What Is The Corporate Role In Leading For Racial Equity?
As a young attorney just out of law school in the mid-1980’s, I was fortunate enough to be a part of what I feel were some of the final phases of civil rights litigation that had begun in the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s, specifically, as it related to education equity for African Americans. My first job was working for the legendary civil rights attorney and activist John W. Walker in Little Rock, Arkansas, who used his extensive legal skills to fight discrimination in education, the workplace, and housing. That experience is something I carried with me throughout my career. When I went into the corporate world as an attorney, I continued to be involved as a volunteer in community efforts to end discrimination and advance equity, particularly in education.
I learned then that being a part of corporate America does not necessitate stepping away from the important work of advancing social justice. That lesson is one that I believe is currently resonating at amazing levels in corporations throughout the country. The racial reckoning of 2020 inspired many corporations to step forward and not only speak out in support of racial equity but actually walk the walk, investing (in some cases) millions of dollars to advance racial equity. This level of engagement and discourse by corporations is unprecedented in my lifetime and I hope that this is the beginning of corporate America’s ongoing commitment to moving our nation toward greater equity.
One corporation that has taken on this responsibility is Microsoft, which established a racial equity initiative in June of 2020, and recently released a one-year progress report, Racial Equity Initiative: Strengthening Our Communities. Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of U.S. Government Affairs, Fred Humphries, Jr. spearheaded the Strengthening Our Communities work.
Fred has been with Microsoft for 20 years and was the first African American in his division to become an officer at the corporation. I asked him what it was about this moment in history that pushed Microsoft to launch its multifaceted, multimillion dollar racial equity initiative.
“We’ve had decades of horrific murders and killings but when the George Floyd death happened, it was the tipping point when Microsoft employees throughout the company started saying that Microsoft needed to do something,” he responded. “This wasn’t just the Black and African American employees. It was a cross-section of people asking what we were going to do.”
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“At Microsoft, it’s part of our culture to encourage staff to share their ideas with leadership,” he continued. “So, Satya [Satya Nadella is Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer] and I met with people to get their input and we came up with three pillars to help achieve racial equity: increasing representation at Microsoft, engaging our ecosystem, and strengthening our communities. The third pillar, strengthening our communities – which I lead – represents a five-year commitment to invest financial resources and sweat equity in four major areas: justice reform, broadband, skills and education, and nonprofits.”
Microsoft’s Strengthening Our Communities effort is significant and carefully crafted. It focuses on strengthening the Black community through technology, data, and partnerships in all four areas. It capitalizes on Microsoft’s position as a technology leader, addressing areas where technology and data can help advance equity. It also takes into account the need for funds in key communities and the fact that traditionally, philanthropy has not invested heavily in nonprofit organizations led by and focused on Black people and African Americans. As Humphries points out, of the $2.2 billion provided by foundations to nonprofit organizations, only 1% goes to Black and African American nonprofits.
The progress report Microsoft released reveals that the company has been involved on several levels to address technology and technology education needs. That involvement includes:
helping community-based, Black- and African American-led nonprofits that serve the Black and African American communities improve their technology;
working with cities to increase access to broadband, devices, and digital skills to communities of color;
expanding access to computer science education in high schools that serve primarily Black and African American students;
providing technical and financial support to Historically Black Colleges and Universities to expand their academic offerings in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, and data science; and
working with the Vera Institute of Justice on data visualization related to criminal justice and obtaining data on policing in local communities.
The progress report provides important insight into the breadth and depth of the need for investments in communities of color to achieve racial equity. The work that must be done is plentiful and even a commitment this great cannot meet the need, so, like Microsoft, all of us engaged in advancing equity must be very strategic about where we invest our time and resources to maximize those investments.
Of course, corporations know well about maximizing investments, which is why it is heartening to see Microsoft and others stepping up to do their part. I asked Fred about what seems to be a growing trend in corporate America to not just talk about advancing equity, but also walk the walk.
He responded, “I feel like corporate America is taking on the call of trying to do its part to make contributions in areas where they feel they can be helpful to take on systemic racism. We took on three areas, increasing representation, engaging our ecosystem and strengthening our communities. These are the spaces where we feel Microsoft can be a contributor. We believe that digital transformation might be able to help with systemic racism and that’s a contribution we can make. At the end of the day, it’s about trying to help to make a difference.”