“Tonight, my thoughts go back to December of 2014, when our country was being shaken by protests and unrest in the name of Eric Garner, in the name of Trayvon Martin, in the name of so many others. When cities across America became battlegrounds,” Howard Schultz said in his remarks accepting the National Equal Justice Award at the annual NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) dinner in New York last November where I served as the emcee. “As I watched the coverage, the tension in the streets, I grew more and more restless. I felt I couldn’t be a bystander. I had to act.”
What the chairman of Starbucks did during that tense time was hold town hall meetings on race with employees at his Seattle headquarters. He did the same thing at Starbucks stores in 12 other cities across the country. In his award remarks, Schultz said the gathering in St. Louis in particular hit home when “a young black man rose from his chair, and all he said was, ‘I’m 18, and I don’t know if I’ll make it to 19.’”
My thoughts went back to that awards dinner as news broke about the stunning arrest of two African American men at a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12. Given Schultz’s words that night at Cipriani 42nd Street, I had no doubt he would rise to the occasion. It was not only how quickly he acted but also to whom he reached out for help that underlined the seriousness of his effort.
“This has been very personal to me, in ways that I can’t describe,” Schultz told me during a phone interview on May 25. Reminding me how growing up in the projects in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn with working-class people from all walks of life has given him a sensitivity to issues of difference and belonging, Schultz said of the Philadelphia incident: “When this happened, I made an immediate decision that we are going to close our stores, and I made that decision within 48 hours, because I knew what we had to do.”
All 8,000 Starbucks company-owned stores in the United States will close Tuesday afternoon for a four-hour training on racial bias for its 175,000 employees using an interactive curriculum that will involve videos, role-playing and conversation. “It’s designed to really kind of break down what we all have in terms of unconscious bias, and walk in each other’s shoes, and create respect and dignity, and for us to be seen and understood, regardless of the color of our skin, or our sexual orientation, or our ethnic background.” Schultz said. “We believe that this training is going to result in a much higher level of respect and dignity and sensitivity within our stores, for our customers and one another.”
The curriculum was devised with the help of some of the most thoughtful African American leaders on issues of race and the impact of racism on everyday lives. Whom Schultz turned to for help impressed me more than the decision to shut down Starbucks for an afternoon. That he had real relationships with African Americans he could call upon after the Philadelphia arrests spoke volumes about Schultz and his commitment to seriously addressing the problem.
Bryan Stevenson “was the first person I called,” Schultz said. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He is also the brainchild behind the powerful National Memorial for Peace and Justice (a.k.a. the lynching memorial) in Montgomery, Ala. Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and a Starbucks board member, got a call. So did actor and rapper Common. “I have a long-standing relationship with Common,” Schultz told me. “Anna and I have known each other for a while,” he said of the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Schultz also reached out to LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill and Heather McGhee, president of the liberal economic think tank Demos.
“I [knew] instinctively that I needed help in understanding, that I am not African American; I can’t put myself in the shoes of those two young men,” Schultz said. “I needed help and understanding from people that I trust, and friends of mine, who I could go to, who could help with the curriculum and help guide us through this.” He added, “I wanted people who were authentic, and not people who were necessarily famous, although some of them are, but people who really are steeped in these issues.”
It would be easy to discount what Starbucks is doing. After all, that whole “Race Together” idea back in 2015 was roundly criticized. Conor Friedersdorf wrote in the Atlantic at the time, “Companies found guilty of racial discrimination have attracted less heat.” Many probably think of May 29 as one big public relations exercise in damage control. Okay, but even if I concede that point, there is no denying that what Starbucks is doing is a far cry from how other companies dealing with racial incidents are responding. Over a 12-day period from April 23 to May 5, there were four racial incidents at Waffle House. And all we got were cold, written statements.
“It’s important to give Starbucks and Howard, in particular, credit for deciding to take on this issue without equivocation,” Ifill told me. “The default position for most public-facing corporate actors on issues of racism is to deflect and deny responsibility. Starbucks didn’t do that. That in and of itself sets an important example that I hope will be followed.”
When I asked Deavere Smith if Schultz’s actions serve as a model for other corporations, she agreed that they did, but added they serve a purpose “for much more than crisis intervention.”
“The workplace, schools, artistic institutions and houses of worship are perfect venues to tackle not just race relations, but to help build a healthy national moral imagination,” Deavere Smith said via email. She thinks the convening power of corporations allows them to bring together people “who want to make a better world, but just don’t know the way.” “Howard Schultz is — with this bold move — … revealing the treasure chest of resources that corporations have to make a difference in the world,” Deavere Smith said. “Leaders in his position just have to believe that the bottom line is not just holding money, it’s also holding with possibility.”
“This was a moment of leadership, as well as an admission that we had a systemic issue ourselves that we needed to address,” said Schultz, who insists the four-hour training on May 29 is the beginning of something, not the be-all-end-all. “Every senior leader from this point on that comes to Starbucks, will go through this training, so it’ll be imprinted,” he said. The same will go for the nearly 100,000 people Starbucks hires every year in North America.
“It’s so important to demonstrate to our people that they’re working for a company they can be proud of. It’s so important to demonstrate to our customers that they’re supporting a company they can trust,” Schultz said at the end of our call. “At the same time, we’re not perfect; we will make a mistake and we will disappoint, but we’re going to get up the next day and try and improve and make it better.”
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