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10 action steps to sustain the fight against systemic racism

Drawing on conversations and articles we've published over the past month, here's a roadmap to keep the calls for change from recent protests alive.

Marching for Black lives in Baltimore, June 2020. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)

This editorial article is a part of Racial Equity Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar.

As a mostly white crowd of protestors climbed the hill heading east toward Johns Hopkins Hospital, they were greeted by mostly Black residents, in cars and standing on porches. On that sun-soaked June Saturday in Baltimore city, the residents showed gratitude with cheers, honks and words of thanks.

Amid a period of nationwide pain following the 8:46 video that showed George Floyd’s final moments, the tears in the eyes of one woman offered proof that the show of support was meaningful, and a crowd that stretched down the hill on Fayette Street from the hospital seemingly all the way to the Shot Tower showed it was big, too. It was one of the acts of this month that fostered hope that the protests could result in change, and that perhaps this time will be different.

Yet, in Baltimore, it was also a reminder that it is still too rare that white people take time on a Saturday afternoon to show up for the city’s Black population, which, while making up a majority of residents, as a whole has been historically marginalized by racist policies that touch many facets of everyday life. Truly showing up requires a sustained commitment to action, and that can’t be just for one day, or one month.

As a white Baltimore city resident who commutes over that same hill and through those same neighborhoods where the march took place to a coworking space in East Baltimore, that idea of showing up every day is something I’ve been thinking about as we reach the one-month mark since the protests reached the cities that we at Technical.ly cover. It also comes as we reach the end of Racial Equity Month on our editorial calendar. As a news outlet that covers changing economies in some of the East Coast cities where racist policies were invented and have witnessed several tragic police killings, we’ve long grappled with systemic racism, but this was a sustained month of coverage and we decided to take a specific focus on the work to change systems this year. We’ll still be covering these issues going forward, and there’s a lot more to dig into. So at the end of the month, what’s required is a commitment to keep going. We’re going to keep covering these issues.

But let’s also pause to reflect for a moment. During this generational movement that spread across the country, let’s think about how we want to use what we learned during the last month to take action moving forward. We have a lot to draw from, and are grateful to the tech and business leaders who wrote op-eds and guest posts to share their learnings for the community. Their posts are all linked below, and their voices are best read in full. Ahead of this piece, I also talked to Tammira Lucas of Moms as Entrepreneurs, Maggie Villegas and Sharayna Christmas of Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network and McKeever Conwell of TEDCO, who I reached out to for some added perspective and were generous with their time and insight.

Drawing on this month’s contributions, here’s a look at 10 action steps to keep fighting systemic racism going forward:

1. Keep seeking anti-racism resources.

Over the last month, bestsellers lists are filled with books that address systemic racism. During this month, Technical.ly Baltimore published a pair of guides that are filled with more resources than could ever be consumed in 30 days.

Points North Studio CEO Jessica Watson offered 13 ways to support Black communities through knowledge, empathy and action. And for white people specifically, Alanah Nichole shared a locally focused look at people, social media and shops that can provide places to enter and continue on the anti-racism journey.

This time of distancing presents an opportunity to seek out national voices via webinars and make room for deeper reflection. Ahead of a Saturday event led by educator Kim Crayton called “Introduction to Being an Antiracist” that several of my white colleagues from Technical.ly and I attended, I started the 2017 podcast season “Seeing White” this month. It goes back to the origins of systemic racism, and looks at the violent history that has led whiteness to continue to be propped up. There is 400+ years of history to unpack, so don’t expect to figure it all out in 30 days.

And keep amplifying Black voices.

As Watson wrote, “We do not need to return to normal.”

2. Look deeper within your own organization.

We’re all involved in racism. That’s what makes it systemic. So to begin to address it, look within. That can happen on a personal level, and the resources shared above provide lots of outlets toward that.

It’s also true on a company level. Organizations are built with processes and systems, and too often they allow racism to take root.

This can come by continuing to address it with team members. At the height of the protests when we started the month, companies recognized quickly that they must address the pain of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery’s deaths at the hands of police and the moment’s call for change with their teams.

Since the beginning of the month, Rayshard Brooks was killed in Atlanta and calls are going stronger for justice in Elijah McClain’s death in Colorado as a new investigation is opened. Have you checked in?

Many also took action as Juneteenth became a company holiday, after having long been commemorated in the Black community. It was a necessary step, yet it’s also important to remember that the calendar that allows free time is just one part of how a company provides for its employees. As an example of a company that took a deeper look at its team and role in the community, check out this note from Protenus CEO Nick Culbertson.

As Innovation Works President Jay Nwachu wrote, other steps can include allowing intentional space for employees to address these issues openly, and examining all of the benefits that are in place through an equity lens.

There’s also the makeup of a team to consider. Examining racial equity among employees and board members requires accounting. But when it comes to growth going forward, there is foundational work to be done now. As Technical.ly columnist Margaret Roth wrote last year in a piece that continues to resonate, the process of hiring must be structured toward inclusion before the outcome will change in a systemic way.

3. Call out racism.

The videos of police killing Black people have galvanized a generational call for change. Yet it is sadly not the first time that unarmed Black people died at the hands of police, nor was Floyd’s death the first time the victim of such an act uttered the words “I can’t breathe.” This comes after years where police have systematically targeted Black people. And policing is not the only establishment where racist acts are on view. They must be brought to light everywhere.

In Baltimore, we’ve seen how video of Marcia Grant, who is Black, confronting employees of the Harbor East restaurant Ouzo Bay about how her Black son couldn’t enter the establishment with athletic wear but a white kid could has galvanized a national conversation about racism in dress codes.


And in Middle River, Vince’s Crab House has been the scene of protests all month after the owner’s social media posts mocked the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cell phone video and social media have proved to be powerful tools, yet they are capturing what has long been happening.

“These things are not really new, it’s just that they’re caught on camera now,” said Sharayna Christmas, who is program director of Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network, during a conversation with myself and BCAN Executive Director Maggie Villegas.

At the same time, we can’t ignore what’s happening in our own community. Racism happens within the interactions of between VCs and founders and the decisions investors make in who to back, just as it does in a park reaction like Amy Cooper’s. For proof, read this from Fixt CEO Luke Cooper.

4. Support Black-owned businesses and organizations.

You have a choice where you spend your money. This is true on one hand for consumers. Seeking out Black-owned businesses like retailers and restaurants can provide a particular lift at a time during the pandemic when Main Street businesses are struggling and many Black-owned businesses are struggling to get access to aid. To learn more about how the pandemic and protests are linked, read this piece by Alignstaffing CEO Aaron Copeland.

It’a also true for business leaders. Seeking out Black-owned professional service firms can expand the local business community, as we know that accounting firms, financial services and real estate brokers have a role alongside the folks building companies. As Justis Connection founder Kisha A. Brown wrote, many often think of restaurants and retail when they think of Black-owned businesses. But likewise, “There is a dearth of attention given to Black lawyers, who play a critical role in effectuating change in our society.”

When it comes to giving, there is room to support Black-led organizations intentionally. We saw this play out already as SmartLogic gave to 13 Black-led organizations. They’re encouraging other businesses to do the same, and it doesn’t have to end this month.

When it comes to the folks seeking to build new businesses, there’s also a choice of where to invest. A 2018 study found that Black founders made up 1% of venture-backed founders. Creating change isn’t just a matter of funding more founders. At TEDCO, McKeever Conwell joined team members to start the Pre-Seed Builder Fund to provide initial capital that would typically come in the friends and family phase, and was often not accessible for Black founders. Plus, investing is not just providing access to funding, but setting up entrepreneurs to enter the market and continue to grow.

And along with money, mentorship, education and access to a network that is so often part of early-stage investing is especially important to provide complete support, said Moms as Entrepreneurs cofounder Tammira Lucas. The Black business community is powerful, but it can become even more so with support from white networks.
“We need you to stay with us, work with us, buy from us and talk about us so that we can get the recognition and the impact that we set out for,” Lucas said.

Mom as Entrepreneurs cohort, graduating in 2019.

5. Seek out diverse spaces.

Baltimore has racial divides. They exist along geographic lines, as the protest march shows. And as my colleague Alex Galiani told in a powerful op-ed about growing up in Baltimore, they exist within neighborhoods, schools and the consciousness of individual people.

But there are spaces to cross those divides already present in the business community. Over the last five years, a number of new initiatives like Moms as Entrepreneurs, the MICA-backed Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network, KIVA Baltimore and Conscious Venture Lab have either launched or moved into the city. Each of these have demo days and other educational events that bring together people from all walks of Baltimore. Attend one, and you’ll not only see business ideas that you haven’t seen before, but in meeting business owners and attendees you’ll also hear and learn about the lived Black experience in Baltimore.

BCAN's Founder Fellows in 2018. (Courtesy photo)

BCAN’s Founder Fellows in 2018. (Courtesy photo)

As Christmas pointed out, it is important to be mindful that there are also spaces that exist for people who have been historically overlooked to find community and be affirmed. Those are important, intentional spaces. They also aren’t the entry point for white people to just show up without an invitation. But seeking out the public-facing events of organizations like those identified above is a productive first step.

Another approach is to make your own space diverse. When setting up a panel, it’s important to consider the racial diversity and whether you’re tokenizing the Black people you’ve asked to speak. And it’s also crucial to think about the audience who will attend this discussion. We all reach out to folks intentionally to drum up excitement and boost attendance. In a city of racial divides, it’s important to seek out networks and partnerships that are representative of a majority Black city. And when it comes to the services that go along with event, seek out opportunities to support Black-owned businesses working in the city — and think about location. Make sure it’s a space where the whole city is comfortable, and is accessible for everyone to reach by public transit modes. These are just a few initial steps.

6. Stay uncomfortable.

Yes, going to an event in a place you might not have ever been that is being attended by people you’ve never met isn’t easy. And when you get there, the impulse to find the one person who might look like you or that you might have a connection with is front and center.

But push through it to start a new conversation, and the outcome can be lasting. While talking about bridging these divides with Conwell, he told me that the most uncomfortable he’s ever felt is attending a local Lesbians Who Tech event in 2017. But it turned out to be a place where met great people and started building meaningful relationships.

Staying humble and authentic on entering such a room is important. Conwell said he was upfront that he might make a mistake.

“I don’t know what the right thing is to say or do in that moment, and I was scared to say the wrong thing, but nothing changes if I never do,” he said.

And going into a new room authentically also means arriving at a starting point that doesn’t ignore history.

“It’s not that we don’t want our white counterparts to foster relationships with us,” Lucas said. “We want them to acknowledge that there has definitely been a divide forever and there has never been an opportunity for us to advance.”

7. Expand how you think about innovation.

In Baltimore, we often talk about how communities are siloed, not just along the lines of race and geography, but also social and professional networks.

When it comes to the idea of entrepreneurship, it’s time for Baltimore to embrace a more inclusive view of entrepreneurship. A medical device startup commercializing university research, a new social app and a new clothing line all share lots in common when it comes to how they build their businesses.

At the same time, there are entrepreneurship programs offering guidance for differentiating a model and finding customers to Baltimore residents in Sandtown-Winchester and at the Greater Baltimore Urban League, just as there are inside Johns Hopkins and at incubators like ETC.

Create U Network’s cohort in Sandtown-Winchester. (Courtesy photo)

Some may call their venture a startup, while others may call it a small business. Others say it’s a social enterprise. One may be a maker while another is a creative. But regardless, many use some of the same fundamentals and baseline concepts as they move through the process. The past five years have brought a lot more of these resources, and it’s healthy to see a community in which there is more differentiation among what’s offered and specialized tactics for specific industries. But for anyone interested in getting the full breadth of Baltimore’s community, it remains important to seek all of them out, and count them all among the community of people building new businesses.

It’s also important to think about how the new tools you’re building are being used. This was apparent as Fearless CEO Delali Dzirasa issued a call for the tech community build the kinds of new systems that can bring change, and help folks see “that the tech innovations we use to automate trading on the market, build the next viral game and help to help track and contain COVID-19 can be used to eradicate this historic and systemic disease that seems to linger in our country called racism.”

8. Center justice.

Through a lens of divides, we’ve come to see things as mutually exclusive. Building businesses and making change must be separate. Investing for returns and investing for impact are different strategies. Hiring the “best person” and hiring for diversity are different approaches.

This brings inertia, and has led to a system where Black people are excluded. But as Conscious Venture Lab founder Jeff Cherry made clear in his op-ed, there are emerging models that bring these two forces together. “Lean in just a little, and you will find amazing talent and founders if you want to. Don’t just proclaim your support. Pick up the phone, set up a meeting put us up to fair scrutiny,” he writes.

9. Get civically involved.

Protests can keep the pressure up for change, but bringing systemic change will require movement within government and business structures.

In Baltimore this month, we saw as protestors painted “Defund the Police” on the street outside City Hall, while inside City Councilmembers were moved to make about $22 million in cuts from the Baltimore police budget. Though many activists said it fell short and officials acknowledged it amounted to a first step, it also brought a realization that the system is kept in place by the way that city government is built. Later this year, there is a coming change in leadership in Baltimore city government — including Democratic mayoral nominee Brandon Scott and comptroller nominee Bill Henry — that have spoken about wanting structural change for the city government. They’ll need support in putting new ideas into action, and to be held accountable that they do what they say they’re going to do. In a democracy, that’s where the citizens come in.


10. Consider what you’re willing to give up.

Through each of these conversations, it’s clear that bringing change to a racist system will ultimately come down to power. It’s the power that a white system has used to continue its own advance while exploiting Black people, and one it has used simultaneously to marginalize and not acknowledge the contributions of Black people.

In the end, that balance will only shift if white people are willing to give up the advantages they’ve enjoyed just for happening to be born with a specific skin color. There’s also power to change.

What are you willing to sacrifice?

But at the same time, there is power in the tools that allow the realities of racism to be exposed and knowledge to be spread. And there is power in the voices coming from the streets declaring that “Black Lives Matter.” It has all led us to look deeper in this moment, and gotten a response from inside the system.

So the question becomes, how will you use it?

Series: Racial Equity Month 2020

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