Starbucks ceo Howard Schultz and partners at an Open Forum.

The Hardest Conversation

By Kelly Sheppard, senior manager, Partner Communications & Engagement, Starbucks Coffee Company

Growing up in Minneapolis during the 1970s, I was often the only black person in the room. In second grade I asked a group of girls if I could play with them. I was puzzled when one said, “no blacks allowed.” In high school, I experienced the sting of a racial slur. I don’t remember the name of the boy who insulted me, but I can still picture his face.

We were the only black family in the neighborhood and although my skin color was different from most — I was always comfortable with it. I attribute this to my parents, who instilled in me a strong sense of self. My parents also taught me about my history. They shared the experiences of black Americans — including their own — which meant dealing with bigotry, segregation and racial slurs.

I have discussed these experiences at home and with friends. The conversations were emotional, filled with sadness and frustration. Knowing this, I felt apprehensive when I heard Starbucks, where I’ve been a partner (employee) for the past 15 years, was going to have open dialogues about race relations in America.

“The current state of racism in our country is almost like humidity at times. You can’t see it, but you feel it.”

In December of 2014 in our Seattle headquarters, Starbucks chairman and ceo Howard Schultz held an impromptu meeting. Although ‘Partner Open Forums’ are a regular occurrence for those who work in the Starbucks Support Center, the topic of the week’s conversation was unexpected, even for Starbucks — racial tension in America.

For more than an hour, Starbucks employees representing various ages, races and ethnicities passed a microphone and shared personal experiences. Many said it was “the most emotional, powerful discussion” they’ve ever been a part of.

“The current state of racism in our country is almost like humidity at times. You can’t see it, but you feel it,” said one partner. Howard (as partners call him at Starbucks) intended to continue the conversations with Starbucks partners in Oakland, St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

I attended two of these partner forums, and admit I was initially uncomfortable. Taking a conversation that I reserved for family and very close friends, and having it with colleagues isn’t easy. It takes courage to have this conversation — we were not disappointed.

St. Louis

More than 250 enthusiastic partners filled a large event space in St. Louis. Some drove up to five hours from Indiana and Arkansas to attend. The conversation flew by with many partners making similar suggestions for improving race relations including having partners volunteer in their communities throughout the year.

“If you have a story, please share it,” I said. “We need to hear what partners have experienced. Our leaders need to know what partners face.”

In the midst of the discussion, a soft-spoken young man shared that he was proud to have reached the age of 20. The magnitude of that statement might have been lost on many in the room, but for me, it brought to light a deeply troubling situation. For some young people in our country, just staying alive is their biggest and most important accomplishment. How could that be in 21st century America with all of the promise and opportunity our nation provides?

Another young woman shared that in her community, people don’t call the police when they need help; they call on members of the community instead. A lack of trust and belief that police would arrive in time to help prevents many from dialing 9–1–1.

New York City

Anxiety rose inside as I watched partners file into the auditorium at Cooper Union in New York City. Like the St. Louis Partner Open Forum two days before, we had no idea what we would hear from partners. I saw a group of young women chatting and laughing as they waited for the forum to begin. A brown-skinned woman left the group and began walking up the center aisle. I caught her eye and said hello.

“If you have a story, please share it,” I said. “We need to hear what partners have experienced. Our leaders need to know what partners face.”

She nodded somewhat nervously.

After sharing a video and brief remarks, Howard opened the conversation to the 200 partners before him. One by one, partners stood up, took the microphone and shared their stories. Many were brought to tears as they recalled their experiences, while those who listened fought back their own. From the middle section, I saw the young women I had spoken to earlier stand up and with her voice shaking said,

“I was a victim of police brutality, which caused me to have hatred for all cops,” she said. “After working for Starbucks, I turned that hate into passion.”

What an amazing testimony. What bravery. At the end of the open forum, I made my way through the crowd, gave this partner a hug and thanked her for sharing her story. I could see in her eyes that she was relieved to have spoken her truth.

In the past three months nearly 2,000 partners have been involved in Partner Open Forums in six cities — sharing their personal thoughts and feelings about race. And like me, I hope they all now see the value in having an open and honest conversation about race — even in the workplace. Perhaps a simple outcome, but one that will be truly valuable as we — as a country — continue down the path of improving race relations.