In summer 2020, protests erupted across the U.S., sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans. Within the tech industry, many leaders made public statements, financial commitments, and policy changes meant to improve equity and inclusion within their walls—and in the products they peddle.
To commemorate the first anniversary of these protests, Fast Company partnered with The Plug, a publication that covers the Black innovation economy, to examine what those commitments are, what they have achieved—and how much work still remains. (You can see the resulting data visualizations and first-person testimonials from Black employees, entrepreneurs, and customers here.)
CEO of Code2040 Mimi Fox-Melton shared what it’s been like to helm a nonprofit that works to dismantle structural barriers preventing Black and Latinx participation in tech during this time—and why the entire industry must do better.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fast Company: Was Code2040, like so many other organizations, inundated by companies reaching out to you after the protests started?
Mimi Fox Melton: Yes, like a lot of organizations doing racial equity work—and particularly for us, at the intersection of racial equity and tech—we received a lot of outreach in the last year. That being said, there’s a lot of conversation within leaders of this work, us included, about how much interest there has been in our work and how much willingness to fund it.
But I think that what’s really been missing from that conversation, is the first half of , that was not the case. [In] Q2, right when COVID really started to hit, we cut our budget by 25%. Two huge organizations announced quietly that they were canceling their racial equity funds within their foundation. I was very concerned that we were beginning to see the end of interest in racial equity in tech, and more broadly, within the philanthropic world. Couple that with a global pandemic, where companies were doing layoffs, companies were concerned that they weren’t even going to be able to keep their staff together, let alone make contributions to our work.
The reason it’s really important to say that, is that that is the nature of racial equity work in this country. That is the nature of attention to these types of deep-seated problems. When the police murder a Black person in the street, suddenly, there’s a week of interest in this work. And when things don’t change immediately, when there’s not immediate legislation about gun violence, when there’s not immediate moves to defund the police or abolish the police, interest wanes, and that makes this work very challenging.
So that being said, yes, we had a lot of passion. There were a lot of white people who, for the first time, viscerally felt and understood what racism was doing to other human beings. Oftentimes, racism seems to be a very intellectual exercise for white people, because they haven’t felt it. Which isn’t an excuse. I think that last year, at least since I’ve been alive, that was the first time—watching George Floyd die in that way, I don’t think that you could not feel it deeply in your soul.
They were willing to do work that was uncomfortable, personal work. They were willing to give in a way that was uncomfortable and the fears that we had going into last year, thankfully, were balanced by the call to action that the Movement for Black Lives organizers demanded.
Are you seeing a sustained commitment going into 2021? I would imagine it’s stressful to think about the fact that attention could wane again.
Yeah, I think that we’re sort of always planning for the bottom to fall out, which is, of course, the Black experience, right? It’s the experience of those of us living in racialized capitalism who aren’t wealthy and who work for a living and who are clear on the lack of power that we have.
Code2040, in this moment, is in a good financial position. The support from the companies we work with is really strong. But who knows what’s going to happen in two years; who knows what’s going to happen in three years. Our work is to try to be the most responsible stewards of this moment of abundance, so that we’re ensuring that we are able to do this work in the future when maybe it’s not so abundant.
What signs do you look out for in terms of DEI progress, beyond demographic data?
Demographic data is sort of the low-hanging fruit. It’s what people are collecting. It’s available—sometimes. Or not! I understand why it’s [seen as] representative of progress, because we think of data as irrefutable. At Code2040, we’ve really—internally and with partners—tried to create a more culturally competent understanding of what data is. Anecdotes are data. They help us pattern-spot. So we do a lot of qualitative interviewing—conversations, focus groups, where we’re just hearing what folks are saying and then pattern-spotting. And for us, I think that Overton windows shifting is a really big one.
We’ll have conversations with Black and Latinx folks, and sometimes even white folks in the industry: What are you seeing? What’s the challenge? What’s a threat to your retention? What’s the threat to your advancement? And then try to distill that information into, “okay, these are the three things that we’re going to be looking at and trying to educate folks about.”
A couple of years ago, we realized that companies were using GPA and university pedigree as proxies for skill, intelligence, and higher ability. Of course, this is still going on—we know Google was doing this until very recently, and likely still. But when we first started thinking about this a few years ago, it was very surprising for company partners to hear us name those two things as barriers to achieving racial equity; as barriers to hiring of Black and Latinx folks. Fast forward to today; I talked to a company a couple of weeks ago, and when I named that—not using those two indicators was part of our partnership, that they would be required to commit to that—they looked at me as though I were behind the times. They were like, ‘Oh, we already do that.’ So I’m like, “Okay! That Overton window is shifting. It’s progress.”
I am looking ahead at the 90% of folks in the middle of organizations. What I mean by that is there are your HR, your recruiters, [who] have goals around racial equity. They may not understand the moral purpose, but they are certainly trying to hire Black and brown people. And some folks in the C-suite. [They] also understand that, even if it’s just from a PR perspective, we have to get this right. But what we continue to see is the middle managers, the 90% of people in the middle, who do not have incentives to hire more diversely, usually; they’re not resourced in how to be a better manager, how to build a team that is racially equitable, whether or not you have Black and Latinx people on the team.
Those folks in the middle have the greatest impact on a Black and Latinx person’s experience at work, and are most likely to be the reason for a Black or Latinx person leaving an organization. So what we’re going to be doing in the next year is building out and scaling our trainings for that person who is managing a team, maybe managing a department, and who does not know how to translate the learning that they’ve done around racism and white supremacy to check-ins, one-on-ones. I think it’ll be a big indication when we start seeing those folks using Black-centered management principles in their day-to-day work.
So many industries have DEI issues. Why should tech hold itself to a higher standard?
This country was founded on unpaid labor of Black and Indigenous people. And so all of our institutions—government, media, the private sector—it’s everywhere. No Black or brown people who have worked in finance, and then come to tech would say, tech is worse than finance. This is rampant. And yet, tech companies have built computers that can recognize faces, right? They are working on going to Mars.
This industry [is full of] wild goal-setting and striving to accomplish things that are inconceivable in the moment. So to look at a social problem, and throw [their] proverbial hands up and say, “Well, I guess this is just how it is,” is inexcusable, and it’s offensive.