In the spring of 2020, following George Floyd’s murder by police, the social justice movement in the United States resurfaced into the mainstream headlines and ignited calls to action for Americans to confront the country’s history of racism and inequality. Part of the movement focused on education and schools — specifically teaching critical race theory and the study of racism’s impact on history.
“When we saw what was going on with the turmoil around critical race theory in schools and legislators going out of their way to make things harder, we saw that our tech that we were building could help push back on that,” said William Minton, CEO and founder of the edtech company, Canopy. “It was a pretty clear decision for us to try and be part of the movement to push back on those forces and try and make this easier to teach.”
What is social justice?
Canopy launched a contest calling on educators to create lessons based on the 1619 Project that explored the origins and effects of systemic racism in America. More than 1,000 people expressed interest in the contest, and now Canopy is building a library on its platform of social justice lessons across subject areas that educators can incorporate into their teaching.
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Kevin Dua, an award-winning public school teacher in the Boston area, helped spread the word about the contest and served as a judge. He focuses his teaching of U.S. history on helping students, no matter their age, look at the nation’s history and how the institutions of slavery and racism are still embedded in today’s society. A tweet that Dua sent promoting the contest caught the attention of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the developer of the 1619 Project, but it was flagged as having sensitive content.
“You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
“Having your own house in order is important, but the forces that are trying to stop this are acting externally, and they have a lot of persistence.” Minton said. “If organizations actually really care about being on the side of justice and equity with all of this, it’s important to try and act external to the organization as well.”
Dua encourages companies to reflect upon the values and social justice pledges they committed to earlier in 2020 and assess their progress in acting upon them. In doing so, he says to keep in mind a quote from the writer James Baldwin: “You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
“For any schools or workplaces who are ‘muddling,’ who aren’t fulfilling the vows that they say they want to do, my advice is remember the progress statement that you said you were going to do? If you haven’t done it yet, remember what James Baldwin said, how much time do you feel we should wait in order for you to do the right thing?” Dua said.
Speaking up against injustices is one way companies can use their influence to advocate for equity and justice. Built In spoke with other tech companies about their commitments to social justice, and they shared their advice for committing to meaningful change.
Practice What You Preach
GEP, a global provider of procurement and supply chain software and services, is dedicated to supporting diversity, equity and inclusion not just internally within the company but also externally with its clients. The company has dedicated itself to leading conversations and taking actions to increase supplier diversity.
“It’s not something just to [have] a stamp or a banner on your homepage that says you support diversity suppliers. What does it really mean to your business? If it doesn’t have that level of support and that level of drive from the top down, it’s not going to last,” said Daryl Watkins, senior director at GEP. “It’s just going to be lip service, and it’s probably going to do more harm than good to your organization, so we hope to educate them on that process.”
GEP educates its clients on the importance of working with diverse suppliers, along with helping them meet their pledges and find supplier partners.
“You’re changing habits and years and years of cultural norms that have existed throughout the organization, so when you come about to actually trying to impose a change to this degree, it takes a lot of momentum, and it takes a lot of effort,” Watkins said.
“It’s just going to be lip service, and it’s probably going to do more harm than good to your organization, so we hope to educate them on that process.”
Internally, GEP is striving for gender parity with its 6,000 global employees and has invested in recruitment and employee resource groups for women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people who identify with African ancestry. The company has partnered with three HBCUs to recruit diverse talent, and GEP rigorously vets the organizations it raises money for or volunteers with in support of social justice causes, like the Future Foundation in Atlanta, where employees not only mentored youth in underfunded schools, but the company also provided pro-bono consulting on the logistics of running programming in response to the pandemic.
“We looked at truly what organizations embody the values of GEP and what things we feel are going to be best served to meet the purposes of social justice,” Watkins said.
Watkins stressed the importance of creating a work environment where people feel safe to have uncomfortable conversations around social justice and DEI.
“It can’t be a taboo topic. It can’t be something that is swept under the rug. It has to be an intentional discussion towards driving change,” Watkins said. “We talk about diversity a lot. We talk about inclusion a lot, but we don’t often get into why we changed the narrative from D and I to DEI to include that portion of equity. That’s what we really have to think about when we’re trying to level the playing field. That’s all we’re doing, giving people an equal opportunity to succeed.”
Build Community Partnerships
Over the past five years, Ameresco, a cleantech company specializing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, has been working with the City of Chicago on a smart LED lighting overhaul, replacing 270,000 street lights throughout the city. This project prioritized upgrading lights in underserved communities first to provide enhanced safety — starting with South Chicago Avenue from 79th to 83rd Streets. Ameresco also took charge of the hiring — placing an emphasis on employing diverse, local talent.
“It’s not just about posting a job and hoping that we get diverse prospects. That doesn’t work. We refer to that as ‘post and pray.’ We don’t do that,” said Lauren Todd, senior vice president of human resources and operations at Ameresco. “We don’t just post a position to hire. We form relationships and hope that something else comes out of that.”
At least 50 percent of the work for the project was completed by Chicago residents — 10 percent of whom were from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Nearly half of the workers assessing the lights were graduates of career and technical programs at Chicago Public Schools or City Colleges of Chicago programs for construction technology training or for previously incarcerated individuals. There is 27 percent Minority Business Enterprise participation and 7 percent Women’s Business Enterprise participation in the project, and 45 percent of the fixtures were assembled by a minority-owned firm in Chicago.
“We don’t just post a position to hire. We form relationships and hope that something else comes out of that.”
“Many of our projects here at the company have subcontracting requirements for women or minority-owned businesses. We are very committed to not just complying but really over-delivering — not just meeting the minimum because we have to but really striving to make that number better,” Todd said. “What’s exciting about subcontracting relationships is we now have a larger pool beyond just our employees where we’re able to offer work.”
Subcontractors who worked with Ameresco received on-the-job training, and at least 50 percent of new hires were sponsored for union apprenticeships. For other projects across North America, Ameresco partners with universities that have program specializations in cleantech like Northeastern University, as well as affinity organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, to inspire diverse talent to pursue careers in the industry and provide training and preparation for jobs in the field.
“We don’t just partner with these organizations just to post jobs. We partner with them to get to know them and really make a difference and provide education,” Todd said. “You’ve got to make a lot of effort these days on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice efforts. They don’t just happen by themselves overnight … This is years of effort and relentless focus on finding organizations that we can genuinely partner with to be successful.”
Provide Supportive Environments
It is challenging for people with criminal records to find employment after being released from prison — especially in the tech industry. Banyan Labs, a tech company that exclusively hires formerly incarcerated people as coders, provides six months of training and employment to recently released participants of in-prison coding training from the nonprofit Persevere. After six months at Banyan, the company then helps them find jobs or apprenticeships in the tech industry.
“They get to work in a company while they’re going through the hell of coming back into society, but the company understands that,” said Sean Hosman, founder of Banyan Labs and Persevere, as well as Vant4ge, a human services and predictive analytics technology company that specializes in correctional care and case management.
“I’ll have 40 developers on a Zoom call, which is a company meeting for Banyan, and all of a sudden one of the guys on the video has a loud knock on their door, and it’s their parole officer coming in to do an impromptu check. Everybody on the call gets that … It’s a really safe space to have that first six months of learning how to be in charge of your own life again.”
Beyond providing training and employment opportunities to people with criminal records, Banyan also provides a supportive and understanding environment while they navigate reentry.
“I’ll have 40 developers on a Zoom call, which is a company meeting for Banyan, and all of a sudden one of the guys on the video has a loud knock on their door, and it’s their parole officer coming in to do an impromptu check,” said Hosman, an ex-offender himself. “Everybody on the call gets that … It’s a really safe space to have that first six months of learning how to be in charge of your own life again.”
Providing employment opportunities to people from marginalized communities like those who have been incarcerated not only provides opportunities for people to improve their lives, but it also provides societal benefits like lower recidivism rates. And companies who provide these opportunities can also benefit from loyal and hardworking employees.
“I would seek those communities out, understanding that there’s a level of commitment, hard work, dedication and loyalty to a company because they’ve been without those opportunities,” Hosman said. “I think in those communities, you can find unbelievable productive staff. Another piece of advice would be to consider, for all of us, that nobody should be known for the worst thing you’ve ever done, and that includes all of us, whether criminal justice-involved or not.”
Companies that want to be committed to promoting social justice in meaningful ways should start by assessing their values and engaging their employees in these discussions. Then comes the work of evaluating ways they can change their practices to be more inclusive and justice-oriented, followed by creating concrete action plans to implement the changes.
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