(Photo by Peter Hershey for Byte Back)
As COVID-19 continues to spread in the U.S., what have we learned from the resulting economic shutdown — and how can the influential technology sector counter injustice in the process of recovery?
Four tech and civic pros from around the mid-Atlantic — former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Delali Dzirasa of Baltimore dev shop Fearless, the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey’s Bill Golderer, and Elizabeth Lindsey of D.C. tech education org Byte Back — discussed this during an Introduced by Technical.ly panel last month.
They took a hard look at the role of equity and economic justice in an industry that is, at times, a far-reaching example of structural bias.
"There's No Chance that we're going to have a strong economy if that economy doesn't include everyone." — Jack Markell, Tech's Responsibility for a 'Just Recovery' panel #PTW2020 pic.twitter.com/EHrqRCrm3Z
— Technical.ly (@Technical_ly) September 25, 2020
We heard five big ideas from the panel:
We need to do better than the economic recovery of 2009-2019.
Golderer noted that Philadelphia’s recovery from the Great Recession was not something that should be reproduced if we care about equity.
“The Philadelphia market had the most inequitable recovery than any other market in the country,” he said. “If you’re in the top 80% you did better than any other market in the country.” This was bolstered by things like a housing market that, compared to cities like New York City and Los Angeles, is affordable, increasing home acquisition rates. But there was a trade off: “The bottom 20% was the only market that went backward in income by -4%.” (Technical.ly couldn’t independently confirm these stats, but PlanPhilly reported in 2018 that Philadelphians in lower-income and middle-income neighborhoods had a harder time getting conventional mortgages after the 2008 recession. And check out Center City District’s April report on how Philly’s main commercial district bounced back in that time.)
Now that we’re back in recovery mode, Golderer suggests the measures of economic viability, such as credit scores, should take more into account. He suggests that the Civic Health Index should be as valuable as a market’s economic health — and that a civic health score, similar to a credit score but tracking how well communities are organized to fight public problems, should impact people’s access to resources as well.
“Getting more proximate to people’s pain is the issue here. The challenges are knowable, the solutions are complex,” he said.
We need to take digital access and skillset building seriously.
Certainly, especially since COVID-19, there has been an increased awareness of the digital divide, as schoolchildren depend on Wi-Fi and devices to access education and adults with the most secure jobs are able to do them from home. One way to botch a just recovery would be to top seeing those things as serious issues when schools and offices reopen to full capacity.
“Running a nonprofit for adults who are shut out of the economy is a hard thing,” said Lindsey. Funders “all want to fund puppies and babies; they don’t want to fund them. Low-tech jobs have disappeared. Millions of people who were once employable are now not.”
Delaware has some programs that have been focused on the employability shift, Markell noted, such as Zip Code Wilmington and Pathways to Prosperity in the public schools, which sets students up with both college credits and certification that can enable them to join the job market at an entry level out of high school. Still, there’s a persistent gap. To go back to business as usual in the recovery phase will potentially widen it further.
We need to break the nepotism cycle.
People joke that in Delaware, everyone knows everyone, but in reality, many people are shut out — especially in business.
“It’s not a surprise that we’re so divided. Many are left out,” said Markell. “There is a particular responsibility on technology companies. [During the Great Recession recovery,] every day I would have a conversation with companies who said they couldn’t find workers. Then I’d talk to people who were saying they just wanted a chance. Maybe they were coming out of prison, maybe they were disabled. Recruitment strategy too often is, ‘We hire away from each other.’ We need to improve the pipeline. Employers need to give new people a chance.”
This is by no means just a Delaware issue.
“Tech startups in the D.C. economy are looking for people who are already experienced,” Lindsey said. “It’s easy to hire from other companies. We need public private and nonprofit [sectors] to work together. It’s not that hard to provide training, but we need more relationships with employers.”
A day of service is not enough.
Companies shouldn’t think of community engagement as something to do once a year on designated volunteering days, panelists said. They should always be considering how their work affects their neighbors.
“The idea that the community is an ‘add on’ and not in the DNA of a company is really problematic,” said Dzirasa, whose Baltimore digital service firm frequently runs programming to support underrepresented technologists and entrepreneurs. “They disregard people who want to plug in [or those who] want to work [in the tech industry] and are being slapped away on the hand.”
“A day of service is not enough — what are you doing the rest of the year? We need more people to roll up their sleeves and be personally invested in their neighbors,” Golderer said.
In order to get corporate America onboard with tackling certain issues, they need to matter to the public.
“Corporate social responsibility is primarily about branding,” Golderer said — and the COVID crisis has brought certain issues that went largely ignored into the light. “Philadelphia went, in one day, from saying 50% of school will be virtual to 100% virtual. OK, let’s now talk about how many kids are not currently connected to stable environments for learning.”
United Way is “working on a holistic, systemic, public-private partnership,” he said. “What you need is an approach to a civic challenge that has a target and timeline that can deliver.”
There is reason for optimism.
At the end of the day, no one can make businesses care enough to make changes necessary for a truly just recovery, but Golderer says he’s seen some shift based not on branding or social epiphany, but on employee pressure.
“Employees are making demands that the businesses have to respond to — more progressive policies, etc.” he said. “That’s an important set of pressures. It’s a shared responsibility.”
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