Coming home: Store manager brings COVID-19 supplies to Navajo Nation

Ty Barbone grew up in in a single-room house on the Navajo Nation territory, without running water, refrigeration or electricity. The oldest of four children, he remembers doing his homework by candlelight throughout high school. His life partner, Dwayne Hogue, grew up in a similar situation, very isolated, about five or six miles away from his nearest neighbor.

When you don’t have much, you try not to take things for granted. That’s why their efforts to bring water and other essential resources to the Navajo Nation – to their people – are especially significant during the COVID-19 crisis.

Barbone, a Starbucks store manager in Gallup, N.M., and Hogue, a Navajo Nation police officer, are working with local Starbucks leadership and local businesses to make sure basic supplies are reaching those who need it most.

“It’s a challenge, it’s hard,” Barbone says. “But you have to take on the challenges. Life isn’t easy. I can still hear my parents in the background: ‘Yéego Nanilnish, Yéego Nanilnish.’ Work hard, work hard (in Navajo).”

The Navajo Nation – the largest American Indian territory in the United States – has experienced coronavirus infection rates higher than New York, making it one of the hardest-hit areas in the world. The territory covers approximately 27,000 square miles – about the size of West Virginia – and sprawls across parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

About a third of the residents of the Navajo Nation don’t have access to running water, which is a big problem during a health pandemic when handwashing is one of the primary risk-reducing recommendations. In the Navajo Nation, handwashing is a luxury.

About 90 percent of Barbone’s store team are Navajo tribe members. He sensed their frustration and fear in the spring, as local businesses started running low on essentials and rationed how much water people could buy. Many Navajo tribal members live in remote areas and rely on wells. Lockdown measures – including a strict curfew enforced on Navajo land – made it harder for people to leave home and go shopping.

When Barbone realized that Navajo tribe members were driving hundreds of miles for supplies, he allowed his store partners to take water home from the store. Then he worked with Hogue and his regional director Jennifer Haffenden and began to secure water for the Navajo police as well.

"Water is sacred, water is life," Hogue says. "It's not to be used in a wasteful way."

Phil Amador, Barbone’s district manager, heard about a local distillery and brewery that had temporarily shut down and was diverting its efforts into making hand sanitizer instead. He collected empty milk jugs from his ten stores to fill with hand sanitizer, and began distributing them to residents of the Navajo Nation. Haffenden contacted local businesses to get more water, and she directed care packages with additional donations, such as coffee, pastries and snacks, from her region’s stores to help.

In April, after partners nominated local non-profits responding to COVID-19, The Starbucks Foundation also  awarded $7,500 in Neighborhood Grants to two health organizations in Gallup working with the Navajo Nation: the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment program and the Center for American Indian Health, which are planning to build temporary handwashing stations, boost capacity of their health care facilities and deliver personal protective equipment.

And, Starbucks worked with Operation Gratitude to help deliver 750 care packages in July –  containing handwritten thank you notes, snacks and Starbucks coffee – to Navajo Nation police officers and front-line health care workers in the area. The Starbucks Foundation previously donated $250,000 to Operation Gratitude to support the Los Angeles-based nonprofit’s mission to deliver comfort items to areas most impacted by COVID-19.

“I love that we’re able to help and support people in need,” says Amador, who moved to New Mexico from California just three months ago. “It’s eye-opening to me, what’s going on in Navajo Nation, what American Indian life looks like outside of the suburbs and the cities. It’s inspiring, it’s also concerning. I had no idea.”

Barbone, a store manager for seven years, wants to share that culture with the rest of the company, and is pushing Starbucks to start a Native American employee affinity group. It’s part of a desire to tell the stories that he and Hogue grew up with: the treaty of 1868 that established the Navajo sovereign nation; the sacred pollen that’s dusted off the corn tassels for ceremonies and prayers; the brown and green on Hogue’s police uniform that signifies the barren dessert and the food they’re still able to grow on it; the multigenerational households all living together under one roof.  

Barbone also wants to change the perception of Starbucks stores within the Native American community. Growing up, they just weren’t something the locals felt connected to. Even after he joined Starbucks and became a manager, he didn’t get a second look at job fairs from the Navajo tribal members he was trying to recruit to work at his store. Only when he started speaking Navajo – “Diné nishłį́” (I am Navajo) – did they give him a chance.

“Me being a Navajo and running a store in Gallup, it’s something they would never have thought was possible,” Barbone says. “When they see me, when I start talking my language to them, it’s amazing to see the look on their face.”

The first year he was store manager, he had to overcome some cultural tension points. As a kid, he was taught to stay quiet and mind his own business. His parents coached him to avoid eye contact; to look directly at an elder was a sign of disrespect. Working in corporate America, it was often the opposite. As a company leader, he had to be vocal and confront problems as soon as they occurred.

“This company is helping me be a better leader and I love that my people are there for each other,” Barbone says. “We walk in beauty. Through tough times, we’re still here. We walk in beauty and we’re still here and we’re holding strong.”

-- by Michael Ko