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raceAhead: June 10, 2016

June 10, 2016, 1:21 PM UTC

America values candid conversations and free expression. Unless you’re at work. Then candor, especially about sensitive issues, can be challenging.

Consider the series of candid conversations that likely happened at Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg was forced to reprimand the employees who scrawled “all lives matter” over “black lives matter” on the company’s famous signature wall. Twice. “I was already very disappointed by this disrespectful behavior before, but after my communication I now consider this malicious as well,” he said, in a memo obtained by Gizmodo.

There’s a lot of candid talking that needs to happen when it comes to race and bias in all industries, but particularly in tech. Jopwell, the diversity recruitment platform, recently surveyed 300 Native American, Latino and black engineers and found that 69% reported they had experienced racial bias, 16% reported gender bias and 11% reported bias based on sexuality. For employees who are stung by scrawled messages or alienated by what appears to be everyday speech, managing difficult conversations becomes a leadership imperative.

Everett Harper, the CEO and co-founder of the tech company Truss – known for helping to fix and expand the website – believes that a culture of acceptance can be created by a company of any size and at any time, if the leaders are willing to do the work. (And he clearly is – Truss is also one of 11 start-ups that have just been tapped to join Project Include, a new collaborative attempt to test and share best practices in inclusion. More on that below, in “On Point.”)

Harper says that creating reliable feedback mechanisms is what helps a culture talk about and resolve difficult issues. It’s important to make sure people feel that they can be honest without penalty or punishment, and that they know they’ll be taken seriously. Having a diverse team is helpful (for that, read his manifesto on tapping “weak tie” networks) but then it’s up to leadership to encourage employees to stick around. “All employees have skills they’ve trained for. They want to use them to advance the goals of the business – and also grow, make money, or both,” he says. “Employers have to remove the biases in the system that prevent some employees from achieving that.”

Truss has a monthly meeting called a “retrospective,” where employees post sticky notes, followed by conversation. The first round is what’s going well. The second round is on what needs work. “I do a lot of listening,” he says.

vHe offers a small example with big implications. “We’re a multi-gendered culture,” he says. “Turns out, the term ‘you guys’, which we use constantly in Slack, actually made some people uncomfortable.” After the ‘you guys’ post-it turned into a serious talk, the engineers decided to create a polite chat bot in Slack that would prompt a user to try a different phrase, like ‘ya’ll’, ‘you people’, or even ‘youse’. It was a lightweight and easy fix. “But we had to talk it through and connect it to the bigger issue of acceptance.”

vHarper emphasizes an orientation of curiosity, rather than defensiveness. “Asking questions, being curious about others keeps things open,” he says. “And open conversations build more courageous companies.”


On Point

And a little child shall lead them.
Public school teachers have been reporting the race-based and xenophobic vitriol spillover from presidential race is making its way into the classroom and playground. The problem is not limited to certain zip codes.  A teacher from an elementary school in Berkeley, Ca., has been stopping kids from saying things like “you were born in a Taco Bell,” and “you’ll get deported” to their Latino classmates. One Tennessee kindergarten teacher told the Guardian that a Latino student had been told by classmates that he will be deported and trapped behind a wall so many times, he believes it. “Is the wall here yet?” the student asks every day.
The Guardian

A magazine of smart, engaged, digitally savvy, multi-ethnic journalists is, dare I say, on point? Motivos, staffed entirely by college students and recent high school grads, has just received notice of preliminary credentialing to cover the Democratic National Convention. The demographics of the staff offer an optimistic harbinger of the electorate that the DNC hopes to attract.
Philly Mag

What works, at scale.
Eleven tech startups and 15 venture capital firms have been selected by Ellen Pao’s Project Include to test new ideas, gather data and share best practices designed to help smaller tech firms become more inclusive. This is an attempt to "lead a diversity movement by example, demonstrating what’s possible with concentrated effort from committed CEOs,” says Freada Kapor Klein, Founder of the Level Playing Field Institute and Project Include member. The companies are: Airbnb, Asana, Clef, Managed by Q, Patreon, Periscope Data, Prek12Plaza, Puppet, Truss, Twilio, and Upserve. The venture capital firms include: 500 Startups, Blackbird, Cross Culture, Designer Fund, Homebrew, Impact, Kapor Capital, Lowercase, Lucas Point, Precursor, Reach, Scale, Trimantium, True, and Upfront.  

The kids are alright.
BET has raised an interesting issue: An entire generation of American middle schoolers (and some inattentive high schoolers, one imagines) do not remember a time when the president has not been black. How will they handle the shock? Comedian and writer Russ Green holds a mixed race panel discussion with actual adolescents, who debate the qualifications of the all-white presidential candidates (including Bernie Sanders) with an inspiring amount of frankness, humor and take-no-prisoners insight. Really. Don’t miss this. #WokeIsaac

Black or white.
In a deeply reported and heartfelt piece, New York Times Magazine writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, takes on the big issues of history, race, income, gentrification, culture and education in New York City and beyond.  The story has a deeply personal twist: she’s a parent looking for a school for her young, black daughter, and worries that choosing a top-notch (primarily white) school means sacrificing other valuable educational experiences. “In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers.”  And the legacy of underperforming schools are undermining the gains of the black middle class. She and her husband “each came from working-class roots, fought our way into the middle class and had no family wealth or safety net to fall back on.” Would choosing an integrated school too big a risk?
New York Times

The Woke Leader

Ignorance is love.
In a wonderful and surprising story, Lulu Wang explains how her entire Chinese and Chinese-American family conspired to keep her beloved grandmother from learning that she had been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer. From the accidental discovery of the news -“It’s customary for doctors in China to to give bad news to family members, rather than giving it directly to a patient”-  to doctored health documents and more, Wang offers a poignant look at love, Chinese culture, the generational divide and the lies that bind. Don’t worry, I didn’t spoil anything. 
This American Life

What do you mean we, kemosabe?
Clothing designer Sage Paul tries to reclaim a pejorative expression in her latest art show called “Indian Giver.” The Toronto-based designer of Dene First Nations origin, asks her audience to consider what would happen if indigenous people appropriated from themselves for a change. “Accountability is only coming up now, because we finally have a voice to say, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t use our name for that or our ceremonial objects for your poster!’” she said. “It's very new, but this turn of accountability is not enough. We're just at the beginning of the conversation.” Come for the concept, stay for the photos.
The Fader

What’s in your algorithm?
Google the term ‘three black teenagers’. Now google the term ‘three white teenagers’. The results are predictably awful: the search for black teens brings up police mug shots. The other search offers smiling, happy faces.  Kabir Ali, an 18 year old graduating senior from Virginia, posted a video clip of the search on Twitter, and an explosive conversation began around the hashtag #threeblackteenagers.  Though people have been flagging bias in search engines for years, the conversation has researchers and leaders thinking once again about how bias infects our most automated systems.
USA Today



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—Muhammad Ali