raceAhead: Getting Proximate

Close-Up Of Water Flowing Through Rocks
Close-Up Of Water Flowing Through Rocks
Martin Schneider—EyeEm/Getty Images

Just a quick note today since I’ve been on the move, as you well know.

I want to thank you for your beautiful notes on yesterday’s fly-fishing essay. It’s been such a delight to hear some of your experiences braving the wilderness — some of you with your white colleagues, and some of you who shared your love of the outdoors with your sweetly skeptical friends of color.

I delivered a version of yesterday’s essay as an anecdote during a set of remarks I shared with a global company recently. As it turned out, there were some fly-fishing enthusiasts in the room. Several decided then and there to treat the low-income STEM students they were mentoring to a fly-fishing outing. Naturally, I invited myself along. I will give you a full report once I have their permission to share and things start to shape up.

It was one of the most beautiful and authentic examples of “proximity” thinking I’ve encountered lately. The term has been popularized by Bryan Stevenson, the law professor, anti-death-penalty advocate and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who recently enjoined the crowd at our most recent CEO Initiative to “find ways to get proximate to the poor and vulnerable,” to better understand their humanity and address social problems.

You learn a lot about someone standing next to them in a river, enjoying a meal, watching a sporting event, or just taking a walk. You don’t even have to have “the big talk.” Consciously sharing space can build understanding, relationship, and trust, if you work at it. While it may not be the scalable inclusion breakthrough everyone is looking for, I believe it matters most. With all due respect to the management gurus out there, not everything that matters can be measured.


On Point

Gizmodo asks: Can we make facial recognition technology that isn’t racist?All signs point to no, at least, not yet. And yet, it’s showing up everywhere from summer camps to public stadiums. Can the rapidly appearing versions of these products be truly non-racist? The lack of black and brown faces in AI data sets means that the recognition error rate for darker skinned people can be as high as 34 percent. “I’m much more comfortable selling face recognition to theme parks, cruise lines, or banks,” said Brian Brackeen, CEO of a start up making facial recognition/biometric log-in systems. He’s black and he’s working on the issue. “If you have to log into your [bank] account twice because you’re African American, that’s unfair. But, you’re not gonna get shot.” Brackeen got industry famous for turning down a contract with a company that makes police body cameras, and writing an op-ed asking others to do the same.Gizmodo

Amazon’s facial recognition system falsely matched 28 members of Congress to faces in a criminal database
The jokes just write themselves. The ACLU, trying to make a point, ran photos of all 535 members of Congress against a public database of people who had been arrested for a crime, using Amazon’s open Rekognition API. While none of the Congresspersons are currently in the mugshot book, the system shot back 28 false positives, disproportionately people of color. The results included six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among them Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) Rekognition is available to the public, and the cost to run the test was less than $13. “An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives,” they write in their report. Amazon is marketing the technology to the police. (I think I may try this with Fortune 500 CEOs. What do you think?)

Blavity founders raise $6.5 million in funding
Morgan DeBaun, the 28-year-old cofounder and CEO of the media outlet Blavity, a digital content site aimed at black adults under 40, has announced that the company has raised $6.5 million in new funding led by GV, the fund formerly known as Google Ventures. She and her co-founders Aaron Samuels, Jonathan Jackson, and Jeff Nelson plan to build new platforms and will be tripling their engineering team, most likely in the Atlanta area. In the last few years, Blavity has acquired Travel Noire, a travel startup for black millennials, and Shadow and Act, which focuses on entertainment. GV Partner John Lyman will join Blavity’s board of directors. Well done.
Black Enterprise

Meet the first black woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT
Math and science weren’t originally Mareena Robinson Snowden’s thing she says, but her eagle-eyed high school teachers kept her STEM anxiety at bay. Then, a visit to Florida’s A&M college when she was shopping for colleges made her even more sure she could handle the weight. “They treated me like a football player who was getting recruited. They took me to the scholarship office, and they didn’t know anything about me at the time. All they knew was that I was a student who was open to the possibility of majoring in physics,” she said. She took a summer program offered by MIT, and her future was set. She’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she will be focusing on nuclear security and policy research.
The Root

The Woke Leader

I was once a crazy, rich Asian
Writer Kevin Kwan talks about the characters he brought to life in his 2013 book Crazy Rich Asians, as they come to even further to life in a soon-to-be-released feature film. It’s the first Hollywood production featuring an all-Asian cast in twenty years. Kwan, from an established Singapore banking family was on track to be crazy rich, when his father moved them to the U.S. in a quest to normalize his family. “I was taken from a very rarefied world and put into normal, middle-class Houston, Texas,” he says. “My mom was dragged along, reluctantly. She had to learn at age 50 how make breakfast, how to vacuum. There’s a sitcom in here somewhere called Fresh Off the Yacht.”
Refinery 29

Mowhawk ironworkers built New York
Mowhawk ironworkers hailing from two Native communities, Akwesasne near Quebec, and Kahnawake, near Montreal, came to the New York area around 1916 to work on some of the city’s most iconic structures, including the Empire State Building and Lincoln Center. Generations later, their descendants are still doing the work. “A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true. We have as much fear as the next guy,” says Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais, a sixth-generation Mohawk ironworker. “The difference is that we deal with it better.” Boom. A Mohawk community thrived in Brooklyn for decades but dwindled after a new thruway reduced travel time between the city and the Kahnawake reservation in the 1960s. Click through for some amazing photos.
Six Square Feet

How Queen Sugar gets the Vietnamese American experience right
It was her costumes that first got her attention, says Elyse Dinh, who plays the matriarch of a refugee family working in the fishing industry on the third season of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar.  It's the first time she’s been allowed to be more than an Asian stereotype. “Usually when I’m playing Vietnamese characters, they just throw a smock on me,” she says, “because I’m a peasant, manicurist, cafeteria worker or maid. I get the drabbest, plainest clothes." But the show, which follows the story of the adult children who inherit their father’s Louisiana sugar cane farm, is committed to fleshing out all the characters – including her television daughter, who moves back from New York to help the family with the bookkeeping. “I thought, ‘Wow, someone did their research,’” says Dinh. “[I]n 2010, my older sister, who’s an attorney, was one of the volunteers who flew down to New Orleans to help the local Vietnamese fisherman who were affected by the BP oil spill. They needed help filling out really complicated government forms in order to get compensation for lost wages.”


The first thing I did, after I hugged my lawyers and my investigators, I went straight to my mother and gave her a big hug. It took a lot out of her, knowing that her only child is in prison for something that he didn’t do. She suffered just as much as I did. She said, “Thank God for Jesus. My boy is finally home.” She was crying. We both was...It’s really hard, trying to have a relationship with my kids, because when I went away they were so young, but they’re grown men now. I feel like maybe I failed them because I wasn’t there. One of my sons is incarcerated. He’s been in prison since he was 17. If I didn’t go to prison, I don’t believe that he would be in prison today. He’s spent half of his life in jail.
Jonathan Fleming, exonerated after 24 years in prison

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