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On Being a Wedge, Not a Token

While reporting this Fortune story on black men in executive leadership, I had a particularly inspiring conversation with technologist and consultant Art Hopkins. It keeps haunting me, in the best possible sense. “My motto is: I’m not a token, I’m a wedge,” he began.

Hopkins has had a long career in technology at a variety of outfits, starting as a programmer and leapfrogging up the ecosystem to become a CEO. He currently helps lead the technology practice at consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. As a black man in technology (the non-Silicon Valley variety, yes, it exists) he understood early that there was an asterisk by his name. “It was always part of the responsibility that came along with my opportunities,” he says. “If I was the first person to get a foot in the door, I was leaving behind bread crumbs for others.” That the asterisk still exists in the world is a disappointment, but not a surprise. “It’s like encoded English,” he says. “It’s acceptable to go around with this belief that an African American male in tech is ‘less than.’”

Like most black men who succeed in executive life, he learned early on to be above reproach in dress and conduct, to mitigate any behavior that might be interpreted as threatening – sitting down and leaning back when delivering difficult feedback, for example. But as a senior leader, he’s also developed techniques that help him coach others into considering how other people around them are faring. “I am trying to institutionalize empathy,” he says. “It’s the first act of identifying with another person as he or she self-identifies.”

He uses an exercise he calls ‘First Person Singular,’ which he describes as a way to get someone to think about the unmet needs of someone who may be different from them. You’re asked to “become” someone else and then walk through their day. I wake up and have coffee. I’m worried about my presentation. I change my outfit three times. I run for the bus. I walk into work. That sort of thing. Hopkins will then ask questions about how you feel. It’s done in front of a group, and though it sounds deceptively simple, it can get very uncomfortable.

When we did it together, he asked me to consider being a transgendered person, which he did recently at an inclusion coaching session at his office. I walked through my day in my head, trying to tell the story of myself as someone else.

Then he asked: “So, what’s it like to use the bathroom facilities as a transgender person? Here? At work?” After spending 10 minutes as someone else – and having had all that coffee – it was a jarring question. “That’s when I ask people, ‘What thought have you given to the needs of your transgender colleagues?’” he says. So many of the experiences we share at work are the same – until, of course, they become totally different.

Hopkins says that this exercise is not about acceptance or understanding. “They – whoever they are – have been living their life fine without that,” he says. “It’s about getting out of your own context and committing yourself to seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, if only for a short while.” What flows from that, he says, is up to you.

On Point

The president rolls back transgender protections, reversing a campaign promiseOn Wednesday, President Trump overturned protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. The move ignited an immediate public outcry and a rift within his own administration, forcing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on opposite sides of a contentious issue. Whereas Ms. DeVos expressed concern for the well-being of LGBT students, Mr. Sessions opposes expanding gay, lesbian and transgender rights.New York Times

SCOTUS: Racist testimony necessitates new sentencing in Texas death penalty case
The testimony in question was delivered by a psychologist and was casually damning: Black defendants are more dangerous than white ones. The defendant in question, Duane Buck, had been convicted of the 1995 murder of his girlfriend and her friend. But that “particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice,” was inexcusably prejudicial. In a majority 6-to-2 decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the psychologist’s report “said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution.”
New York Times

The last protesters left at Standing Rock prepare to leave
The remaining few dozen protesters faced off against riot police Wednesday, as a deadline to vacate the premises came and went. Defying a 2 p.m. central time evacuation order, the remaining protesters ceremonially burned tents and other structures rather than have them fall into government hands. At least 10 arrests were made throughout the day. “You can’t arrest a movement. You can’t arrest a spiritual revolution,” said one Standing Rock Sioux tribe member.

Architects of color weigh in on the unbearable whiteness of being a designer
The American Institute of Architects turns 160 years old this year, which seems as good a time as any to do some soul-searching. Curbed asked 16 architects at various stages of their careers to talk about the race-related challenges they’ve faced over their careers. They did not disappoint. “I never saw anything about work by black architects or architecture about black people unless it was traditional African architecture or the pyramids in Egypt. That’s as far as it went,” said Mabel O. Wilson on the eurocentrism of the profession. Suchi Reddy, an immigrant from India, remembers the shock. “I never really knew what racism was until I came to this country,” she said. “The first thing you overcome is the gender bias, and then the racial questions come.”

The director of photography for ’13th’ on the visual elements that helped tell the story
People of color make up 30% of the general population of the U.S., but more than 60% of the incarcerated population. Why? This was the story that director Ava DuVernay set out to tell in her extraordinary documentary, 13th, which addresses the criminalization and mass incarceration of black (and brown) people. But to tell that story effectively using visual cues, she relied on Kira Kelly, one of the two directors of photography. Kelly is a visionary in her own right. In this interview, she explains how the locations and the framing pushed documentary norms to amplify the emotion of the interviews and subject matter.

The Woke Leader

What ever happened to the racist white people in those historical civil rights photos?
I’ve wondered this myself. Do those pictures of Uncle Jimmy smiling in the foreground of a lynching, or Cousin Thelma spitting at an integrating student, ever make it into a family album somewhere? Photographer and writer Johnny Silvercloud answers his own question by positing that after the passage of civil rights legislation, those old racists simply went silent, turning off the public spigot of their anger and indignation. Their ghosts pop up in odd ways, he says, like when a millionaire peacefully takes a knee in protest. It’s an action that Martin Luther King would have approved of, and yet Colin Kaepernick continues to drive otherwise mellow people crazy. “I highly doubt that the white faces in the first Civil Rights Era just automatically let go of their racist ideologies,” he writes. “White supremacy — racism in America — had to adapt, and it did.” (Disturbing photos ahead if you click through.)

What it means to be evicted
Although his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is nearly a year old, his conclusions are more important than ever. Harvard’s Matthew Desmond, a prolific researcher on the intersection poverty, race, and gender, offers a wrenching look into the lives of the financially vulnerable, and how losing their homes triggers a cascade of negative events. His research focused on Milwaukee, a racially segregated city with a high poverty rate. While his team drew from state-level data and court records, he also chose to live in a trailer park and city apartments for months, to better understand the lives of families living in poverty and how evictions impacted their lives. Desmond’s family lost their home when he was a kid; he brings a unique empathy to his inquiries about poverty, dignity and progress.

What is a Jewish Community Center, anyway?
Novelist Jennifer Weiner put together a touching essay on the role that the J.C.C. played in her life growing up – pre-school; regular workouts with her mom; a JCC planned trip to Israel; visiting her nana during the last months of her life, in an apartment on the campus of the West Hartford JCC. “If synagogue is where Jews feel the most Jewish — praying in a foreign language, celebrating holidays that aren’t always on the office calendar — the J.C.C. is where many of the nation’s estimated 5.3 million Jews feel the most Jewish American,” she writes. Listening to the role her home J.C.C .played in her life makes the harassment feel less abstract and more vicious.
New York Times


These bills are not about bathrooms. They’re about whether transgender people have the right to exist in public space. If we can’t access public bathrooms, we can’t go to school, we can’t work, we can’t go to health-care facilities.
—Laverne Cox