Earlier this morning, Starbucks unveiled “Upstanders,” the company’s “first original series of content.” It’s a ten-episode series that aims to inspire “positive change amidst cynicism in America.” The ubiquitous coffee chain has once again assumed Americans will turn to them for matters of social import, recalling their past effort to spark conversations about race with patrons. That effort backfired.
“We’ve asked ourselves what is the role and responsibility of a public company and, as citizens, how we can catalyze hope in a time when we need more optimism, empathy, compassion and leadership,” Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president mere hours ago, said. “We have always been storytellers at heart, and more of these stories need to be heard. We are using our scale to share them as broadly as possible.”
“Upstanders” is the brainchild of Schultz and Executive Producer Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an alumnus of the Washington Post. Each episode comes in three forms that all tell the same story: a five-minute video, a written longform narrative, and a fifteen-minute podcast. Episodes range from vignettes about a former prisoner who helps female convicts reacclimate to life outside prison to a veteran sheriff trying to reduce excessive force among police.
“The Mosque Across the Street” was the first episode serialized in podcast form. It begins with Steve Stone, the implied "upstander" and pastor of a United Methodist church in Memphis, Tennessee, recalling the experience of reading that a mosque would open up directly across the street from his church. What follows is a pandering story about how, slowly, this proximity humanized the big, bad Muslims for Stone’s prejudiced churchgoers. The roots of this prejudice—the reasons why churchgoers were predisposed to view their Muslim neighbors as subhuman in the first place—go unaddressed in the warmed-over narrative of “Upstanders.”
I spent my morning watching and listening for you—here are some choice quotes from both the video and podcast, presented without further comment:
Steve Stone, pastor of Heartsong Church:
“I’ll never forget the morning that I saw an article about a group of Muslims who had bought thirty acres and were planning to build a complex. ...When I saw that, my stomach kind of tightened up. They were gonna be right across the street from us. My mind was just reeling. I felt that ignorance and that fear. So I prayed. What are we supposed to do?”
Mark Sharp, churchgoer:
“I’m a painting contractor. I constantly—people constantly put me in a category of being less than. I’m not that. I was doing it to other people. In a sense, I was the problem. What was going on with the world today—I was the problem.”
“I would've never thought that I would be friends with Muslims, and I love them. It's kind of like my world got bigger.”
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Executive Producer, Starbucks:
“When you read the headlines or turn on your news or scroll through your social media feed, you could easily mistake America as a nation lost. We want to pause and reflect. To go beyond that hatred and vitriol, and show you a different story of America. This story isn't bound by party affiliations or religious beliefs. This story isn't dependent on living in one zip code or another. It's not left-leaning or right-leaning.”
“This story gives me the chills every time I hear it. The courage that Steve had there, he took that other path – the harder path – and it came with some cost for him. Several of [his churchgoers] left. He pushed on because he felt it was the right thing to do.”