1 Man, 8 Starbucks and 6 Conversations about Race

My friend, Ron Gross, is an expert on conversation. He knows how to start them and guide them. He is the founder and director of a group called Conversations New York.

So it is not surprising that he visited a few Starbucks to see if he could find a conversation or two about race. He wrote about his experience in an email to many of his friends. With his permission I quote him now.

“A barista at the Spring Street Starbucks in lower Manhattan yesterday afternoon slapped a sticker on my cup that read: RACE TOGETHER.

He was following the suggestion of Starbucks president Howard Shultz, who had announced the nation-wide campaign earlier in the week.  Starbucks wants staff and customers at its 7,000 shops across the U.S. to invite in-store conversations about “issues of race, prejudice, and lack of economic opportunity.”

As I settled into a corner sofa, I asked the woman next to me: “What do you think about talking about these issues in Starbucks?”

“Not my cup of tea, frankly,” she replied with lower Manhattan coolness.   “I come here to calm down, or to take out.   Wrong time, wrong place.”

But the couple that sat down on the other side of me was interested.  “It’s naive, sure — but it’s a start,” said Larry, a software developer.   And his co-worker, Russell, added: “We’ve talked about this at our shop, but it’s actually easier with people with whom you don’t have a lot of baggage.  We’ve had some good talks with other customers, and with one of the baristas.”

The three of us talked for 15 minutes.  It was the longest conversation I’d had with any African American in over a month.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening stopping into 7 more Starbucks stores in a variety of neighborhoods in Manhattan, getting as far uptown as the one on 168th Street and Broadway.   (That’s 6 more stores than were visited by Times reporter Sydney Ember.)

Total results: 6 illuminating conversations, 2 brush-offs.

This Starbucks campaign is taking its lumps in the blogosphere, where it’s being accused of everything from grandiosity and condescension, to manipulation and hypocrisy; some of the points — about Starbucks sourcing, corporate staffing, and HR policies — are telling.

But from my totally unscientific sampling of 0.1 percent of Starbucks stores nationwide, I’m giving two cheers for this experiment in civic discourse.

Time was when coffee houses were hotbeds of citizen-to-citizen conversations about issues that mattered — such as in 18th century Britain and America, where they made governments quake.   It’s heartening to get even this slight whiff of that amidst the white foam. “

If I were Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes, I would invite Ron on to my show.

If I were Howard Schultz, I would hire Ron right away.

He gets conversation.

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • markinit

    This article both great and relevant. Proof that conversation is the true currency in “social exchange”. Thanks for telling this story,Chris.

    • chrisdorr

      You are right, conversation is the true currency, we just need to be reminded of it more often as Ron does.