A youngster, who appeared to be of African descent, no older than 10, walked into a coffee shop in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
He asked the barista about the cost of a cup of hot chocolate.
With the same admiring smile that I have witnessed on many occasions from my seat at coffee shops in this section of the city — given to countless numbers of young people who find the courage to walk into “grown-up spaces” like this one — the barista responded with a question, “Would you like a large or small?”
The youngster replied that he was interested in a small cup of hot chocolate and the barista said, with a consistent tone, “That would be $2.”
The actions that ensued speak volumes about Germantown as a community as much as they speak to the essence of this business where I, this young man, and this barista (who happened to be the shop owner) co-existed on this particular afternoon.
The youngster, who seemed taken aback by the price, followed up with an inquiry on the shop’s closing time. The owner responded, without any visible frustration, that the establishment closed at 7 p.m.
“OK,” said the youngster.
As an onlooker who had been working on the computer while overhearing this exchange, I understood it to mean that the cost of the hot chocolate was more than this young man had calculated for this adventure into this new space on this particular day.
As he began turning toward the door, I asked, “Do you want a large hot chocolate or a small?”
The youngster hesitated, as if to consider the many times that his parents had told him not to accept things from strangers. He politely answered “a small” and walked to my seat with a hand extended to introduce himself.
We spoke briefly about his school and, upon leaving with his cup of hot chocolate, he said with confidence to the owner, “I am going to bring my mom back here tomorrow.”
In this story, every party involved was an independent actor. Each was empowered with that independence in a manner that reduced the notion of threat and created a dialogue around possibility.
In the wake of the recent events at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks, we have started a long overdue dialogue around the notion of belonging and the fear-based drivers behind these notions.
In Germantown, the culture of a community that is home to a 328-plus year-old dialogue around the idea of freedom in America makes the exchange I described “normal.”
It was not, and is not, the places that we choose to patronize alone that empowers or diminishes our basic freedoms. It is our collective dependence on misinformed fears and unacknowledged biases that erode the natural inclination to treat people with basic human decency.
When those fears are institutionalized, a true threat arises with the potential to place our fellow citizens in harm’s way.
In Germantown, the area business improvement district is cutting to the heart of those fears by operating from a line of thinking that acknowledges resilience, deliberately empowering individuals and institutions as assets worthy of partnership, with an unwavering commitment to the full development of all its neighbors.
Business improvement districts, both nationally and internationally, have an organizational structure that is uniquely positioned to organize efforts around the creation of safe spaces for all. It is as accountable as the merchant community itself in ensuring that a safe environment is maintained from the top down.
Institutions in Philadelphia neighborhoods like Center City, East Passyunk, Manayunk, Roxborough, as well as many suburbs, could be engaging more deeply in dialogue around the perceptions of its residents and how those perceptions can limit people of African descent from feeling free and, consequently, stifling both confidence and commerce.
With this most recent show of prejudice dominating the news, we have an opportunity to diversify the thinking that goes into governing unsafe commercial spaces while attracting the many like-minded businesses (and entrepreneurs) to those commercial districts around a culture of inclusion in Philadelphia, the region and the country.