No matter what we look like or where we come from, our destinies are bound together, said Howard Schultz, Starbucks executive chairman, in a speech Thursday night in New York.
Schultz was presented with a National Equal Justice Award by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF), an organization founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall as the legal arm of the civil rights movement. Its mission is to achieve racial justice, equality and an inclusive society.
“I stand before you with honor,” Schultz told the audience at Cipriani 42nd Street in Manhattan. “But I am filled with a heavy heart as we face yet another crucible as a nation. For some time now, I have been worried about the direction of our country. … The power to transform America rests with us, as leaders and citizens.”
Effecting transformation, and changing lives for the better, is exactly what Schultz has spent his life and career at Starbucks doing, noted Mellody Hobson, when she introduced him at the awards dinner. Schultz “brings light and power to dark places,” said Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and a longtime Starbucks board member. “It’s Howard’s bravery and willingness to talk about really uncomfortable and hard issues and to fight for truth and justice.
She cited his drive to take action, rather than be a bystander, whether it’s providing access to health care to part-time Starbucks employees or providing tuition free college education. “I have watched him fight for us,” she said.
This year’s awards dinner’s theme was “The Moment is Now”—a point Schultz emphasized in his acceptance speech.
“In 2017, expressions of white supremacy and other vile acts of hatred should not just be met with condemnation and outrage,” he said to applause. “This critical moment in our nation requires a renewed commitment to activism in support of the great American ideal, set forth in our Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are created equal.’ “
Schultz recounted how he led series of Starbucks partner forums around the country about race. During a forum in St. Louis in the winter of 2015, “a young black man rose from his chair, and all he said was: ‘I’m 18, and I don’t know if I’ll make it to 19,’” he said. “I don’t know I’ll make it to 19.”
Those words continue to motivate Schultz to work for change, he said. He encouraged others to stand up for equality, in the courts and “in our classrooms, in our workplaces, in communities large and small. It is a national crisis that so many disadvantaged children—black, brown and white—are consigned to failing schools, insecure neighborhoods and unstable homes.”
Schultz, who grew up poor in the projects in Brooklyn, challenged companies and business leaders to strive to find creative ways to represent a diverse America that show the country’s true values.
At Starbucks, a host of programs Schultz spearheaded are aimed at building community. The company’s Opportunity Youth program, he noted, focuses on helping young people between 16 and 24 who are not in school and not working get their first jobs. Since 2015, Starbucks has hired 40,000 Opportunity Youths with a goal of hiring 100,000 by 2020.
And the company’s Community Stores, located in cities including Ferguson, Mo., Jamaica, Queens, Baltimore and, soon, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, N.Y., are focused on local support and are built by women or minority-owned contractors. They each offer a training space where a community non-profit can lead job skills training, designed to help bring people together and lift them up.
The Coffee with Cops initiative encourages conversations in the stores across the United States to help “bridge the divide between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect,” said Schultz.
And, to help make sure that everyone has a chance to participate in the democratic process, Starbucks has partnered with Democracy Works to encourage more people to vote and participate in elections.
“Being here tonight,” he said, looking out at the crowd, “I'm feeling hopeful. I'm feeling inspired. If we can recognize the dignity in one another, regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of our religion, regardless of our gender, regardless of our sexual orientation, regardless of our station in life or our politics we will not only do what (LDF) was founded to do. We'll not only help expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice. We'll help move this country forward – inch-by-inch, mile-by-mile … so we can all achieve the true promise of America.”
Agnes Gund, a philanthropist who created the Art for Justice Fund to support criminal justice reform, also received a National Equal Justice Award. Musician John Legend was presented with the Spirit of Justice Award.