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Starbucks previews next week’s racial bias training for 8,000 stores

This March 14, 2017 photo show the Starbucks logo on a shop in downtown Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)
This March 14, 2017 photo show the Starbucks logo on a shop in downtown Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

Starbucks on Wednesday unveiled a preview of its unconscious bias training days before it will close 8,000 stores for four hours on the afternoon of May 29.

“May 29 isn’t a solution, it’s a first step,” said Rossann Williams, Starbucks executive vice president and president of U.S. retail, in a note to Starbucks employees Tuesday. “By educating ourselves on understanding bias and how it affects our lives and the lives of the people we encounter and serve, we renew our commitment to making the ‘Third Place’ welcoming and safe for everyone.”

In a news release and video highlighting next week’s curriculum, Starbucks also indicated that May 29 would mark the start of weeks, months and years of discussion among its workforce about gender identity, class, language, citizenship, political views and other personal identifiers.

The preview video began with footage of the arrests of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April.

“That is not who we aspire to be,” the narrator says.

The video framed next Tuesday’s training in segments, with introductions by chief executive Kevin Johnson and the artist and activist Common. Chairman Howard Schultz will appear in a video to discuss the Third Place – a gathering space separate from home or work – as an important part of Starbucks’ mission.

From there, employees will discuss how they define biases, how biases exist within each person and how they have been personally affected by bias. The conversations will be accompanied by video interviews with implicit bias experts and Starbucks board members. Employees will also go through the U.S. legacy of racial discrimination in public spaces and efforts to address it, beginning with the civil rights movement.

Executives at Starbucks will also outline “recommitments” to company policies and guidelines.

Though employees will be given a notebook and discuss bias with each other, it appeared that much of the training will be guided by video footage and films, including Stanley Nelson’s documentary “You’re Welcome.”

Also missing from the video and news release were interviews or other obvious input from Rashon Nelson and Robinson. Earlier this month, the men reached an undisclosed financial settlement with Starbucks and appeared on “Good Morning America” to talk about their goals for Starbucks moving forward.

The men said they would take part in the company’s racial bias training and work with former attorney general Eric Holder, who is involved in the May 29 curriculum and other long-term initiatives.

Experts who have watched the Starbucks drama unfold have pointed to ways such programs could fall short. For instance, one key to effective training is to steer away from lecture-style sessions and make them as interactive as possible, said Leslie Culver, an expert on critical race theory at California Western School of Law.

Speaking generally about how Starbucks can most effectively use its few hours of training on May 29, Culver said it is crucial to get employees to realize the commonalities between them, rather than just focusing on racial differences.

Participants will also have to recognize their own privileges – whether they be rooted in race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, Culver said. The training can show employees how they can use their own privilege to both act responsibly and be an ally to others.

And Culver said it is important that Starbucks’s training reinforce that everyone has unconscious biases and is prone to act on them. Even in the span of a few hours, it’s possible to begin “planting the seeds of mindfulness” so people begin to recognize their biases.

“It’s not intentional – that’s the key,” Culver said. “It’s not malicious. That’s where group members would be like, ‘I’m not racist!’ But that’s not what it’s about.”

Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said Starbucks’s training will have to use those hours to “help people understand how it fits into the bigger picture.”

And it will have to steer away from themes that tend to backfire in similar settings, including acting like incidents of racial profiling do not occur all the time, and pretending that biases do not “show up in our actions and interactions.”

With its employees on Tuesday, Creary said the training will have to pivot from showing employees how bias affects their daily lives to giving actionable steps to change behavior.

“If it’s so broad and so general, it becomes hard for people to know what to do when they go to work the next day,” Creary said.

Creary noted that immediately after the arrests of Nelson and Robinson, Johnson did not focus on blaming the manager specifically, but said the incident was part of a broader, companywide failure.

“It’s not always about being able to prevent mistakes from happening. It’s about being able to recognize that you’ve made a mistake and to apologize in that moment, and to say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to clean it up. We’re not perfect,’ ” Creary said. “The response matters, because everyone is watching.”


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