Before Hillary Barnes did the Landmark Forum, she managed a Starbucks branch for nine years. When a newspaper reporter for the Oregonian observed a chalkboard advertisement at the store that she found to be racially inflammatory, she wrote about it in one of her columns. In the public uproar that followed, Starbucks fired Barnes. The reporter received a huge amount of hate mail for writing something that ended up costing Barnes her job, and Barnes herself publicly attacked the reporter. After completing the Landmark Forum, Barnes took full responsibility for what had happened and she called the reporter and apologized. The reporter, S. Renee Mitchell, was astonished by Barnes’ transformation and wrote about it in the Oregonian. The story is excerpted here:
Getting Past the Pain Can Salve the Wounds of Racial Assumptions
By S. Renee Mitchell
The Oregonian, March 24, 2008
I had a refreshing moment last week when I was confronted with the truth behind Senator Barack Obama’s ‘unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.’ We all have different stories, he reminded us, but we have to be around each other to listen to them. And we have to acknowledge each other’s pain to heal.
I make that point because Tuesday, the day of Obama’s powerfully eloquent speech about race, I got an unexpected phone call from Hillary Barnes. Barnes is the former Starbucks store manager who was fired last year after about nine years of service. I reported in an August 17th column that Barnes had written “I LUBS me some Breakfast Blend” in a conversation bubble of an Afro-haired caricature. I saw her unfortunate marriage of words and art as an invitation to offend. So, I — clumsily, I admit — opened the door to a converation about the ways in which our racial perceptions stir up misunderstandings.
Starbucks took that potentially teachable moment and made a punitive personnel decision. To this day, I feel remorse about that. But I don’t own responsibility for a major corporation’s knee-jerk attempt to disassociate itself from bad press.
Many readers and various bloggers, though, expected me to apologize. Barnes, in particular, blamed me for seeing harm where she intended humor. She and I were both seemingly closed to further conversation or insight. But Barnes found a way past her hurt to reach out in a way that was healing for both of us.
“Renee,” said a vaguely familiar voice at the other end of the phone, “this is Hillary Barnes. I hope you can forgive me.”
She continued: “I’ve been blaming you for ruining my life for the last six months. I had given you my power and you didn’t even know it.”
Initially, she said, she delighted in the name calling, the visceral attacks and the half-hearted attempt to pressure The Oregonian to fire me. After awhile, though, she says: “The whole blog thing got really old.” One day, a convenience store clerk in Eugene, where she moved to help care for an elderly relative, asked Barnes about her passion. She says she couldn’t come up with an answer. “I just shut down,” she says.
So, Barnes registered for a conference in Denver on transformational thinking. The Landmark Forum gifted her with a paradign shift about her desert journey. Now, she says, she can appreciate that my Sept. 15 follow-up column led to her meeting her biological mother, who had given her infant daughter up for adoption.
“It was not a likely conclusion that I would have found her without it happening,” she says. Barnes’ subsequent search for purpose also reminded her of her love for art and architecture and her desire to finish her degree at the University of Oregon. “By age 50, I could have a diploma,” she says. “I’m excited.” Most important, she says, she is clearer now that her inner strength can never be compromised — by anybody or anything — without her permission.
“It’s not that I didn’t see the miracle and the wonder,” Barnes says. “But I was holding onto my story. I let fear get in the way.” Fear of the unknown. Fear of the profound pain that feeds the contempt we hold for another human being. Fear of what our fervent anger says about us and who we are inside. “It’s like going through the eye of the needle,” Barnes says, “and getting back to the pureness of oneself and really getting that you’re whole and complete and perfect just the way you are and just the way you are not.”
Clarity about our own purpose and responsibility helps us shed more light on circumstances that can cast a shadow on our hope. As Obama suggested, if we’re ever to achieve racial unity, we each have to temper our impulse to disagree and outright dismiss other viewpoints just because they are unfamiliar. We need to release our need to be unequivocally right. And give ourselves an opportunity to encounter a truth we’ll never bump into by wallowing in righteous indignation.
I am so grateful that Barnes was gracious enough to create a space for us to find common ground. She also sent a note of encouragement. “You are loved and you are loving,” she wrote.“I’m not committed to being small anymore,” Barnes told me on the phone. “I know I have issues, but those issues don’t have power over me. I’m calling it: The end of the story.”The End.And a beginning.
Check out Mitchell’s follow up to her original story.