Living MLK’s legacy: Hope, help and new beginnings in Jonesboro, Ga.

JONESBORO, Ga. – From the day she was hired at the new Starbucks on Tara Boulevard – the first in Clayton County – Monique Clark hustled.

She took extra shifts, asked questions, volunteered to clean up and tried to soak up as much information as possible. The work didn’t get any easier after she was promoted a couple months later, the first barista at the store to move up to shift supervisor. That meant being a leader, paperwork, handling customer complaints and 3 a.m. wake ups, so she had enough time to drop off her 4-year-old daughter at her grandmother’s and still get everything ready for the 5:30 a.m. opening.

Not that she’s complaining. Up until now, Clark’s employment history has consisted mostly of on-again, off-again warehouse work, boxing products wherever the temp agencies sent her. Clark, 23, knows what this job means.

Steady money to take care of the bills. Medical benefits for her and her child. Co-workers and a manager she actually talks to and likes. A career path forward. Stability. The option of college tuition paid for by the company. And for the first time in her life, she’s able to think about ways to give back to her community, something that the Jonesboro Starbucks is focused on as it partners with local non-profits and community groups and hosts neighborhood events to bring people together.

“I was bullied a little bit in school, so I realized that was one thing,” Clark says, “like I wanted to be a voice for maybe others that didn't have a voice, or be a voice for things that weren't always heard.

“And also for single mothers,” she continues. “That's something that's really close to my heart with different housing and different problems that I faced raising my child. I'd like to (be an example to) other women and younger women that are having children and are by themselves, that someone is here, someone can help you and point you in the right direction and show you different things that you can do to also be successful.”

Finding ways to help others and strengthen the community is at the heart of Starbucks, which has 30,000 stores around the world and a mission to “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

How does that mission statement show up in a place like Jonesboro, located in the least affluent county in the metro Atlanta area, where vacant storefronts and empty parking lots dot the seemingly endless strip-mall sprawl and community-health quantifiers such as median income, employment, high school graduation and economic development lag behind? And what does it mean for Clark, who moved here when she was 12 years old, one of 14 kids raised by a mostly single mother?

When Starbucks opened in Jonesboro in July, it marked another step in an ongoing commitment initiated by former Starbucks chief executive officer Howard Schultz. In 2014, he visited Ferguson, Mo., following the protests around the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown Jr. and decided to open Starbucks stores in economically depressed neighborhoods around the country.

The goals of these branded Community Stores are to create local jobs and career pathways for people who need them, especially youth, give opportunities to diverse vendors and contractors and use the store as a focal point to work alongside local organizations on strengthening the community.

This spring, Starbucks will fulfill a company commitment to build 15 Community Stores, when it opens one in Prince George’s County, Md. Going forward, in partnership with United Way, Starbucks plans to expand the Community Store model to 100 neighborhoods across the country by 2025.

Jonesboro is a different world from booming Atlanta, which is located about 15 miles north on Interstate 75. United Way of Greater Atlanta recently scored Jonesboro 30 out of a possible 100 points in a survey of 14 child well-being indicators, the worst rating in the metro-Atlanta area.

“What being a 30 means is that you don’t have enough resources for all children in that community to thrive, for families to be self-sufficient,” says Michele Jacobs, director of youth development programs for United Way of Greater Atlanta.

‘On Being a Good Neighbor’

Trent Allen is the store manager at the Jonesboro Community Store, Clark’s boss. Sometimes, on his way to work, he passes by the King Center, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is buried alongside his wife, Coretta Scott King.

The tomb is located a few blocks from King’s childhood home on Auburn Avenue, where he was born Jan. 15, 1929, and his childhood church, Ebenezer Baptist, where he preached alongside his father.

“It's a constant reminder about what the Civil Rights leaders did and the progress that's been made,” Allen says, “but also where we still need to go and what strengthening communities needs to look like.”

In 1963, five years before his assassination in Memphis, King released a book of meditative sermons called “Strength to Love,” some of them composed in jail. In one of them, titled “On Being a Good Neighbor,” he wrote about the story of the Good Samaritan, who prioritized concern for others above concern for himself, even at the risk of his own position and prestige.

One of the great tragedies of history, King explained, is the limiting of neighborliness to one’s own tribe, race, class or nation. And while philanthropy is commendable, King believed something more important is identifying and improving the conditions that make philanthropy necessary.

This month, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s worth wondering: Can a corporation sell coffee, and truly be a good neighbor?

Allen thinks so.

A self-proclaimed Navy brat born in Charleston, S.C., Allen attended four different elementary schools and three different middle schools. He bounced between houses and trailers with different family members after his parents split, including some time with an aunt who was also a foster parent. He describes snapshots of his childhood with words like poverty line, food insecurity and meager.

A turning point came in middle school, when a family friend introduced him to Camp Big Heart in Fort Valley, Ga., which provides summer camp experiences for children and adults who are developmentally challenged. Allen attended as a youth volunteer.

He went back the next summer, and all the summers after that, for about 15 years, eventually joining the camp board of directors as president. Those experiences helped push him to get his degree in special education with a concentration in reading, and he started working with students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

“I think that it really changed me to understand that service to other people is part of the absolute beauty of life,” Allen says. “And that really kind of kickstarted my love and desire to fulfill what I think life’s purpose is, which is to touch lives for the better and to leave the world a better place than when you came to it.”

He taught in schools for a short while then worked in restaurants and retail before a recruiter told him about the Starbucks Community Store opportunity. Intrigued, he applied and was chosen to be the store’s first manager.  

Allen, 31, is a deep wellspring of endless energy, with a clean-cut beard, a fan of obscure movies and working out. He grew up queer in the South. And because of his humble roots and his work with individuals with developmental disabilities, he feels he has a deep empathy and appreciation for a wide range of people.

He sifted through about 400 applications after he was hired, picking 24 employees in a six-week blur – all new to Starbucks, most new to retail and customer service, all living within 15 miles of the store. Part of the hiring occurred at a local non-profit called Hearts to Nourish Hope, which is where Allen first met Clark.

Since then, along with running a store full time, Allen and his team have quickly built relationships in the community. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People started meeting at the store; the group, led by Clayton County chapter president Synamon Baldwin, works on increasing civic engagement. This past November, United Way of Greater Atlanta hosted a health and wellness block party in the Starbucks parking lot, focusing on families and youth.

“Jonesboro has had historically some challenges,” says Milton Little, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta. “What’s exciting is how Starbucks has been able to come in and help us bring a focus on, how do you help young people really get a second chance? How do you bring economic development conversations to ordinary folks that have been witnesses and bystanders, as economic development has seemed to take place and flourish in other parts of the region?

“This partnership’s been nothing short of instrumental in helping set a stage for what a new era for people living in Jonesboro could possibly look like.”

The store has also partnered on literacy events with the local library system and hosted a “Coffee with a Cop” event with local police. Plans for next year include tax-preparation and financial literacy workshops, pop-up food pantries and encouraging civic engagement in the community.

‘It was all of us pulling together’

Deborah Anglin arrived in Jonesboro about 25 years ago. A third-degree black belt, she opened up a karate studio with her sister and a friend, and they convinced a local judge to let them work on a diversion program to keep troubled teenagers out of jail.

They added a food pantry soon after, and then a GED program and officially became a non-profit called Hearts to Nourish Hope. Since then, responding to whatever she’s felt Jonesboro’s needed, Anglin has stacked piece upon piece into what’s now a 74,000-square foot building that also houses a recording studio, a boxing ring, immigration legal services, counseling offices and various job placement and training programs.

The Starbucks Foundation recently gave Hearts to Nourish Hope a $20,000 grant to help with youth workforce development programs.

About 12 years ago, Clark’s mother, Tanya Woodhull, came into Hearts. She’d just moved from Long Island, trying to get away from a rough neighborhood in New York, looking for more space and a better cost of living.

Hearts to Nourish Hope provided after-school care for the younger children, helped the teenagers find work and gave Woodhull a job onsite. Clark was in middle school then. Over the next decade, she took advantage of drama classes, summer camps and tutoring, provided by Hearts.

When Clark found out she was pregnant, right after graduating from high school, she needed a place to stay. Anglin gave her a job and a generous rental rate at a house she owned nearby. When Allen started looking for employees for Starbucks, Anglin recommended Clark.

“If you look at Monique, it wasn’t just Hearts that had an influence that helped her get through everything, it wasn't just even her family,” Anglin says. “It wasn't just that she got the job at Starbucks, and then everything was OK. It was all of us pulling together and working together. And if we don't do that, the job can't get done.”

Reaching higher

Starbucks partners at the Jonesboro store say they see each other as a family – there to help each other be their best. It happens in ways large and small. Clark remembers her exhilaration – and frustration the first week after she got promoted.

It was her first time in a leadership position and orders came in fast, at the drive-through window and inside the bustling new store, much hyped over the summer. Some upset customers complained they got the wrong drinks. The morning crew looked to her for answers.

Clark remembers that she started to shut down.

“I just stopped talking,” Clark recalls. “I was mad.”

But then Allen pulled her aside and asked her what was wrong. He confided some of his own struggles with anxiety and anger and gave her a few tips. Close your eyes, calm down and take a breath. Don’t take things personally. Remember that the customer might be having a bad day too.

It was encouraging, Clark remembers. The next morning, she tried again. It’s getting better, she says.

“That was probably the biggest thing I was scared of because I never led anybody before,” Clark says. “If I don't do this right, we won't have coffee or we won't have sandwiches. I’m just proud of myself for actually having a job, staying on one job for as long as I’ve been. I just feel like now that I'm really doing it, and I just can't wait to see what next year holds. I just want to go as far as I can go, just as far as I can get.”

A few weeks later, taking advantage of a break during a rainy week, Clark and her four-year-old daughter, Heaven, drove to Independence Park in Jonesboro, where Clark often walked when she was pregnant. Heaven ran to the playground, next to the tennis courts where Clark played as a child herself, mostly with her twin brother Malik.

Heaven’s chatty and a bit precocious, especially about the environment. Every once in a while, she chides her mom for using plastic straws – “We need to save the turtles” – and explains how they can’t waste food. She just got her ears pierced. She’s growing up fast.

“She’s a great child,” Clark says. “Really, my future revolves around her.”

Heaven does regular four-year-old things – throwing sticks, climbing to the top of play structures, racing down the slide with her doll, a mermaid named Flower. Her favorite is the swing set. She always runs back to the swings.

Heaven asks her mother for a push, but then she’s determined to try it alone. So her mother swings beside her. Together, they stretch their feet towards the sky. And with every leg kick, they reach higher and higher and higher.

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