Training under scope – From the #StarbucksWhileBlack series – Courtesy of the Philadelphia Tribune 

The shutting down of more than 8,000 company-owned Starbucks cafes across the country Tuesday for racial bias training is deeply personal.

When Rosalind Brewer, the chief operating officer of the Seattle-based company, saw footage of two African-American men being apprehended at a store in Philadelphia last month because they had not made a purchase, she didn’t think about her position atop a company that last year did almost $22 billion in sales. She recognized the same thing could happen to her 23-year-old son.

“I was sickened. I immediately thought about him and his safety,” Brewer, who is Black, told The Tribune. “Secondly, I thought about how he must feel because my kid is the kid who gets up on Saturday morning and goes to Starbucks. And then I looked at the two kids that were arrested and said those are the men that hang out in my house when my son visits. So this is deeply personal.”

 Tuesday’s shutdown to provide “racial bias” training for nearly 175,000 employees underscores the priority the coffee giant, which has more than 28,000 stores worldwide, has placed on addressing the backlash it received from the April arrests of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson.

Starbucks has kept the details of the training under wraps and no media coverage is allowed.

In designing the curriculum, Starbucks enlisted the services of former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Brian Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; and Heather McGhee, president of Demos.

Much of Tuesday’s training, which Starbucks is referring to as “5/29,” will be interactive, beginning with opening addresses from President and CEO Kevin Johnson, rapper Common and founder Howard Schultz.

Each store will conduct an open conversation among employees about the impact of racial discrimination dating back to the civil rights movement.

Employees will hear from senior leadership about recommitments to policy, guidelines and leadership within the company.

When Ifill agreed to participate in the design of the program, her thoughts were that it had to be part of an ongoing process in order for it to be effective.

“I was very clear that this could not be a one-off, as were my colleagues, and Starbucks understood that,” Ifill said. “So May 29 is the launch of what will be an ongoing process of training that will involve all employees in the company. They plan to make it a part of the onboarding for all employees and for there to be continued, periodic training for all employees as well as protocol for monitoring and evaluating the training to make sure that the training is working.”

After the training is over, Starbucks will release its training materials to the public, so that others can use it.

Critics of Tuesday’s training argue that one afternoon is not enough time to deal with the issues of unconscious bias, biases that most people are said to harbor.

Elsie Scott, director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University, is one of those critics. Scott has extensive experience developing and facilitating anti-racism training curricula, having worked with both the New York Police Department and Barneys in New York after a racial discrimination lawsuit was filed against the high-end department store.

 “It’s not enough, but in Starbucks’ defense they were under the gun with the media,” Scott said. “They wanted to show they were going to do something immediately, so you have to applaud them for getting something out there.”

Scott said closing all the stores sends the powerful message that Starbucks is financially invested in fixing the problem. The message from the CEO is crucial, she said, because it sends the message from the executive suite that the company will not tolerate discrimination.

Scott said she favors interactive training over a lecture format because some employees “are going to come to the training mad,” she said.

“You have to get them involved and at the same time you don’t want to point the finger of blame at anyone,” Scott said. “You can do that by letting them know that this is not just a problem with Starbucks but that it’s a problem that is happening all over the country. The bottom line is you get across the point that it’s not going to be permitted and that it’s going to be an ongoing process. Get them in an interactive setting where they are talking about bias.”

Scott said Brewer’s presence at the top of the company sends the signal that the company will be committed to eliminating bias long term.

Before joining Starbucks last year, Brewer was the CEO of bulk-retail giant Sam’s Club for five-plus years, and she has been as high as No. 19 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business list. While at Sam’s, Brewer was accused of racism by some because she was committed to hiring more people of color.

“This is deeply personal for me. I’m on a mission. I have to do something here,” Brewer said. “I didn’t come to this company for this. I came here because it meant something to me. I chose to come to this company because I really personally align with who this company is, and I’m personally dedicated to this work.”

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