forced those listening to pay attention to where UT apparel comes from and to rethink global paradigms. With growing inequality in the U.S., our raised voices in the Dominican Republic cannot be silent about exploitation at home.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.

World Baseball Classic recap: What we learned

Nothing ephemerally quenches a baseball fan’s thirst for the start of the season than baseball, itself. And no, I’m not talking about the overdone, lengthy mess that is spring training. The World Baseball Classic brings a pride aspect to the game but at the same time, provides the entertainment and star power that the Olympics can’t. To those who refuse to give the event a chance, and believe it is not high quality, competitive baseball, take it from the actual players involved: after the U.S. loss to Puerto Rico, Brandon Philips admitted that he wanted the WBC title.

“I’ve got to go back to Goodyear, which I don’t want to do, so it sucks man. I wanted to go to San Francisco so bad,” Team USA and Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips told reporters.

“This has to be right up there with an Olympic gold medal. This is as good as it gets,” former All-Star outfielder and current Dominican Republic general manager Moises Alou said following the Dominican's capturing of the WBC crown.

Some fans may be against the event because it risks the chance that their favorite player or a player on their favorite team could get hurt. However, that decision is and should be up to the player and his team. Fans should realize that players are human too and they don’t play the game to attract fans. Baseball is played because for the love of the game, because it’s America’s Game.

Here's what we learned:

Latin America owns the U.S.

2013 was another disappointing year for the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic. Sure, the Classic has only been played three times, but one would think that the U.S., boasting the best baseball league in the world, should have won the title by now. I understand that winning a title is tough no matter what the circumstances are, but the U.S. has made it to the semifinals once in three years and again failed to make it this year. On their road to a 3-3 record this year, all three of its losses came to Latin American teams, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Lastly, it was an all-Latin American title this year, as the Dominicans defeated Puerto Rico. I don’t believe that the Latin American necessarily have greater talent than the U.S. does, but they do play with more energy and intensity compared to the United States and as seen at the games, the fans follow suit.

“No doubt they have the best team... by names...But we play with a lot of heart," Rangers and Dominican Republican outfielder Nelson Cruz said."

The WBC has its own antics and personality

How could you not love Fernando Rodney’s lucky plantain? Recent reports claim it to be a fraud, taken from a fan in the stands, instead of flown in from the D.R. like originally reported. But it gave the Classic a competitive, personal touch that it had previously lacked.

On the other hand, an ugly sight broke out in the ninth inning of Canada and Mexico’s pool play game. Canada was already pounding Mexico when Canada’s Chris Robinson laid down a bunt single. Mexican pitcher, Arnold Leon, then proceeded to throw at Rene Tosoni, Canada’s next batter, on three straight pitches, and finally hit him on the third. An ugly brawl full of fisticuffs and takedowns erupted and several players were ejected. Canada’s pitching coach, Denis Boucher, was even hit in the head with a full water bottle, thrown by a Mexican fan in the stands.

Of course, Mexico thought Canada was piling on the hits and runs when the bunt single was laid down, but the reason for Robinson’s action is that teams are ranked in their pools based on how many runs they score, so in a way, Canada was just playing the game. Therefore, the Mexicans showed some ignorance to understanding of the rule and made themselves look like sore losers after throwing at Robinson.

Despite the misjudgment that some fans showed during the brawl, I’m sure many who watched the WBC can agree that the fans were one of the best features of the entire event. With its own culture and personality, each different group of fans brought a different beat and sound to the stimulating background noise never heard at a typical MLB game. Everything from the vuvuzelas to the nonstop chants and displays of energy makes the fans very deserving of praise for their dedication and passion to their respective teams and countries.

World Baseball Classic set to wind down Tuesday night with Dominican Republic-Puerto Rico final

And with the blink of an eye, the last two weeks of madness in the World Baseball Classic is set to wind down Tuesday night, pitting the powerhouse Dominican Republic squad against the somewhat Cinderella team from Puerto Rico.

Both teams made it out of the loaded pool C to advance to the quarter-finals in Miami a week ago. Puerto Rico took a misstep in their first game, losing to the Americans 7-1. The Dominican Republic had a dramatic comeback against team Italy, finally squeaking by and winning 5-4. With the Americans and Dominicans both winning their first game, they each got the right to square off against one and other for the right to advance to the semi-finals, leaving the other to play in an elimination game against the Puerto Ricans after they had eliminated Italy the day before. The Dominicans won a tight one, edging the Americans 2-1, scoring the go ahead run in the top of the ninth and advanced in the tournament. The Puerto Ricans got their chance at redemption against team USA, and won the elimination game 4-3, sending them on to the semi-finals and sending the Americans back to their respective Spring Training venues.

Once the venue switched to the West Coast out at AT&T Park in San Francisco, the final four teams standing from the original field of 16 where the Latin American clubs from pool C, Japan and the Netherlands. Japan returned to America looking to keep their perfection intact in the WBC, winning the only other two tournaments in its brief history. It was there the Puerto Ricans shocked not only Japan but the rest of the baseball world when they took down the Japanese by a score 3-1, placing themselves in the championship game. The Dominican Republic kept their perfect record intact and moved to 7-0 in the tournament by dispatching the Dutch, setting up the all Latin American final set to go down tonight out by the Bay.

The Dominicans are favored and will be led on the mound Samuel Deduno. Deduno has been solid this far in the tournament, and matches up well with the relatively weak lineup of the Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico will send Giancarlo Alvarado to the mound in hopes of slowing down the powerful lineup of the Dominican Republic. Alvarado is sporting a 2.16 ERA in the WBC, but the task of slowing down Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion and others is daunting to say the least.  

This is the third game the two teams have played against each other up to this point in the tournament, with the Domincans winning both by a combined score of 6-2. Puerto Rico will have to hope the clock doesn’t strike midnight on them before the ninth inning tonight, or their magical run will come crashing down as they watch their fierce rival celebrate their first World Baseball Classic title right in front of their very eyes.

Graduate students from UT have established a pilot project for processing organic waste in a poor settlement in the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo, establishing four composting sites.

The community, known as Los Platanitos, has been the subject of Community and Regional Program Coordinator and associate professor Bjørn Sletto’s biyearly course, Latin American Planning Studio, since 2008. Most recently, the program instituted a pilot program for disposing organic waste. If the pilot program is successful, Sletto plans to expand composting and begin work on plastic recycling in 2014.

The course received an EPA award for $15,000 for its work. A new batch of students will return in 2014.

In 2008 the class found that trash was one of the biggest impediments to quality of life. The community, built on top of a thinly covered landfill, disposes its waste by dumping it into ‘la cañada’, a creek that runs through the upper and lower parts of the settlement. However, la cañada has been narrowed as the community developed, and flows at a slow pace. During rains lasting more than an hour, the trash blocks the flow of water through it, causing the houses and narrow alleyways in the lower half of the community to be inundated by contaminated water. Similar communities around Santo Domingo also face problems resulting from improper waste disposal.

Sletto said the long-term strategy is to address solid waste disposal in the community.

To evaluate and solve the community’s biggest problem, Sletto’s class prepared a report on the community’s challenges in 2008, honed in on trash in a report in 2010 and worked on a pilot composting project in 2012.

Solange Munoz, a member of Sletto’s first course in 2008, said to study the community’s problems, students had to foster a relationship.

“You have these so-called experts that go in and say what’s wrong with a community,” Munoz said. “The insight and the experience of these communities is often overlooked and forgotten.”

Munoz said rejecting the top-down model many researchers use turned out to be critical to their approach.

More recent 2012 class member Matthew Clifton agreed and said the community was instrumental in implementing the test composting project. Processed material from the four vermicomposting sites, which use worms to speed up the process, is useful for small gardens scattered across the community. As fertilizer, the material is also a potential source of income for the community. Day-to-day maintenance of the project is overseen by Fundacion Unitaria Los Platanitos, which the group helped connect with a larger NGO in the Dominican Republic. Women in the community, whose social responsibilities include waste management, also help take care of the composing sites.

Clifton said he was happy his class and the community’s knowledge could come together to start solving Los Platanitos’ waste problem.

“Just approaching a situation with just a vague idea of what you’re going to do and realizing you can have a wonderful output was just a lesson for me,” Clifton said. “The community organization can capitalize and serve as a model for other communities.”

Published on March 4, 2013 as "Organic waste project aids Dominican Republic".

Outsourcing labor for dining venues formerly run by Texas Athletics allowed the department to profit more than $3 million last year. But reports from human rights groups indicate an unseen human labor cost may be tacked onto the price of food and drinks bought at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

In 2011, 11 universities and athletics departments across the nation ended their contracts with Sodexo Services, a French-based company with 125,000 employees in North America serving 9.3 million meals each day to take in $8 billion in revenue annually, according to the company’s website. Sodexo Services is currently responsible for concessions at all UT athletic events, except for dining at the University of Texas Club at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. UT has a separate contract with Sodexo and paid the company $926,122.62 in the 2011 fiscal year, according to a report of University purchases to the State Comptroller’s office.

The 11 dropped contracts came a year after The Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental advocacy group, released a 2010 report detailing Sodexo Services’ alleged violations of worker’s rights to unionize on several occasions in the United States.

In January 2011, the TransAfrica Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group, released a report detailing findings from interviews with Sodexo workers in the Dominican Republic, Guinea, Morocco and the United States. In the report, TransAfrica noted cases where Sodexo workers allegedly earned as little as 33 cents per hour in the Dominican Republic.

After hearing of the treatment of Sodexo workers in the Dominican Republic first-hand from a former employee, students at the University of Washington decided in November of 2010 to try to get the university to sever its 25-year ties with the company, said UW junior Katy Lindgren. Lindgren said she and other members of the university’s chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops eventually had to stage sit-ins where 50 protesters were arrested to get the university’s administration to finally end Sodexo’s contract in December 2011, after a university committee failed to consider information other than that offered from Sodexo.

“The committee basically just asked Sodexo if the allegations were true,” Lindgren said. “Of course Sodexo came back and said it wasn’t.”

Sodexo has repeatedly denied anti-union sentiment and human rights violations, but in September 2011, they conceded to reform company policy when it settled for $20,000 with a fired worker at Tulane University. The settlement stemmed from a suit filed by the National Labor Relations Board, which alleged the company had violated labor laws.

The allegations against Sodexo stand stark in comparison to the company’s reputation at Texas. Jim Baker, former UT-Austin associate athletic director for events and operations, and recently appointed athletics director of UT-Arlington, said contracting with Sodexo transformed profits at Texas athletics events, netting $3 million in profit for UT athletics in 2011. Baker said prior to contracting with Marriott in 1994, which was later bought by Sodexo in 1998, sales from concessions at University athletic events were barely profitable.

“We were really a mom and pop kind of operation that wasn’t bringing in very much revenue,” Baker said. “The equipment was outdated. If you flipped the wrong switch the breaker would blow. We started looking for ways to make revenue and decided to outsource to people who do this for a living.”

A few years later, concessions were a completely different story, Baker said. Sodexo worked with athletic departments to maximize space for vending during the stadium remodel in 1997, he said and revenue began to pour in.

“They brought professionalism,” Baker said. “They brought data about point-of-sale. They brought expertise.”

In addition to bringing efficiency and profitability to the table, Sodexo also strives to promote community, said Ivan Wagner, manager for Sodexo Services at Texas Athletics.

Last year a range of nonprofit organizations, including church groups and Girl Scout troops, staffed the concession stands to earn $500,000.

“It’s not easy work,” Wagner said. “But if you have a really motivated group that’s willing to work really hard, it is a way to make money you might otherwise not be able to earn.”

Wagner said Sodexo also tries to partner with local franchise vendors as well as national chains to add variety and offer business opportunities to local people.

But even if Sodexo is doing good locally, it is overshadowed by the injustices it serves workers internationally, Lindgren said.

“On our campus we hadn’t had any rights violations,” Lindgren said. “We still wanted to impress upon the administration that it wasn’t enough just to be a leader in our local community, but also good global citizens that recognize the importance of human quality of life. What we’re hoping is that Sodexo will get the message that it must change its labor practices.”

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: UT linked to company faced with labor law violations