Growing up in Billings, MT., Kim Malek acknowledges that the experiences of people of color were not something she thought much about.
“I am horrified to admit that I was one of those people who said I am color blind,” she said. “I am so embarrassed to say that.” All that changed when she moved to Portland, fell in love and married an African-American man and together, they adopted three African-American kids from Missouri.
“It’s been an enlightening experience for me,” she said. “Now I live as the only white person in my family, especially as we’ve gone through this election cycle, I now see it through the lens as their mom and his partner.”
The kids are eight, seven and three. Her husband is an Ivy-league educated doctor at Oregon Health & Science University, and he has been on the receiving end of racist comments despite his accomplished career.
“The morning after the election my 8-year-old son saw me crying and I explained Trump had won,” she explained. “He asked me very matter-of-factly: ‘Are we going to have to move?’ I asked him what he was talking about. He said the kids at school told him that if Trump wins I am going to have to move because he only wants white people here. He goes to school in Portland, Oregon and he is one of the only black people in his grade.”
This election campaign alongside the Black Lives Matter movement has opened the eyes of many white people across the country to the realities of living in America with black or brown skin.
“Our work needs to start right here in Portland,” Kim added. “Someone I know is the coach of the Benson High School girls’ basketball team, and his team, high school girls, face a lot racial harassment here in liberal Portland. They hear horrible chants from the crowd and cyber bullying. We do not live in a bubble that is immune from this racism. It’s happening in our own communities here and I don’t think very many people know that.”
As the founder and owner of Salt & Straw, Malek has made justice central to her business model. Salt & Straw supports numerous causes, including Basic Rights Oregon. All employees receive more than 40 hours of training, including how to interrupt oppression or abusive behavior to help staff achieve a level of respect for themselves and the people around them.
“On a business level, I believe a strong business can only exist as part of a strong community,” Malek said. “I think the cornerstone of a strong community is having all members of our community participating equally. None of us is reaching our full potential until we all are.
“I have people in my family and people who work in my company who face challenges of having basic human rights,” she added. “I have people in my communities and in my neighborhood. I feel strongly that we need to support social justice causes.”
Salt & Straw has four stores in Portland and five in California, with a few others planned. Despite its size, it provides affordable health care to part-time employees, including access to gender affirming care for transgender employees, access to birth control and family planning, and three months parental leave for both parents.
“When we opened our second store on NW 23rd, it was our first experience working with an employee who was transitioning and I hadn’t thought about it a lot,” she said. “We had one person who was going through the process and another person who already transitioned. There were times when people needed extra time off because of their situation or they were going through periods and bouts where they did not feel good. Or they needed to sit down and have a special meeting with the team to explain what was about to happen and that their name was changing. Extra little help here or there with advances for financial needs. Our approach is to meet people where they are.”
This approach is also critical to retaining employees. “We are growing and we have a real need to develop and grow people to take on leadership roles in our company. And we’re looking for that great talent at all levels wherever we can find it. Over the past five years we’ve been so supported and so much busier than we ever thought we would be and it’s kind of like we are coming together to create this experience for each other.”
This Valentine’s Day, Salt & Straw is supporting Basic Rights Oregon and The Trevor Project to show support, solidarity and lots of love for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth in our communities and across the nation. In these uncertain times, LGBTQ youth are still vulnerable to discrimination, homelessness and suicide.
From Salt & Straw: “Our LGBTQ neighbors, friends, and loved ones need our support now more than ever—and messages of love and celebration are a wonderful way to do just that. We’re sending the message that every LGBTQ child is born perfect and every young person’s identity should be honored, celebrated, and supported every day. Join us in showing LGBTQ youth that we have their backs.”