Discussing Race Relations in America at Starbucks

Growing up in Minneapolis during the 1970s, I was often the only black person in the room. In second grade, I asked a group of girls if I could play with them and was puzzled when one said, “no blacks allowed.” In high school, I experienced the sting of a racial slur. I don’t remember the name of the boy who insulted me, but I can still picture his face.

Although my skin color was different from most – we were the only black family in the neighborhood – I was always comfortable with it. I attribute this to my parents who instilled in me a strong sense of self. My parents also taught me about my history. They shared the experiences of black Americans, including their own, which meant dealing with bigotry, segregation and racial slurs. I have discussed these experiences at home and with friends. The discussions were emotional, filled with sadness and frustration. Knowing this, I felt apprehensive when I heard Starbucks, where I’ve been a partner (employee) for the past 15 years, was going to have open conversations about race relations in America.

Starbucks chairman and ceo Howard Schultz held an impromptu meeting in December of 2014 in the company’s Seattle headquarters. Although all-company meetings, called Partner Open Forums, are regular occurrences for partners who work in the Starbucks Support Center, the topic of conversation was uncommon in a corporate setting – racial tension in America. Many partners said it was “the most emotional, powerful discussion” they’ve ever been a part of.

For more than an hour, Starbucks employees representing various ages, races and ethnicities passed a microphone and shared personal experiences. “The current state of racism in our country is almost like humidity at times. You can’t see it, but you feel it,” said one partner.

After that discussion, Howard (as partners at Starbucks call him) intended to continue the conversations in Oakland, St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Although initially uncomfortable talking about a topic that was usually reserved for family and very close friends, not colleagues at work, I attended two of the partner forums.

St. Louis – For some young people just staying alive is an accomplishment

More than 250 enthusiastic partners filled a large event space in St. Louis. Some drove up to five hours from Indiana and Arkansas to attend. The conversation flew by with many partners making similar suggestions for improving race relations including having partners volunteer in their communities throughout the year.

In the midst of the discussion, a soft spoken young man shared that he was proud to have reached the age of 20. The magnitude of that statement might have been lost on many in the room, but for me, it brought to light a deeply troubling situation. For some young people in our country, just staying alive is their biggest and most important accomplishment. How could that be in 21st century America with all of the promise and opportunity our nation provides?

I was also struck by the comments of a young woman who shared that in her community people don’t call the police when they need help; they call on members of the community instead. A lack of trust and belief that police would arrive in time to help prevents many from dialing 9-1-1.

New York City – “I turned hate into passion”

Anxiety rose inside as I watched partners file into the auditorium at Cooper Union in New York City. Like the St. Louis Partner Open Forum two days before, we had no idea what we would hear from partners. I saw a group of young women chatting and laughing as they waited for the forum to begin. A brown-skinned woman left the group and began walking up the center aisle. I caught her eye and said hello.

“If you have a story, please share it,” I said. “We need to hear what partners have experienced. Our leaders need to know what partners face.” She nodded somewhat nervously.

After sharing a video and brief remarks, Howard opened the conversation to the 200 partners before him. One by one, partners stood up, took the microphone and shared their stories. Many were brought to tears as they recalled their experiences, while those who listened fought back their own. From the middle section, I saw the young women I had spoken to earlier stand up and with her voice shaking said:

“I was a victim of police brutality, which caused me to have hatred for all cops,” she said. “After working for Starbucks, I turned that hate into passion. Starbucks saved my life.”

What an amazing testimony. What bravery. At the end of the open forum, I made my way through the crowd, gave this partner a hug and thanked her for sharing her story. I could see in her eyes that she was relieved to have spoken her truth.

The value of conversations about race

I now see the value in having open and honest conversations about race - even in the workplace. In the past three months more than 2,000 partners have been involved in Partner Open Forums in six cities sharing personal feelings. They’ve also learned to be empathetic listeners and have gained perspective and understanding about their fellow partners’ life experience. Perhaps a simple outcome, but one that will be truly valuable as we – as a country – continue down the path of improving race relations.

Starbucks partners who want to share a story related to racial tension in America, please email Linda Thomas.

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