Fearless Futures
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Fearless Futures

We agree, a half day training won’t change much at Starbucks


A couple of months ago a Starbucks employee called the police on two black men who were waiting to meet a friend in the store. The two men were arrested and spent 8 hours in jail. Starbucks responded to this by closing all their 8,000 US stores on 29th May for a half day of anti-bias training.

What could be conceived of as a bold move of commitment to challenge injustice, has been critiqued. In particular, as this article reports, because some “diversity trainings” don’t have a track record of doing very much. Despite Fearless Futures being an education organisation that delivers what some people call “diversity training”, you might be surprised to hear that we don’t disagree.

Let’s put it this way. Most “diversity training” is a bit like a fast food or casual dining experience. You’re in and out in a jiffy, it’s designed to be very easy for the customer and it’s ultimately not that memorable.

While this is true, does this mean we shouldn’t eat food or that all dining experiences are doomed to this fate? Of course not.

And so because some diversity trainings don’t have a track record of “working” (do we have a common idea in any case about what “working” means?) should we determine that there is no role for education in creating a more just world?

Such a conclusion would obviously be foolish. If we believe that none of us (nor the world) are inherently ableist, racist, sexist, homophobic etc then it must be true that we learnt these behaviours and ideas. And it therefore follows that what is learnt can be unlearnt. A conclusion that education and training is always useless seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So where do diversity trainings fall short?

  • Not long enough. We have said it before and we will say it again. If we could unwind centuries of structural injustice in half a day, we would have done it by now. If we could do it in an hour long webinar, we could have done it by now. This doesn’t mean you can’t start with a half day, but that can’t be the end. These issues are too nuanced and complex for that.
  • Seminar learning. Most education deploys the Victorian model – where learning is by rote, only the teacher speaks and students take notes. Unfortunately, this isn’t appropriate for material that is about challenging injustice and inequity. If it was simply about telling people, we could send out a mass text message campaign with an instruction of what they need to know. Alas, simply knowing isn’t enough. So the seminar and PowerPoint approach often taken is likely doomed from the start. By contrast, research by Cundiff et al. in the Journal of Social Issues tests different modes of learning about everyday sexism to find that experiential education is much more powerful than just giving information, in that it builds self-efficacy (the belief or perception that one can use information to implement behaviours to achieve a goal) and limits reactance (when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives). Both outcomes are highly desirable!
  • Mandatory. Yikes – would you like to be “told” what to think? We wish everyone came open hearted and grateful for new perspectives but sadly on issues where – let’s face it – many people are invested in the status quo (even when they don’t realise they are), they enter such training convinced they are being told what to think. Consequently, they often respond with high levels of defensiveness, resistance and reactance. On top on this, when the length of the training is short in the first place there are two known outcomes: 1) the person is rarely facilitated through such defensiveness so they end up leaving even more pissed and resentful than when they arrived and 2) the defensive people in question can end up getting in the way of a powerful and productive experience for the others in the group. Result: Everyone else in the learning loses out.
  • Cute and cosy learning. In tick-box exercise, fast food-style training, the experience is generally designed around ensuring no one gets “upset”. And when we say no one, we principally mean that the experience is designed to be so superficial that everyone is ok with it. The problem with everyone feeling ok, of course, is that not everyone is getting an unfair deal in the first place under the status quo. To craft learning around ensuring those who benefit from the status quo (able bodied, middle class, white etc. people) feel comfortable, is simply not engaging in what is necessary for deep change. A few tell tell signs of cosy and cute learning include training that only speaks of bias, and the bias is obviously unconscious or implicit! Wowzers. How compelled to action can anyone be if we are explicitly informed that we are not responsible for our actions? The training at Starbucks was within the implicit bias schema — yet calling the police on two black men standing in Starbucks is quite clearly explicit and needs to be understood as such. When the training method prioritises certain participants’ comfort over deep change it’s pretty useless. It’s also useless when there is no exploration of structural power, no acknowledgement that certain groups are in fact beneficiaries of a system of oppression and when there is a tendency towards a jazz hands finale that sings in chorus: “everyone has the same level of responsibility to end injustice as everyone else”. If there is no discomfort and if no one with power/privilege is challenged at a deep level to interrogate the role they play in the world, then you can be certain that it’s not going to work.
  • Purpose. Is the training designed to actually change the fabric of the organisation or is it to keep things the same but prevent litigation? Both endeavours may be labelled as “diversity training” but even then they will have very different results.

The questions for anyone engaged in considering the role of education in their organisation to end inequities are: is it to make yourselves feel good? Is it to “prove” how brilliant you are already? Is it to look good to external or internal audiences? Is it to simply go around saying you have done some training? Are you doing it even when you don’t think the problem is that big at your organisation? If the answer to any of these is “yes”, then the type of training you’ll be engaging in probably, a bit like Starbucks’, won’t do much. Because to answer any of these questions in the affirmative necessitates that the training will be cheap, quick and easy. And that just will not cut it.



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Hanna Naima McCloskey

Hanna Naima McCloskey


CEO @ Fearless Futures. Educator. Innovator. Design for Inclusion.