After Starbucks Fiasco, Hartford Coffeehouse Gets Its Own Anti-Bias Training

Jun 11, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 11:47 am

A sign taped to the door told customers that Story and Soil Coffee was closing early for a staff training.

Inside the small Hartford café, co-owner Sarah McCoy explained how the incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks — the one that made national headlines and led to a companywide training on racial bias — spurred her to think more about bias in a place like this. The specialty coffeeshop with Instagram-worthy good looks opened on Capitol Avenue last summer.

McCoy can’t think of any glaring racial problems at her business, but “I think we’re probably naïve,” she said. “Our whiteness probably also shows at times that we … aren’t aware of some of the issues.”

McCoy is white and so is a majority of the Story and Soil team. They have invited in trainers for their own anti-bias workshop on a Monday afternoon, and soon find out a major lesson: getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Power and Privilege

Trainer Jason Fredlund, a program director with RE-Center, Race & Equity In Education, has everyone introduce themselves. He goes first.

“So I come from a legacy of slavers,” Fredlund said. “We owned a slave plantation in West Virginia, the McCutcheon plantation.”

RE-Center, a nonprofit with an office in Hartford, teaches schools, museums, and businesses like Story and Soil how to be aware of everyday acts of oppression. Part of that work is understanding the power system in America — and in this society, Fredlund said, he is bestowed unearned advantages because of his race. He considers himself an example of white privilege.

“Not because I did anything to earn it, but when I walk into a room, I’m assumed competent, I’m assumed worthy, I’m assumed innocent, because those are values of whiteness that get assigned to me,” he told the group.

Fredlund led the training with RE-Center program director Derek Hall, who is black and grew up in Hartford. Hall said he’s gotten coffee here and appreciates that Story and Soil wants to be proactive about racial equity. Feeling “safe” in a conversation is often not the same as being comfortable, the trainers said, and they encouraged the participants to experience discomfort.

Hall asked this question: “Any racist stuff happen recently?”

Everyone laughed. Then one of the baristas spoke up and recalled a time when two black women were having a loud conversation, and some white people who were also in the café seemed uncomfortable. The barista heard a white woman tell her friend, “Well, that’s how they talk.”

“OK, that’s one,” Hall said. “Give me some more.”

Another barista, Isaac Field, remembered a separate occasion in which a customer was telling a story about a woman who was upset on his bus ride. But the Latino customer used a racial stereotype to describe the woman, who was black.

“I just kind of looked at him,” Field said. “Then another one of our other customers, a young white lady, was saying, ‘Oh, well, why does her race matter? Why do you need to include that?’”

Priced Out

Hall brings up another sensitive topic: gentrification. The coffeehouse is in a predominantly Latino neighborhood — and one of the co-owners is Latino — but Story and Soil sits on a block of Capitol Avenue that is transitioning into a hotspot for java connoisseurs. The café sells $4 lattes and a premium version of avocado toast on its menu. The customer base includes state government workers who commute into this part of Hartford Monday through Friday.

“Who is likely to come to Story and Soil, and feel like, I’m familiar with this place, I understand what happens here, I feel welcome here?” Hall asked.

Co-owner Michael McCoy ruminated on the question. And before answering, McCoy offered an explanation: Their fair-trade coffee beans cost more and that higher price point trickles down to the Story and Soil clientele.

“People are going to be priced out of coming in on a regular basis,” he said. “And white people are going to be priced out of that less often than everyone else.”

Fredlund believes a bigger force is at play — a systemic notion that the target consumer for “fancy” coffee is affluent white people. That idea can warp into “people of color aren’t welcome in nice coffeeshops,” Fredlund said, even if they live nearby. “It’s about social racism that shows up at the ideological level, perhaps, inside Story and Soil.”

The two-hour session ran long, and afterward, people looked exhausted. The McCoys reiterated they want everyone to feel welcome here. And in the end, they’re left with no quick and easy solutions, but a willingness to learn and a commitment that this is the start of a journey.

This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.

Copyright 2018 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.