SEATTLE: After protests in US cities since grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has held four open forums with employees on racial tensions in America.
The events, held last week in Oakland, California, and St. Louis and on Monday in New York, were inspired by an impromptu internal discussion Schultz had last month at Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle after protests in Berkeley, California.
Laurel Harper, Starbucks’ manager of global corporate comms, said the company is looking to expand the events to communities nationwide.
"[Schultz] wanted to bring our partners together to share different perspectives on race relations, knowing that this is a very emotional topic on many minds across the nation right now," she explained. "We wanted to encourage [staffers] to share, come together, listen, and learn from each other, and be able to have this conversation in a safe and respectful environment."
Employees have shared their own experiences with race relations at the gatherings and discussed ideas for what Starbucks can do at a corporate level to get involved. One-third of Starbucks' employees have minority backgrounds, according to a 2013 report from Fortune.
"Just because it is not your fault doesn’t mean it isn’t your responsibility to step up and get involved," said Harper. "Our leaders walked away with all different perspectives of how people come to the table to talk about this issue and our partners walked away with the richness of dialogue and being part of something no one else is doing."
About 700 staffers participated in the forums, with some driving more than five hours from neighboring states to attend, Harper said. Starbucks has 135,000 employees in the US and 191,000 globally.
In July, Garner, an unarmed black man, died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer on Staten Island. Last month, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer.
Protests in Berkeley, California, in response to the decision turned violent.
The finding in the Garner case followed another grand jury decision at the end of November, which ruled that the officer who shot unarmed African-American teenager Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, would not face trial.
Schultz first told US staffers about the events in mid-December via an internal memo, following the Seattle discussion, and the company also posted a video from the initial forum on its website. After the first chat, Schultz said in his memo that attendees shared thoughts in "an unprecedented outpouring of emails, in our hallways, in my office, in our partner networks."
He recalled that employees expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to share, listen, and learn.
"That sentiment alone made it clear to me that Starbucks could continue to do something we’ve always done: foster community and conversation," he added.
In addition to Schultz’s letter, Harper said the comms team has posted employee-targeted messages on its employee-facing Facebook page, and local leaders in Oakland, St. Louis, and New York have reached out to staffers encouraging them to attend meetings.
"For [Starbucks], it is not about demanding change, but about demonstrating a willingness to embrace change and starting to bridge the divide to empathy," Harper said. "These race relations forums really give people an outlet to have this conversation and these conversations are enabling us to build a toolkit to have this discussion going forward."