From shattered glass, Starbucks murals become first ‘blossom’ in a neighborhood rebuilding

Massive peaceful protests for racial equality at the Wisconsin state capital gave way to destruction and shattered windows in a historic Madison neighborhood. As the plywood went up, one Starbucks store “in a sea of broken glass” kept serving coffee – and hope.

As the sun rose over her beloved city and a “sea of broken glass” that stretched as far as she could see in every direction, longtime Starbucks store manager Julie Campbell took a deep breath and started brewing coffee. She’d been sweeping since 3 a.m., and though the Madison, Wisconsin, Starbucks she’s managed for 15 years had no glass left in its doors or windows, she said it did not even occur to her to close.

“We’ve never not served coffee. We’ve never not served our neighborhood,” Julie said. “If there was a way, and there were partners willing to join me, I can’t imagine not.”

For several days, massive peaceful protests for racial equality at the nearby state capital had given way to destruction after dark by comparatively few. The large, two-story Starbucks with a balcony – which pre-pandemic was bustling with college students from the nearby University of Wisconsin campus – was one of many businesses hit by vandals.

“I am no stranger to protests. I’ve been fighting for progress for my entire life,” said Campbell, who has been with her partner for 30 years but was finally able to legally marry her five years ago with the Supreme Court’s passage of marriage equality in all 50 states. “What happened on our street has nothing to do with what went on at the capital, which was peaceful protests against police violence and society having a literal and figurative knee on the neck of black and brown people for 400 years. There is no comparison.”

Campbell and her team served coffee to news crews and other business owners. They offered coffee to police officers and protestors and the volunteers who arrived to help clean up. As crews prepared to cover the store’s window frames with plywood, Campbell and Starbucks district manager Lisa Greco had an idea. They called Michelle Kolar, a painter and shift supervisor from a nearby Starbucks.

The three women brainstormed what they hoped would be an inspiring design, and Michelle headed to a nearby hardware store to pick out some paint.

“I asked for their advice on the right kind of paint and they asked what I was doing. When I told them what I was painting and why, they donated it,” Michelle said.

Though she’s been painting since she was a kid, the plywood murals were Michelle’s biggest canvases yet. Under a large “We’re open!” banner, she got to work. She painted four, large plywood panels with words and images – love, peace, unity and a brown fist. She painted a company message about confronting racism.   

“It felt great. A lot of people stopped to chat and to ask if I actually worked at Starbucks and to ask to take pictures,” Michelle said. “Art for me has always been a release. It’s not every day you get to lose yourself in the moment and the movement. Not to be all gung-ho about Starbucks, but I am so proud to be with a company that cares and is for always standing up for what’s right.”

Michelle’s murals outside Starbucks were the first on a long street of shattered windows.

“The street is just blossoming with art now,” Michelle said. “It’s really powerful to see people turning something ugly into something beautiful.”

For Julie, it’s all a perfect metaphor.

“You have to keep moving forward. You have to keep spreading hope. You have to keep going toward what’s right. The first Pride was actually a riot at Stonewall. That was an inflection point, and I do believe this is another inflection point,” Julie said. “This is one of those moments where I think the tide is turning and change will happen.”

There can be beauty among shattered glass – and there can be coffee, she said.

“And hope.”

-- Jennifer Warnick