Starbucks Closes Stores For Anti-Bias Training

Starbucks closed 8,000 of its stores Tuesday to give 175,000 employees about four hours of anti-bias training.

The sessions were part of the company’s response to the April 12 arrests of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. 

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson had not purchased anything and told a store manager they were waiting for a friend to join them. They were asked to leave and an employee called the police, which led to their arrest. The scene was recorded on cellphones and quickly spread on social media, prompting sharp criticisms of Starbucks along with protests and calls to boycott the coffee chain.

Tuesday’s sessions involved asking employees to discuss with small groups of their colleagues aspects of race and bias and how they can make people feel like they belong.

There were exercises of personal reflection asking people to think about when they have thought about their own race, how it has affected their day-to-day lives and interactions with other people. 

Questions included evaluating how in the case of speaking to someone of the same race, or the case of speaking to someone of a different race, how easy or hard is it to talk about race, feel comfortable using their natural language and gestures, to be respected without having to prove their worth and express dissatisfaction with something without being told they seem angry.

“Without assigning good or bad, do you notice ways you treat people differently?” read one question.

Participants were also shown a series of videos including Starbucks executives discussing bias with experts, a company-funded documentary about the history of how African-Americans have been denied access in public places in the United States and employees describing instances in which they made assumptions about customers based on appearances.

Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson acknowledged what he called the “disheartening situation that unfolded in Philadelphia” in one video and said the company’s mission is to be a “place where everyone feels welcome.” He said the focus of the training was not to be “color blind” by pretending race does not exist, but rather to be “color brave” and discuss race directly.

The training was developed with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Perception Institute and other social advocacy organizations, and included contributions by the rap music artist Common.

Similar unconscious bias training has been used by police departments, companies and other organizations to help address racism in the workplace and encourage workers to open up about implicit biases.

In one video, Common told employees that while people usually seek similarities with others, there are great advantages to learning to love what makes you different from other people.

“It’s a life skill to make someone else in your presence feel welcome. You do that by not only loving what makes them the same as you, but by appreciating what makes them different from you,” he said.

Starbucks has announced policy changes following the Philadelphia incident, mainly that it will no longer require people to buy anything in order to be welcome in the company’s stores. It also promised to give employees more training in the coming year, and to provide each store with a list of local resources for mental health and substance abuse services, housing shelters and protocols for calling authorities.

“Today was a starting point. We have much to do,” said Rosalind Brewer, chief operating officer and group president.

Nelson and Robinson reached an agreement with Starbucks for an undisclosed amount of money and offers of a free education. They also accepted from the city of Philadelphia a symbolic $1 each and a promise to launch a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs.

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