Behind the Green Apron: Store Manager Reveals How Launching Starbucks Black Partner Network Helped her Reconnect to her Afro-Canadian Roots

Throughout February, Starbucks Canada is celebrating Black History Month by sharing the unique stories and experiences of its Black partners (employees) each week on Starbucks Stories.

This week, Toronto store manager Chelsea Gayle discusses how a lack of awareness and acknowledgment of Black contributions in Canadian history left her feeling aliented in her youth and why founding Starbucks Black Partner Network in Canada helped her reclaim her identity.

Roots are an important foundation for cultural life. Strong roots ground us, nurture us, support and sustain us. They guide us and give us awareness of cultural connections. Imagine what life would be like without having any understanding or exposure to the depth of your roots. Welcome to the life of this Afro-Canadian.

As a Black woman of Caribbean descent, it is very hard for me to trace my roots. My great-grandparents, grandparents and parents were all born on the island of Jamaica. Besides this, there isn’t much else I am aware of. This ignorance to the extent of our roots is the reality of many people of afro Caribbean and Afro-Canadian descent.

I remember sitting in history class learning about the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman and her contributions to the Underground Railroad that made its way into Canada. But growing up in the Canadian school system, I didn’t learn about the contributions of Canadian visible minorities or the contributions of people from African descent.  There was nothing about Viola Desmond, Josiah Henson, or Mary Ann Shadd.  I relied on my mother’s teachings and my own curiosity to uncover Black contributions to Canadian history and to the Black experience in Canada.

You can only imagine the look on my face when I learned for the first time that my ancestors not only came from Africa, but that the African continent was a place of royalty. Imagine the pride and self-esteem young girls like me would have felt in knowing that we are among the descendants of people like Amina, the Queen of Zaria; Kandake, the Empress of Ethiopia; Makeda, the Queen of Sheba; or the more well-known Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt and wife of well-known pharaoh Akhenaten.

Not only was I missing cultural awareness, but as a young, dark-skinned girl, I faced a lot of discrimination. My experience ranges from being bullied because of the pigment in my skin to being ridiculed for my tight curls and texture of my hair. Growing up Black in Canada was not easy and it didn’t help that media rarely portrayed Black girls who looked like me. It also didn’t help that the majority of my elementary school educators were white and could not understand the hurt they caused when they recommended I straighten my hair for picture days to illustrate the “best version of myself.” Why does mutilating my hair and damaging my natural locks represent the best version of me?

Last year, I founded the first Canadian chapter of the Starbucks Black Partner Network not only as a way for me to build a community to celebrate our cultures and the accomplishments of historically significant Black Canadians, but to create a space to embrace other Black partners (employees) and celebrate the contributions we make every day, in our stores, in our offices, in our communities.

This year, as founder of the Black Partner Network, I am so proud to celebrate Black History Month on a national stage at Starbucks. This spotlight to educate and celebrate Black culture is the first of many to come. Launching the Starbucks Canada Black Partner Network has made me a pioneer in this process, which is an honour that I am grateful to share with my co-chair Kimberly Robin. Together with our fellow members, the Black Partner Network has high aspirations: to support the acknowledgement and sharing of the heritage of the African diaspora with other Starbucks partners who, like me, want to continue to build our understanding of our history amplify the many successes and contributions of the Black community; and to help advise Starbucks Canada on how together, we can create a more safe and diverse space for Black partners.

This Black History Month is a time for celebration – a time to adjust and recreate the narrative; a time for Black people to be rooted in both culture and an unbiased history; a time to make our contributions  to Canadian society known.  We will celebrate Black excellence and that Black is beautiful in all forms. We will highlight the accomplishments and unapologetically brag about the beauty we’ve been told was unacceptable and unprofessional for years.  

Amanda Gorman's 2021 presidential inaugural poem leaves us with hope when she says, “For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it.”

I want every young Black person to know we are capable of so many things. Our colonial oppressors may have tried in vain to break our spirit and dim our light but we are resilient. And we remain capable of doing so many great things.

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