Tackling Racism from Within
Photo Credit: Ana Shvets/Pexels
It was a surreal moment that caused a national uproar and made news around the world.
On April 16, 2018, police arrested two Black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Their so-called crime: sitting in the coffee shop for a business meeting and asking to use the bathroom without having made a purchase.
The incident was captured on video and quickly went viral, prompting protests against one of the country’s biggest brands. Starbucks apologized, closed thousands of stores for racial bias trainings, and changed its policies to allow bathrooms to be used by anyone at any time.
Diversity as a concept is always focused on people of color or women or the LGBTQ community — but that’s not where it should be.
The day’s events were part of a larger reckoning in the U.S. over racism that has continued through today. In 2020, the summer began with a white jogger calling police on a Black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park, an incident that was eclipsed by the brutal police killing of George Floyd, which led to Black Lives Matter marches and demands for police reform across the nation.
In a video of the Starbucks arrest, a woman named Michelle Saahene yells in the background at police, telling them the men “didn’t do anything.” Another woman, Michelle DePino, uploaded the video to Twitter. It immediately went viral, with 168,000 retweets and more than 13 million views since.
“I did a simple thing,” says DePino. “I saw something wrong, I spoke up about it, and shared it online to my network, which was mostly white. That gave it the attention it might not have gotten otherwise.”
Saahene and DePino were strangers then. Today, they are friends and business partners.
Building on that moment more than two years ago, in which they witnessed the arrest, they’ve launched a blossoming nonprofit to bring conversations about race and racism out into the open and to cultivate a commitment among Americans to participate in hard conversations across racial lines.
From Privilege to Progress began not long after the Starbucks incident as a simple social media project to share stories and strategies about how to “show up against racism” in everyday life. It used the friendship of Saahene, who is Black, and DePino, who is white, as its starting point.
Everyone has privilege and power to dismantle racism where they are with their workplaces and families.
Today, the organization has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. Before the pandemic, the duo had spoken at universities, including Tufts in Massachusetts and Drew in New Jersey, and had corporate audiences at Amgen and Ikea. Now, Saahene and DePino are offering Zoom workshops. They’ll talk to employees at Google and ClassPass in February during Black History Month to share their stories and guide participants in telling their own.
“Everyone has privilege and power to dismantle racism where they are with their workplaces and families,” said DePino, who still lives in Philadelphia, not far from the Starbucks that became infamous in the viral video.
Saahene also hosts Instagram Live chats with DePino each week called “Unscripted,” which the pair describe as “nothing-is-off-limits conversations about race and racism.” A recent one included “New Year’s anti-racism resolutions.”
Push Toward Progress
Saahene says one of From Privilege to Progress’ goals is to flip the script on traditional ideas of diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism that, until recently, have been the standards in workplaces and schools.
“Diversity as a concept is always focused on people of color or women or the LGBTQ community — but that’s not where it should be,” she says. “The focus should be on the people who have the structural power in social relationships and work situations, often white people, and may need help figuring out where their biases lie. That’s who we’re looking to for our audiences.”
Even in a time of unprecedented activism and progress on combating racism, the duo says they see their mission as one that’s long term.
“Unpacking and dismantling ideas about race that are ingrained into so many people from childhood is not something you can condense into a day or month,” says Saahene. “It’s a conversation we’re going to be having for decades and longer.”
While the summer of 2020 will be remembered by many as a time of a wide-scale push toward progress and unity on racial justice, DePino says she hopes her and Saahene’s work plays a role in encouraging white Americans to “not forget” that racism isn’t a problem solved simply by a hashtag, Instagram post, or single protest alone.
“People tend to live in their own silos and that includes silos of race,” she says. “White people tend to pay attention when there is something tragic and horrible in the news. We saw it this summer as white people came into the streets. But then the interest wanes. Our goal is to continue the conversation because we absolutely cannot stop listening and talking.”
This post is part of a month-long February CircleAround series, tied to Black History Month — the first since the loud calls for social justice this past summer — in which we asked writers to explore the topic of race in America from a variety of perspectives. The murder of George Floyd last summer catalyzed a national reckoning on race, with many questions to be answered. To see all the posts in the series — including relevant news stories — visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or post on our "2021 Inspiration Wall."