Closing stores, opening hearts: Starbucks partners share their responses to anti-bias sessions

SEATTLE — Barista Loni Stubblefield walked through the lobby of a south Seattle Starbucks addressing each seated customer directly with her broad smile. “Hey, just so you know, we’re going to be starting our training in a few minutes.”

Five minutes later, the once-full store had emptied of its customers. One by one, they finished their drinks and packed up to leave – a UPS guy, a man wearing a massive backpack and a bicycle helmet, a woman in headphones working on a laptop. Many of them said goodbye to Starbucks partners as they filed past the sign on the door, which matched the one on the drive-through screen: “We’ll see you tomorrow.” 

Even after the store was closed, customers continued to arrive.

“Aww, those were regulars,” Stubblefield said as two men walked up, read the sign on the door and walked away.

There’s no easy way to close a bustling café and drive-through for four hours in the middle of the day. On Tuesday, Starbucks closed more than 8,000 of them nationwide for training and conversations about bias and inclusion.

Tuesday’s closure stems from an April 12 incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks where Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, both black men, were waiting for a business associate. One of them asked for the restroom code and was told it was for paying customers only, and they sat down without making a purchase. The store manager called the police, who arrested them and led them out of the store. Nelson and Robinson had been in the store less than 10 minutes when police arrived.

The manager is no longer with Starbucks, and the company has since updated its policy to make the café spaces open to all customers – defined as anyone in the store.

Within days of the incident, leaders Kevin Johnson, the chief executive officer, and Howard Schultz, executive chairman, announced that all of Starbucks more than 8,000 stores in the United States would close the afternoon of May 29 for trainings and conversations about bias and inclusion.

The session, called "The Third Place: Our Commitment Renewed" was created under the guidance of national experts including Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. It's the first of what will be ongoing sessions.

“I think it’s courageous and empowering,” said Marylee Moore, a regular customer who had wandered by the south Seattle Starbucks for an iced coffee to find the store closed. “It’s pretty brave of them to close all those Starbucks on the same day. It will definitely be noticed. My (iced coffee) temptation will have to be waylaid for today – but for a good cause.”

Inside, the store was bustling again – this time with partners. Those who weren’t already working Tuesday arrived in cars, taxis and by bicycle. They arrived carrying pizzas and salad and cakes. Tim Webb, the store manager, spent his Memorial Day holiday baking three trays of cinnamon rolls for his team.

“Because who doesn’t love a cinnamon roll?” he said, warming them in the store’s ovens on the “morning bun” setting.

Arnetta Allen, a shift supervisor, hurriedly led the business of closing – storing food, counting money, distributing tips – so the four-hour training could begin. Allen is actually featured as part of the training; she appears in a video discussing the complexities of establishing a welcoming environment in stores. 

Arnetta Allen, a shift supervisor in a south Seattle Starbucks, participates in a filmed roundtable of partners. The video was part of Tuesday's training materials.

In her six years as a Starbucks partner, Allen has learned to navigate the incredibly wide spectrum of people who come into the stores, including customers experiencing drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness. She’s empathetic of people having a hard time – she’s had them herself. She and her family lived in a shelter for three months when they moved to Seattle.

Still, she was excited for Tuesday's training to help partners get to know themselves and each other better, which will in turn help them better serve customers.

New York City

“It was a big day,” said Tafsir “Taz” Mbodje, a Starbucks district manager in New York City whose area includes 11 stores in and around Times Square.

Mbodje began the day by participating in the training with other district managers, and ended the day visiting several stores in his district to make sure everything was going smoothly.

“It was good to start the day with uninterrupted training. If we were in stores, I know the leader in us would have tried to manage or provide perspective, which would have taken us out of learning mode and into facilitator mode,” Mbodje said. “When you’re allowed to be a student, you free yourself up from responsibility to learn.”

Tafsir “Taz” Mbodje, a Starbucks district manager in New York City, in a still taken from a video used in Tuesday's training.

Mbodje said he had several powerful moments throughout the day. One was when he and the other managers had finished discussing the types of customers in their stores and they turned to the question: “Who is not in our stores?” This reminded Mbodje of when some stores in New York removed power outlets from the lobbies to prevent people from sitting and charging their devices for long periods of time.

“It really made me think of customers who, over the years, we may have left out unintentionally with our policies,” Mbodje  said. “People are working at Starbucks. Editing videos. Meeting with prospective clients. When we shut our outlets, those customers no longer had a place to charge their phones, their laptops and themselves.”

Mbodje is keenly interested in creating a welcoming third place for many types of people and has a deep interest in people in general. He was born in Senegal and his father is a diplomat, which means he attended schools all over the world as his father moved posts.

“If somebody would have told me 20 years ago that a kid from Africa would be managing a district in Times Square in New York City, especially given I didn’t speak a single word of English when I came here, I would have never believed it,” Mbodje said.

Growing up all over the world also means Mbodje became a student of many cultures and an astute observer of his father’s diplomacy work.

“It’s all about how you talk to people and reach people, and how you make what relationship you have work. I got really good at understanding people and making new friends quickly,” Mbodje said.

His father used to spin the globe, stop it by putting his finger on a country, and have Mbodje and his two sisters name the country’s major cities, demographics, natural resources and more. “I got to be a little bit well-rounded,” Mbodje said, laughing.

Mbodje appears in a section of Tuesday’s training in which Starbucks partners explore “what makes me, me and what makes you, you” where they examine their differences as well as seeking out their similarities. He believes that developing a curiosity for each other, rather than relying on assumptions, will help create a new awareness.

As he took the training with fellow managers in New York Tuesday morning, it was this section of the training that brought one of the day’s most powerful moments.

“I was talking to one of my peers, someone I’ve known for almost three years, but we’d only ever talked about superficial stuff,” Mbodje said. He knew his coworker wasn’t married, but said there’s one question he’d always been reluctant to ask: “Hey, so do you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend?”

Today, his colleague brought it up.

“He said, ‘Hey, you never asked, but I’m gay. And I know you have a wife and two children. And that’s one of our differences – our sexuality,’” Mbodje said. “That was a powerful moment.”

Mbodje said he’s experienced the hesitancy to ask deeper questions from both sides.

“I still have my accent, so that’s a thing people think about me. I tell them I’m from Africa, and to them, that’s often where the questions stop, even though Africa is a continent, not a country, and there are so many distinct cultures,” Mbodje said.

That afternoon, as he sat with partners at several area stores, he loved watching them see the Stanley Nelson documentary telling the story of access to public spaces in America.

“Some of them were like, ‘Wow, I’m that kid in the video. When I walk into stores people follow me because they think I want to steal from them,’” Mbodje said. “It was very eye-opening. We all came out learning something about what it means to have unconscious and implicit bias. Many of our partners are really young, too, so it’s their first time being introduced to these terms. I’m looking forward to our next steps to follow-up on this – it’s going to be critical.”

Clarksville, Tenn.

Hailey Dowell, a 30-year-old barista working at the Military Family Store in Clarksville, Tenn., has been using Starbucks as a third place since she was 10 years old when she’d go to her local store after school to do homework or meet friends. Often, she didn’t order anything, she said.

Hailey Dowell

So when she first saw the video of Philadelphia on her Facebook feed, she could hardly believe it. At first, she wasn’t sure it was real so she googled it and began reading the articles that came up. With a sinking feeling, she realized it was real. “It wasn’t a fair situation,” she said.

At that time, she’d only been with Starbucks about six weeks, having relocated with her husband to Fort Campbell where he serves in the Army. Even before she was hired, she frequently visited the Military Family Store to see friendly faces, something she missed since she moved away from home.

A few days before the training, she was hoping that it would help remind people “to not be judgmental. You have no idea what happened to someone that day or in their life.”

On Tuesday, after completing the training with her store, she said she felt like the four hours flew by. She was shaken by the documentary where people of color shared their experiences of being followed in stores or harassed just trying to go about their daily lives. "It was an eye opener," said Dowell, who is white. "I know people are treated this way but never think about it. I never think about how someone may feel uncomfortable because they deal with it every day."

That changed today, she said. Her group discussed ways of helping people feel at home by making sure they make eye contact with every customer and greet them.

She wants Starbucks to truly be a home away from home for all people “I hope everyone has the same experience I’ve had since I was 10 when you need a place to go to where you can sit in comfy chairs and use the bathrooms and you come there and feel you are welcome.”


Starbucks Support Center

At the Starbucks Support Center, the company’s headquarters in Seattle where 6,000 partners work, the doors were also closed and signs posted. Meetings were canceled. No tours were scheduled or visitors allowed. The usually busy hallways were empty as partners went through the trainings on their computers and then met in groups for roundtable discussions.

At Starbucks headquarters, Tuesday's training started with a coffee tasting led by Sena Kwawu senior vice president, Supply Chain Finance and Shared Services.

Annette McKee, director of retail engineering and technology for Starbucks, paused to talk as she left one of the discussions.

She was particularly struck by a short documentary included in the curriculum by director Stanley Nelson about African Americans in public spaces.  It was a topic that came up at her table where partners talked about "these kinds of experiences and feeling like they don't belong" -- even sometimes at the SSC, she said.

The training is a first step, she noted. "I'm grateful the leadership team had the integrity to take action."

The Tuesday training was the second one at the SSC. Last week, a group of about 100 senior leaders at Starbucks, including Kevin Johnson, the company’s chief executive officer, and Howard Schultz, the executive chairman, gathered to go through an early session. For more than four hours, they worked together through the 60-page guidebook, watched videos, wrote in their journals and talked in small groups.

Chris Carr, executive vice president and chief procurement officer at Starbucks going through the training, shared that when his son turned 16, his wife took him to the local police station to introduce him to every police officer there. “He is a good boy,” she told them, hoping that they would see beyond the color of his skin if they saw him out driving.

Carr said that he hopes the training, which his full team experienced Tuesday, will broaden people’s awareness.

“I hope that (after the training) we will all work together in the same direction,” he said. “It’s a different level of awareness and respect and inclusion.”

South Seattle

“That was very emotional,” said Allen of the south Seattle Starbucks, on speakerphone as she drove home from training Tuesday night.

The hardest part for her was watching director Stanley Nelson’s short documentary about African Americans in public spaces. It took her back to age 18, working at a fast food retailer in the south and being called the N-word.

“I never really understood racism until that day,” Allen said. “Seeing that video took me back. It opened a can of worms for me, and that I still have to explain racism, not just to myself, but to my kids.”

Allen said her favorite part of the four-hour training was hearing her colleagues open up – hearing about what everyone thinks and about who they are as individuals.

“I hope that each and every last partner had their eyes opened to what’s going on in the world and that they’re thinking in their mind what they can do differently after today,” she said.

As for her, she never thought she’d last at Starbucks, but only because when she started, she wasn’t a coffee drinker.

“I had to memorize all the different types of coffee drinks and my husband used to have to quiz me and I’d practice writing orders on cups. There was so much I had to learn,” she said, laughing. “I honestly didn’t think I’d make it six years. The values and beliefs of Howard Schultz and what he built this company on is why I’m still here. I can’t see myself working anywhere else.”

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