The employees of Grandchamps, a Haitian restaurant in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, were closing up after a long, hot day of filling takeout orders in early June when the owners asked them to gather in the dining area.
The close-knit group settled in as the sun began to set and were greeted by Jason Starr, a lawyer with the Human Rights Campaign.
“Has anyone here ever been stopped by the police?” Mr. Starr asked. Four of the six employees who were present raised their hands.
Terry McLaurin, 26, a cashier who was wearing a face mask emblazoned with the words “God is Dope,” said she had been stopped and questioned at least a dozen times.
As multiple crises were unfolding, Sabrina and Shawn Brockman, Grandchamps’ owners, decided to bring in resources to help address the intersecting needs of their employees, who are all Black.
They enlisted Mr. Starr and Dr. Surrenca Albert, a Haitian-American therapist, to help their workers navigate the practical and emotional consequences of a moment when the Black community is being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, and as protests against police violence dredge up memories and anxieties of their own experiences with law enforcement. When demonstrations began in May, many of the restaurant’s employees were concerned about encountering officers on their way home from work.
“As a Black woman, I know that life is already more complicated and stressful,” said Ms. Brockman, who is Haitian-American. “I recognize that this moment is all about making progress so Black people can thrive.”
Ms. Brockman met her husband, Shawn, who is white, in 2009 in Brooklyn. They married three years later, and live near Grandchamps with their two children: Townes, 5, and Luella, 2.
When the couple opened Grandchamps in 2015, their intention was to operate a restaurant that treated its employees better than what Mr. Brockman had often experienced in other restaurant kitchens.
“In the restaurant industry, there’s a lot of aggressive and disrespectful behavior like yelling at people and making people feel smaller instead of working together,” said Mr. Brockman, who is the chef and runs the day-to-day operations at Grandchamps. Ms. Brockman helps manage the business and is also a senior vice president for an international mining company.
They hired mostly young Black people from the neighborhood, many of whom had been harassed by the police on multiple occasions.
“Part of being a Black person in this country,” Mr. Starr said, “is that there is more than a reasonable, credible level of fear that at any point of time — whether hanging out on a stoop with friends on a summer night or going to work — there is nothing about myself that matters to a police officer in those interactions except that I am Black and that is what will define the interactions.”
During the hourlong session at Grandchamps, Mr. Starr offered advice on how to respond to the police: If you are stopped on the street, you are not obligated to provide identifying information, answer questions, or consent to body or property searches. Always ask if you are being detained or if you are free to go.
“There is,” he said, “dignitary harm” associated with the idea that “your identity, your very existence, is looked at like a crime.”
Dr. Albert, a friend of Ms. Brockman’s since high school, asked the workers how they were feeling since the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations.
Most of the employees said that they were doing OK. Then it was Ms. McLaurin’s turn: “I want to be fine,” she said. “It’s not a good time to break down because we all have things to do, but are we all really fine? Because I’m not.”
“It is OK to not be OK,” Dr. Albert said. If you’re nervous about encountering the police anytime you step outside, then you’re not fine, she said. For Black people, these feelings are “intertwined in everyday life and they become normalized.”
The group then opened up, speaking more freely about their experiences with racism.
“The protests caused Black people to really face the feelings they have been carrying, and this is happening on a grand scale where no one can pretend it’s not taking place,” Dr. Albert said. “The anger, frustration, fear, confusion and despair we are experiencing now is very reminiscent of what our ancestors experienced over the course of 400 years.”
The Brockmans have held two more to make sure all their employees could attend, and as part of the program several workers have started individual therapy sessions with Dr. Albert. Ms. Brockman and Dr. Albert said they had plans to expand the program to workers at other local restaurants and businesses.
Though the program has been welcomed by Grandchamps’ employees, there aren’t easy solutions to dealing with police stops, Ms. McLaurin said after attending the session. “It was a reality check because we live in a world where anything can happen. It’s important to get help and to lean on people you trust.”
Antoine Saunders, 23, a cashier who attended one of the later meetings, said he had been stopped by police officers so many times he “couldn’t possibly count,” including in late June. He had entered the corner store across from his home when two plainclothes officers in an unmarked dark sedan pulled up and told Mr. Saunders and two men nearby, whom he didn’t know, to line up against the wall. An officer patted them down before telling them to go home.
“I’m so used to it that it’s just a part of everyday life,” said Mr. Saunders, a visual artist who attended four protests against police violence in the last month. “I hope that someday I can walk the streets and not be worried about the cops.”
As the protests began in late May, Ms. Brockman entered Grandchamps carrying sheets of white paper, scissors and tape, and cut out letters and pasted them onto the window: “Black is Beautiful.”
“I wanted to make a positive message because we need to heal,” she said.