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Courageous Conversations: Race and Business Challenges

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Morning after morning, Lyle Foster brews cup after cup inside his Espresso Café in Springfield. 
 
"Many times, people thought I was the Chief Cook, the baker, the candlestick maker and that's all fine. I get that, but I think its really been an opportunity to help be part of the entrepreneurial renaissance."
 
Foster is not any of the above. He is the owner of Big Momma's Coffee on Commercial Street.
 
"They'll see me behind the counter, they want to know do we have barbecue. I'm kind of like no it's a coffee shop and most times coffee shops don't normally serve barbecue," says Foster.
 
Like anyone else behind a counter, the Chicago transplant hears both positives and negatives still his mug is always half full. 
 
"Its been a very interesting experience. Obviously, there are sometimes I'm kind of like, wow, this is a different part of the world." 
 
Since 1829, Springfield has been growing. In the early 1900's, the largest grocery store was owned by the Hardricks, two African-American brothers, at this spot downtown. Then in the 1930s, the Graham family ran a BBQ restaurant. While owning the restaurant, they also helped blacks traveling through by giving them a place to stay in these cabins when Springfield hotels wouldn't let them rent a room because of the color of their skin.
 
Lack of business diversity

Skin color is no longer the barrier to business that it once was in Springfield, but the city still lacks diversity when it comes to race.
 
Former President of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Jim Anderson sat down to talk with us about the 26 years he was at the helm.
 
"We are the second most white city in America, I'm not proud of that. Of metropolitan areas of more than 400,000, we are second to only Portland, Maine."
 
However, sweeping the past away is not easy but Anderson says it has to be done.
 
"You have to have an area or community that values diversity, you have to have a welcoming diversity or welcoming area, but the talent tomorrow is going to be one that is a diverse talent," says Anderson.
 
Whether its making changes at businesses downtown, coming up with plans and programs at City Hall or turning to a fine art; having a conversation is the first steps to take. 
 
Foster says whatever the platform, its important. 
 
"I think its just helping people to realize people do a variety of things and we participate in any number of different types of business ventures, not always hair salons and barbecue restaurants," says Foster.
 
Outreach to the Community

Every Friday and Saturday night in February, Foster opens his back porch theater for entertainment with a real message.   (Watch an extended interview with Lyle Foster and Jon Herbert here)
 
"I really feel that helping to explain to people the rights and privileges that we all enjoy. That for some communities that we have to fight, we have to march, we have to protest, we have to speak up in order to have that," says Foster.
 
"Augusta Boal, a Brazilian director, founder of the theater oppressed famously said, "Theater is the rehearsal for the future, it's a rehearsal for life," explains Jon Herbert, the Director of Rights to Passage.
 
Jon Herbert directs the play, a fictional story surrounding similar racial tensions to current events like Ferguson. 
 
"Its about an hour long, feature length one act, that involves a white police officer that has just shot and killed an unarmed black teenager."
 
Herbert believes the stage is the starting point to a conversation not always easily discussed.
 
"It gives us this space to say hey, here's what people are thinking and feeling, here's what people want to say, but don't want to say. We can all look at it, its fiction, we are all okay, now let's talk about it," says Herbert.
 
On an cold morning, black coffee in a white mug is not just a way of revenue; its a constant reminder of a successful combination for Foster. Its two colors existing together, dependent on one another.
 
Now, he hopes it will break through the walls of his coffee shop to the streets of Springfield. 
 
"You don't have to prove to me that you are fair. I assume that, I'm not looking at you like, you know, you hate me or you've got prejudice and biasness against me. I'm looking at you as another traveler on the journey called life so lets walk down the road together."
 

 


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