Entrepreneurs and leaders in tech and publishing use data, movies, and podcasts to fight racism and increase transparency.
Activists and tech leaders talked about what to do with white guilt dollars and how to use short-term concern about racism to make structural changes in corporate America during a panel discussion on Thursday. Change.org hosted the conversation, "Make Room: Supporting Black Voices in Tech."
The conversation included Christina Shareef, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Reddit; Stacy Chavis, manager of multicultural marketing and cultural events at Amazon; Sherrell Dorsey, founder and CEO of The Plug; Tezlyn Figaro, founder of Tezlyn Figaro Communications and a senior advisor for The George Floyd Foundation; and Justin Lyons, a senior director of people and inclusion at Change.org. Rashawn Davis, manager of the racial justice fund at Change.org, moderated the conversation.
The group talked about the increase in activism and attention to racial justice after George Floyd's murder in May 2020. Shareef said it was frustrating to see the sudden spike in concern about issues that had been a problem for years.
"It was frustrating to be doing the work before it was cool and then trying to make a difference in this year," she said. "People didn't want to pay attention until things were bubbling over."
She said some of the calls to action over the last year to fund black businesses and shop at black-owned retail stores could be seen as white guilt dollars.
"People were trying to make things right when it was a little bit too late," she said.
She is encouraged by the fact that people are actually listening to diversity, equity, and inclusion experts now and trying to make a difference.
"This year has required me to use all the skills I've learned doing this work--empathy, human resource skills, business aptitude, and operational know-how--to meet the moment in 2020 and beyond," she said.
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Shareef said that companies have to make diversity and inclusion central to all business goals, not a competing goal.
"When there is a hiring plan and then a diversity hiring plan, that's when it starts to fail," she said. "Diversity has to be a lens we are always looking through and part of our cultural DNA."
Shareef and her fellow panelists talked about how they are using their work to increase transparency in funding and hiring and to make sure that promises about improving equity are backed up with action.
Using data to reveal hiring practices
Publishing CEO Dorsey said she sees this moment as a chance to increase transparency and accountability. She founded The Plug in 2016 as a daily tech newsletter. She has grown the company since then into a news site that investigates and reports on Black tech trends, stories, and breaking news. The weekly newsletter is free. Readers who sign up for a paid subscription get access to the site's databases, events, and monthly briefings.
Last spring, Dorsey wanted to know if tech leaders were doing more than issuing statements in the wake of George Floyd's murder. The Plug's staff collected statements made by the leaders of more than 200 major tech companies in support of racial justice and compared those statements to hiring practices. The Plug's analysis found that "less than 45% of those companies publicly reported employee racial demographics." Among companies that did provide diversity data, more than 80% had fewer than one in 10 Black employees.
Dorsey said she founded The Plug because she was tired of reading tech news that had only one analogy to describe every up and coming tech entrepreneur: The next Mark Zuckerberg.
No one was covering news about black and brown funders and entrepreneurs, and Dorsey wanted to solve that problem and understand how tech business models shape society in general and minority communities in particular.
"We give our dollars to these companies every day but we don't have a sense of transparency about how are the black and brown people and women and trans people treated in this company?" she said. "If I'm giving this company $7,000 to $8,000 a year, I want to know if there are promotion opportunities for Black people."
Shareef agreed that sharing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) reports every year and doing audits of hiring practices has to be an annual event for corporations to actually make progress.
She is also encouraged that DE&I is moving away from a "do the right thing" activity to something more central.
"This is not a Spike Lee movie; this is part of corporate sustainability," she said. "The sustainability of organizations moving forward will be largely based on ability to match promises with action."
Using tech platforms for activism and education
Chavis of Amazon was new to her job last year when Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.
"I joined to do something different, but with George Floyd's death, everything changed," she said. "I saw that there was room for us to amplify and lift Black voices with this platform that we have."
Chavis said she looks for ways to use entertainment to teach people about history and social justice.
"We took over the Prime Video storefront last summer and that had never happened," she said. "We highlighted content that some people would never see otherwise."
Chavis said she also looked for opportunities to teach Prime customers about Juneteenth, a holiday in June that marks the end of slavery in the US.
The role of the activist
While corporate leaders often have money to spend to support DE&I initiatives, activists have a different tool to promote change, Figaro said.
"We can speak truth to power and be a voice for a lot of folks who don't have the opportunity to do so," she said.
Figaro said that corporate leaders and activists can work together to improve the lives of Black people.
"Everything that is truly Black is not going to be stamped and approved by large distributors," she said. "For those in the corporate space, you have to partner with outside allies who have the ability to go a little further."
Figaro said she is better able to deal with what she calls "the consequences of consciousness."
"I've lost more contracts than I've ever gained by using this mouthpiece," she said.
Her podcast, "Straight Shot, No Chaser," is part of the Black Effect Podcast Network, a joint project launched in late 2020 by iHeartMedia and Charlamagne Tha God.
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