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Diversity

Juneteenth: are we really woke this time?

I published this on my personal blog yesterday, Juneteenth 2020. It has a message for the people I try to reach with this blog, as well.

My dad was the sole white member of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana. Dad was interested in economic development in the city’s depressed west side, where he had lived as a teenager. He worked with a few west-side groups trying to move initiatives forward, and the Men’s Club was one of them.

Through this, I think, he became aware of the challenges black families faced in South Bend. Whenever I’d see him he’d eventually steer our conversations toward those challenges. He could talk for hours about them. As a dyed-in-the-wool Republican he always advanced conservative solutions. The men of the Men’s Club were Democrats to the core and vigorously disagreed with Dad, but they came to like him anyway.

This is how I first heard of Juneteenth. There were celebrations every year on South Bend’s west side, and my parents always went to them.

I work in technology, specifically in software development. This industry is overwhelmingly the domain of young white men from the middle and upper classes. Where I work now, we have the most diverse team of anyplace I’ve ever worked. That doesn’t mean it’s highly diverse — we just have some women and a few black people on the team. We also have several immigrants from India and China and a few old white guys like me. That’s enough to set us well apart.

The murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis was the one-time-too-many that finally captured this nation’s attention. People of all backgrounds are saying enough. It’s time to treat black people with the same dignity and respect that is afforded white people.

At work, leaders have been talking a lot about how to improve the diversity of our team. Because I follow a lot of Indiana tech companies on LinkedIn, I see through their updates that they are having the same kinds of conversations.

I see it as systemic that our industry is made mostly of young white men. Most jobs either require or favor a four-year engineering-related degree. In my experience, that’s overwhelmingly the domain of young white men of some means.

Technology companies should eliminate the degree requirement. Then they should invest in training and apprenticeships. Yes, let’s apply the old trade model to technology. At least in software development, there are coding academies that teach the basics. Companies can band together to create scholarships to those academies, and heavily recruit people to those scholarships who are not young white men. They can then bring graduates on board and show them the ropes on the job.

Personally, when I have an opening on my team I scour LinkedIn for people who aren’t young white men and I recruit them. Plenty of young white men find my opening on their own. I’m still selecting from the pool of people who are already in the industry, blocking people who want to get in but don’t yet have the bona fides. But it has led to my last two offers going to a black software engineer and a woman engineering manager.

Out of the blue, my company this week announced that they are giving us this afternoon off to celebrate Juneteenth. My brother works for another local tech company that has one-upped us: they’ve made Juneteenth a paid company holiday, starting this year.

I’m cynical. Are we just signaling virtue? Will we actually carry our discussions about diversity through to action?

None of the social welfare and justice initiatives Dad was involved in drove lasting change. It was an uphill climb, and it required persistence and cooperation beyond what my father could arrange. The same persistence and cooperation is required to drive diverse hiring in the tech industry. It’s also needed across the United States for the good of our whole nation.