THE BLOG

#RaceTogether -- A Coffee Cup's Impact

03/18/2015 09:08 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Many of us activists spend our time trying to get people in power to listen, care and act on social issues of the day. And most companies frankly just don't want to get involved. Fear of alienating customers, choosing the wrong side of issues, backlash from disagreeing politicians etc have all combined to make it a tough sell to a CEO to use their capitalist tools to satisfy our activist hearts. That is why what happened yesterday has struck a big chord with me.

Starbucks launched a new initiative to start a national dialogue with our morning coffee. The news of these efforts was met with an amount of cynical blowback even for today's standards.

Baristas in thousands of Starbucks locations started writing #RaceTogether on customers' cups. From what I understand, there's more to it than the slogan. The idea is to spark a conversation on race relations in our country. A conversation between barista and customer, customer and coworker, coworker and friend. The in-store aspect is also matched with a conversation guide published in USA TODAY this Friday. And some new minority support initiatives are coming apparently.

Race Together is ambitious certainly, but the ridicule?

The reaction this campaign has been met with is why more corporate CEOs don't step out on social issues. Around 40 percent of Starbucks' U.S. employees are minorities. They are choosing not to ignore the realities of being a business in America. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said these "conversations are being ignored because people are afraid to touch the issue. But if I ignore this and just keep ringing the register, then I become part of the problem."

After Ferguson reignited the feeling of helplessness that so many in this country feel about discrimination and authority, one thing was abundantly clear to me. This was a conversation among people who most often felt they had no power. Now when real and actual power in the person of a major corporation says, yeah you guys were right, there is a role in this conversation for everyone, what happens? Blast the company?

There's a Starbucks on every street corner in America. Why shouldn't the company use their power to bring a conversation on race into the their stores? No one is forcing anyone to have it. Just a subtle message. We're here. we can talk.

For generations friends and neighbors have gathered over coffee to catch up -- this campaign is a natural extension of that tradition. Starbucks never claimed that Race Together would be a solution unto itself, it is an opportunity to talk about how we can better understand each other and work to find solutions.

To use that reach for social good is commendable. Encouraging 150,000 employees to have a conversation about the state of race relations in our country is an achievement in itself. The possibility of that conversation expanding to millions of customers and readers of USA TODAY is one we should be excited about.

This campaign does not exist in a vacuum. The idea comes from forums held with thousands of employees across the country. And it's not a singular response. It goes beyond a phrase on a cup. Even the most cynical of responders can't overlook the concrete actions Starbucks has taken to create programs to give business to minority- and woman-owned businesses, to help their employees get a college degree and to provide even part-time employees health care coverage. When this company, and others, have been willing to stick their neck out on issues like student debt, congressional gridlock, and marriage equality, I for one think that it is about time politicians see their constituents as more than just some activists -- that real power stands by our side.

The blowback is shortsighted. Race Together is about starting a conversation. But if your idea of contributing to this conversation is trying to shut it down, you're doing it wrong.

If you don't think a slogan on a cup goes far enough, I agree. And so do they, I am certain. I gather more announcements are underway. But I am certainly not going to fault the company and the CEO for trying to make a difference.

Cynicism may be the easiest choice, but that rarely makes it the right one. Being a naysayer by cracking wise on Twitter is the response that requires the least amount of effort. Join this conversation -- or really any conversation -- in a meaningful way.

Starbucks is an SKDKnickerbocker client but the firm was not involved in the RaceTogether program. The writers views are her own.