Speaking out: Inside Intercom on allyship

"In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends" - Martin Luther King Jr.

Allyship is something we have been thinking about a lot recently at Intercom. Over the past few weeks on the podcast we have hosted and heard from a wide range of voices about the many and varied prejudices and biases that exist within the tech ecosystem. We’ve also been hearing how we can do better, where we can help and where we need to listen – as a company and on an individual level.

In this panel episode of Inside Intercom, we talk about allyship as a concept and how to be a good ally. We also discuss anti-racism, representation, privilege and talk through real stories and examples. 

Joining me in this discussion today are:

I hope you will find as much value in listening to this as we did in producing it.

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Karen Peacock: Thanks everyone for joining us today for this remote round table on Inside Intercom. Today, we’re going to be discussing the theme of allyship and exploring how both companies and individuals can be better allies. So first let’s kick things off by hearing a little bit about our two guests and their backgrounds. Janeen, let’s start with you.

Janeen Uzzell: Thank you for having me. My name is Janeen Uzzell and I am the Chief Operating Officer at Wikimedia, which is the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia, which is a platform that I’m going to guess that your listeners use often. I certainly hope so. I’ve been at the foundation a little over a year and a half after a very long career with General Electric. I’m an engineer so a techie at heart. And my commitment is to really use my keyboard for good. I’m all about fighting the fight in this particular case, for me, it’s all about access and freedom and information and using the skills that I have as a technologist and as a leader for good. That’s what I’m committed to.

Karen: I love that. And Janeen I’m sure you won’t be surprised, but I’m a probably, at least every other day Wikipedia user myself. And I love your mission of using your keyboard for good.

Janeen: Thank you.

Karen: Anjuan, we’d love to turn it to you to introduce yourself.

Anjuan Simmons: Absolutely. First, thank you so much for having me. My name is Anjuan Simmons and I am an Engineering Coach at HelpScout, a company that plays in the same friendly space as Intercom. And so I’m happy to be here with friends. I’ve worked in technology for over 20 years, and I believe that technology is one of the greatest forces for shaping the future that we have. And I’m really happy that especially in these current times people are dedicated to finding out how can I be a better ally. And for those people who are learning things that they did not know before answering the question, what do I do now?

Karen: I love that. And that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today of what can I do now? How can I best help? So Janeen and Anjuan thank you both so much for being here. Really thrilled to have both of your perspectives here. So just as a start, let’s start on the basics. What does allyship look like and mean to you, Anjuan, both on an individual level and at a company level?

Putting out the fire

Anjuan: So allyship to me looks like a world where all talent is welcome no matter what packaging it comes wrapped in. So on an individual level, that means understanding the history of how people have been excluded from sharing their talents. It also means that you acknowledge the ways that you have benefited from those exclusionary practices. And then once you learn from history and your own experiences, you become a better ally by seeing those practices that so often exclude based on traits that don’t make any difference. And then you fight to make sure that your actions are aligned with welcoming everyone into the world, no matter who they love, their gender, their race, or any other factor.

“Allyship in a company often means taking a hard look at why certain people from certain backgrounds don’t stay at your company or get promoted to leadership positions”

And on a company level, I think that allyship means changing your business to make it a safe place for people to bring their whole selves to work. And that often means taking a hard look at why certain people from certain backgrounds don’t stay at your company or get promoted to leadership positions. That also means that you do things like changing the language that your company uses both internally and externally to be more inclusive. So that’s what I think allyship is and I’m glad that everyone listening to this is interested in being an ally.

Karen: Love both of those definitions. Janeen, anything you would add to that?

Janeen: Allyship is really about partnership to me. Some people may not agree with me here, but I do not think it is something that can be thrust upon a group of people. I think it’s something that has to be earned and you have to take up the cause of allyship, that is my opinion. And to me, it’s like walking side by side with someone and saying the yoke that you have to carry is heavy and I’m here to help you make the load a little bit lighter. And sometimes you don’t even know that you want to be an ally for something, but compassion kicks in, your spirit of connectedness kicks in, and you may not have been an ally for something in the past and you will be in the future. But it does involve bravery and it does involve a willingness to get to understand and know just the weight of what the community that you’re supporting is going through.

And it’s really recognizing, for me, that, that weight doesn’t have to come with pitying and just this weariness of, I didn’t know, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry. It’s just about saying I’m here today. I understand. I see you. I want to learn more. I want to do better and partnering and building that trust. To add on from a business perspective, I do think it takes on a different stance because if an organization chooses not to be an ally then it is, in my opinion, staying silent and it is overlooking the gift of the humans that work for it each and every day and that is unacceptable to me. And so while I do still believe allyship needs to be earned, when you’re leading an organization and when you choose to take on the leadership of people and your staff and all, there’s a lot that is required of you. And so allyship must become a mandate.

Karen: Absolutely – “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Really, I love your point about I’m here walking side by side, and you also brought up a point that it’s not enough to just be neutral, which is it’s not enough to be not racist, which is really just a passive response and that ends up reinforcing the inequities that exist in the world today. And if we want to see change, we must take action and be actively anti-racist. And maybe continuing on, Janeen, with what you were just talking about, can you tell us more what this distinction means of being anti-racist versus not racist and why it’s so important?

“If you wake up one morning and you realize that a fire has gone through your neighborhood and all of your neighbors homes are on fire and you say, well, I’m not going to set any more fires. That’s kind of like, I’m not racist”

Janeen: So to me to say that you’re anti-racist, again, full disclosure my thoughts only, right? No one’s written this in a textbook as far as I know. Anti-racist to me, it’s really a way of staying silent. It’s like putting the shield over you and saying, I don’t see this so I’m anti-racist because I’m just not getting involved. And that’s the kind of the way I look at it. It’s almost like, you know if you’re racist, you live as if you’re not racist in the way that you choose to be inclusive and responsive in the life that you live.

And then there’s that line in the middle that’s, I’m just not going to say anything, I’m not going to do anything, I’m going to act like I don’t know this is happening outside of my window. And you just walk this fine line. I liken it to between when you choose to do what’s right or you choose to do what’s almost right – it’s so close, right? And you have to always choose to do what is right. Because almost right is enough to get away with things, but it’s not the truth. It’s not pure.

Karen: That’s a great analogy. You think about kind of the yellow line in ethics and anything that’s not a full on green light absolutely the right thing, there’s actually really a problem with that. Anjuan, anything you would add to that?

Anjuan: Yes. First I loved everything that Janeen just said. What I would add to it is, and I like word pictures. And to me, it’s almost like if you wake up one morning and you realize that a fire has gone through your neighborhood and all of your neighbors homes are on fire or have been damaged by fire and you say, well, I’m not going to set any more fires, right? That’s kind of like, I’m not racist. I’m not going to add to the problem. No, you would be a good neighbor. You would try to help your neighbors who are struggling with their house has been destroyed. You would, to the degree that you could, help the fire people who are putting out fires, right? You will get involved. And I think that’s the difference between just saying I’m not racist and being anti-racist, right? Being anti-racist says, look, I understand the devastation that has been wrought on certain people because of various factors beyond their control. I’m going to do my part to do good actions in order to help their lives be easier to actually live.

Karen: That is a great analogy because can you imagine sitting in your house and just watching your neighbor’s house burn down and not doing anything? That is obviously a problem and that’s a perfect analogy for why it’s obviously a problem to sit while this kind of violence and racism happens in the world. One of my favorite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes that I’m sure you well know and many of our listeners know as well, that always sticks with me is, in the end it’s not the… and I forget, it’s the words or actions of our enemies that we’ll remember, but the silence of our friends.

The dangers of ignoring diversity

Karen: Now, I know Anjuan you’ve written a great book, Minority Tech, which shared your experiences as a Black man working in the tech industry. Would love your perspective on what you think the industry as a whole does well and where we need to be better. And in particular, if you have any stories that you can share along the way of either particularly good things that happened and real problems and issues that came up.

Anjuan: Absolutely. I published Minority Tech in 2013 and in the years since then, I have to say, I have seen changes. I’ve seen more diversity in the people who work in the tech industry. Some of that is because companies have implemented better practices, but I’ve especially seen this at tech events. I’ve been very fortunate to be a fairly successful tech speaker. So I go to a lot of tech conferences and speak at them. In the past three years-

“The leaders at most tech companies are overwhelmingly from one demographic. The reason for this, I can promise you, is not because other people from other demographics don’t want to be leaders”

Karen: He’s being modest there by the way, I’ve heard some of your talks and you are a very successful tech speaker.

Anjuan: Thank you so much. Yeah. Thank you so much. The good news is that at every conference, in at least the past three years, and that’s dozens of conferences that I’ve seen, they all have a code of conduct, right? Which has language around the behavior that they expect the people at that conference to exhibit and that those behaviors are very inclusive and kind and empathetic. I’ve also seen conferences go even further than that and offer gender neutral bathrooms and also private rooms for nursing mothers. Those are great advancements.

Where I think the technology industry has to do better is at the leadership level. The leaders at most tech companies are overwhelmingly from one demographic. The reason for this, I can promise you, is not because other people from other demographics don’t want to be leaders. So I think that the technology industry has to do a lot more to attract and retain diverse leaders. This is especially true in the world of venture capitalists – VCs run in small circles and those circles are usually socially constructed based on race. So it’s not surprising who gets most of the VC funding. So I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done at that level.

The reason that every technology company should care about this besides having more diverse people on their corporate website or having more diverse faces on the leadership team, but there are actual consequences to not having a diverse workforce. There’s a famous example of a well-known technology company that produced a webcam, right? And this webcam, like a lot of webcams, had a feature where would follow the face of the person. So if you moved to left, then it would tilt to follow you. If you moved to the right, it would. But this webcam had a flaw where it just did not recognize Black people’s faces. So it would basically totally see you as invisible and not moving. So you have to wonder how could a company that large have a testing team that did not have any Black people on it, right? So you lose out if you don’t have diverse people designing your products, diverse people testing your products. So it’s really important that we do this.

“We will see AI and machine learning continue to have a more and more powerful impact across our lives. So from how our algorithms are written, to how people are treated in the criminal justice system, to even who gets to go to college, right? If you don’t have people of different backgrounds involved in that, then we could create some very dangerous software”

There’s also another angle. That is that we will see AI and machine learning continue to have a more and more powerful impact across our lives. There have been numerous examples of people who have been unlawfully arrested because some algorithms said, “Well, your face matches who we’re looking for.” Right? So this was going to become more and more of a problem. So from how our algorithms are written, to how people are treated in the criminal justice system, to even who gets to go to college, right? So many of the decisions that are made by large corporations and campuses are all going to run based on artificial intelligence and machine learning. So if you don’t have people of different races, of different genders, of different backgrounds involved in that, then we could create some very dangerous software and I would hope that most technology companies were getting involved because of that.

Karen: I, 100% agree. we were a very early adopter in my household of Amazon Alexa. For the first few months that we had it in the house, she was unable to recognize my voice at least half the time. My husband always had to be the one to say something exactly. Exactly as you said, like bias in people carries over to bias in code that you write and carries over to then a broad, broad impact. So having much more diversity in that the teams who are developing these algorithms is essential

I’d love to hear, if you wouldn’t mind sharing, any kind of personal stories of your own experiences, either having somebody be an ally for you in a way that was really meaningful or being an ally for somebody else in a way that was meaningful for them, or when somebody didn’t step up and the building was burning and you wished someone had stepped in to be an ally?

Anjuan: Sure. I can go with this one. I, again, have spoken a lot at tech conferences and I was at a conference in Budapest, Hungary, and this was early in my career. This was probably, not the first time, but one of the early times when I had given a talk outside of the United States. So I’m there. If you’re a speaker at a tech conference, there is kind of a different world that you work in, right? You’re backstage and you have a green room.

But I was at this conference, I remember just hearing people talk about going to some event after the day’s talks were done. I didn’t think much about it, but then, Dan North, who’s a very well-known speaker, invited me to a dinner that was being given, really, for him. The dinner that people were talking about, was that dinner? Right.

So Dan North lent me some of his privilege and got me to go to this dinner, and I was able to have access to an event with my fellow speakers to talk about technology and talk shop, and I just really felt included by that. So that was something that I will always remember that Dan North did to me. He lent me his privilege by giving me access to an event that I would have otherwise not gotten a chance to go to.

Karen: That’s awesome. Janeen, do you have any stories that you’d be up for sharing of your own personal experiences on either side of allyship?

Making space for individuals

Janeen: Sure. I will say this, as a Black woman, we’re almost raised to be allies, it’s a part of our culture. I’m not saying we all do it well as we get older or otherwise, but life for us often means ensuring that other people are comfortable. So it’s a part of who we are. So it’s kind of a practice that happens by default. However, I would say that one of the areas where it is missed by others is when you then presume that in every situation, the one Black person, or other person, can be your stopping point or your area of understanding for all people.

“How many of you have ever worked with, hired, or had a team leader that was a Black woman? That’s very rare, almost never”

I am not the person that can provide a background and information for all Blackwomen. I can certainly give a perspective based on the life that I’ve lived. But when allyship presumes that I can be that person for everyone, I can’t even be that for my family because I come from a Black family. My mom has more than one daughter and we’re all different. So just to presume that we can all speak for one another is not a way that I’ve seen allyship done well. Whether people have been allies for me or I’ve been for them.

But I attribute that to something else, which is a question that Anjuan was speaking to even before this, and this is not meant to ever throw my colleagues or peers or otherwise under the bus, but there’s always a question of whether or not I am the “first” and/or the “only” in their workspace or personal life. I always presume that I am. I’m pretty much always right.

When you’re in an environment where, as particularly in tech, for the most part, I can say to my peers or colleagues or otherwise, how many of you have ever worked with, hired, or had a team leader that was a Black woman? That’s very rare, almost never. How many of you have ever hired a Black woman onto your leadership team in tech? Usually not. How many of you have ever worked for, or had that person be the CEO, COO, decision-making moneymaker, responsible for patents, in your organization? It’s always rare if never.

So for the most part, their ability to even understand how to engage or be an ally is always starting at like, not even ground zero, but minus because they’ve never even seen or experienced or been a part of it. You cannot support and really be a part of something that you’ve never experienced. Whereas I come from a world where, as from a child, I’ve been in diverse schools, I’ve been in diverse programs, whether it’s the Girl Scouts or the cheering squad, whatever it is that we do in life, it usually involves us being a Black person plus others. Particularly, if you are a Black person that’s been in an accelerated educational community, more than likely, you were one of two or one of one and so allyship, and it just looks very different for us. We experience it differently and we deliver it differently.

Karen: Yeah. That makes sense. How do you feel about being considered a role model?

Janeen: Well, I’m humbled by it and I’m learning more, I guess, in my grownup life to accept that … To not sit in that space is almost a sense of false humility. It doesn’t serve anyone well if I don’t own my seat at the table and the title, or being seen as a role model. If anything, I’m charged with living into it. Then the question just becomes, what will I do with it? And that’s the piece that I’m really embracing more and more over the past years, it’s been more about what will I do with that voice? Because to not use it well, it doesn’t just have an impact on me, but it has an impact on those colleagues that I said have never had this experience before. I’m their first I’m their only, or with those that are waiting for me to provide access granted. So.

Karen: I love that, and I love your point about own your seat, own your position, and really think deeply about not just kind of status quo or doing your day to day, but thinking more broadly about what will I do with this voice and this position and this ability? So I look forward to hearing more about all you have done, but also Janeen, following your career and seeing all that you will do with your voice. So thank you.

Janeen: Thank you.

Owning and sharing privilege

Karen: Yeah. Anjuan, I know that you’ve talked in other forums about privilege and the concept of lending privilege, and you even just mentioned it a little bit now with Dan North bringing you in. Can you tell us more about that and how each of us can lend privilege to be effective allies and drive inclusion?

Anjuan: Absolutely. I ran a talk called Lending Privilege back in 2016 because I just was unsatisfied with how I saw diversity inclusion being explained. I thought, “You know what? I’m an engineering manager. My job is to take complicated things and explain them in ways that are easier for people to understand. So that’s what I do for a living. Let me see if I can find a way to help people see inclusion as something that they could do.” So I took the concept of privilege, and I thought, “Okay, well, I think I can help everyone understand privilege, but I need an action …”

“I came up with the idea of lending privilege as someone taking your privilege and doing something with it in a helpful and sympathetic way”

I can help everyone understand privilege, but I needed an action word. And so lending has the financial implication that most people can understand from banking. And so I like the transactional aspect of the term lending, but it’s not exactly like a bank because this is lending that does not expect anything in return.

Then I thought about the terms lend a hand and lend an ear. Those aren’t terms that you use expecting anyone to give you a hand or an ear back, right? So those phrases are meant to be helpful and sympathetic. So I came up with the idea of lending privilege as someone taking your privilege and doing something with it in a helpful and sympathetic way. And so how can you lend privilege? Well, lending privilege could be as simple as recognizing that someone on your team has done great work, but they lack your privilege. And if you have access to the leadership at your company, and Janeen has done a great job showing that often the leadership at tech companies aren’t very diverse and they’re usually homogenous. And so if you have access to that leadership team, why not take the person on your team who lacks your privilege and then have them present their great work to the leadership team or better yet present it to the board?

And of course after you’ve coached them to make sure that they are well positioned to be successful in that presentation. You can also lend privilege by changing who you send to tech conferences. Like I said before, I go to a lot of tech conferences and I’m often surprised at how I often run into the same people, and these people usually come from the same demographic.

And sending people from other demographics at your company will help those employees feel valued, and it will also enrich those tech conferences because you will bring diverse perspectives to those tech conferences. So those are a few ways about how you can very easily and really what you’re doing right now to lend privilege to help really transform technology and to the meritocracy that we all hope that it will become someday.

Karen: Those are great examples. Janeen, are there any examples that you can think of in your past where someone has lent you privilege or you’ve lent to someone else privilege that you’d be up for sharing?

Janeen: Sure. I have to tell you, unfortunately I’ve had some issues or challenges where privilege is not being used in a way that I think it should have been, so therefore, people use their privilege in a way that they didn’t lend it, but they certainly took it differently.

Karen: I hear any of your stories that you wanted to share and share the like, hey, if I could have like, here’s what I would have hoped for instead. Like here’s what happened, here’s what I would have wished for, even that is great too.

Kicking the door in

Janeen: All right. I’m going to tell you one of those because there’s a couple of lessons here. There’s a lesson too in maybe me not owning my space well as a woman. So I spent a lot of time, I was an expat overseas and we were working on products that were definitely having an impact on the continuum of care, particularly from pregnant women up until the first 28 days after the birth process.

Living in an emerging market is not easy, but I loved every moment of it. In preparing for a very large meeting with the ministry of health, we were heading into a meeting – Africa is very much a male-dominated society, but the minister of health happened to be a woman, which is awesome, and I built a great relationship with her. We were preparing to have our senior leadership, CEOs and folks in town, and right as I’m heading into the meeting, someone closes the door and says the room is full. And I’m like, “Dude, this is my meeting like, this is my room.”

Karen: That is my room.

Janeen: I’m doing the work. My team is on the ground. This is our work. It was the business side of the work, and we were being kind of touted as the software side, I’m an engineer, we were building the product. I started to push my way into the room, and I really let myself get far into my feelings of frustration and anger, and so I actually pulled back a little bit and instead of pushing as I should have, I took a moment outside of the room to be really angry, and I missed my moment. And that’s something that happens sometimes with women.

I pulled myself back and I missed my moment. What happened was, the woman on the other side of the room said, “Wait a minute, where’s Janeen? This is her meeting.” And right as I was starting to say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t right. I’m going to knock on the door without breaking protocol.” She had them ask for me and bring me into the room and wouldn’t start the meeting until I was there. So there’s two things there. She lended her privilege where she’s like, “I’m in charge here. Where’s my partner?”

Karen: And here you are.

Janeen: So on the one hand, so thankful that she did that. If it hadn’t been a woman, I don’t know if that would have happened. And in this case, really beating myself up for missing that opportunity. But you know I never did it again because that’s a lesson you learn and you never let that happen to you again. But then you also sit back and say, “How am I going to ensure that I make sure that I kick the door open for other people to have space in the room as well?” So tough lesson I had to learn. I had to lick a lot of wounds there and just forgive myself for what I thought was a big miss, but I’m forever grateful to how she stood up for me in that space and used not only her privilege, but her power to make sure that I was in the room.

Karen: Wow, like literally having to kick the door in, and that’s an amazing story. Anjuan, any stories that you would share on times where someone either didn’t give you privilege and what you learned from that, or a time where you gave somebody else privilege, and what happened as a result of that?

Intersectionality and the Black female experience

Anjuan: One thing I’ve noticed working in technology and being someone who’s really keen to see it become a more inclusive industry is you have a really good sense of how well a technology company is doing when it comes to being empathetic and inclusive and diverse by how they’re treating Black women. And I think it’s so important that we really center a lot of our allyship on Black women.

And Janeen has shared this and because of intersectionality, Black women are often double taxed when it comes to how they’re treated. The tax for their gender and for their race. And so, one thing that I try to do is really one, being a speaker, I am always keen to help other people of my race take the stage. Because when I started my career as a speaker, there were not a lot of Black people, there still aren’t a lot of Black people when you look at the list of speakers at tech conferences.

“Because of intersectionality, Black women are often double taxed when it comes to how they’re treated. The tax for their gender and for their race”

But I’m especially keen to help Black women get to the stage. So I spend a lot of time coaching and counseling, because I really want to see Black women on stage that some little girls right now who happened to be walking by the conference hall or who maybe see a stream on YouTube see themselves at that tech conference. And so that’s one of the thing that I try to do.

One thing I decided to do with my Lending Privilege talk, and I’ve given it in Europe, in South America, in Canada, and just really all over the world. And in my slides, I use stock footage from the Women of Color in Tech chart, and so my slides all show Black women. And I did that because I have gone to conferences where the only Black women I’ve seen at conferences with hundreds of attendees were on my slides. Not one Black woman as an attendee at a tech conference, unless you count the people who would sometimes be serving the food during lunch.

And so I wanted to try to normalize Black women in tech. And so I did that by making sure that my slides showed Black women in a tech talk. And so I think that that’s just the small ways that I’ve tried to lend privilege, and I really think that if we can make efforts to make sure that Black women are supported and uplifted, then we’ll see that rebound to the benefit of everyone in technology.

The kind of what picture I use is, most of us saw Titanic, right? That movie that was so popular. And as we all know that toward the end of the movie, the Titanic was sinking and you have people who were in the lifeboats, but you people who were in the freezing water. Most people who are under represented are in the lifeboats. We’re not safe, but we’re making it.

The Black women, they’re the ones in the freezing water. So the ships that came to help the Titanic survivors, they first went to the people who were in the freezing water. And I really think that we need to do that for Black women. We need to really focus on doing everything we can to improve their experience in tech, and then we’ll see other groups have their experience improve too.

Karen: I 100% agree, and I think it’s a great analogy as well. And Janeen, would love your perspective on how you think about representation and amplification of different voices as being an important aspect of allyship, and would love to hear more about Wikimedia, how you approach that.

Janeen: One thing I just wanted to add to the end of this, about lending privilege. I suppose, one of the ways I could say I do that, and this is really important to me, it’s I hire Black women. And that is really important to me because I know how hard it is, even though it shouldn’t be, I know how hard it is to get someone to take a bet on a Black woman.

And I know because a few people have taken bets on me and I’ve stayed with them in my career, the people that I’ve worked for. And while they’ll say, “Hey, best bet I’ve ever taken.” I know when they were pushing the button to say, “I’ll hire her,” they were taking a deep breath. Like, “Oh boy, here we go.” And I just hate that that has to be our story, regardless of how skilled we may be, and what we’re bringing to the table.

“Every person that hires a Black woman takes a deep breath before they hit the yes button for some reason”

I have to tell you that every person that hires a Black woman takes a deep breath before they hit the yes button for some reason. And it’s true to what Anjuan was saying as well. And it’s such a tough pill to have to swallow, but knowing that, I make sure that I do that, and it’s not that I only hire a Black women, but I certainly ensure that they’re on the slate and that they’re a part of my team and that they can see what they can continue to become as they grow in this space, particularly as we’re in the tech space.

The power of thoughtful representation

So I wanted to add that. In terms of Wikimedia, the reason I’m COO over there as opposed to maybe somewhere else is because I really wanted to do work on this platform, not just the work inside the house. As the COO, I’m responsible for doing work across the ecosystem and in delivering enterprise work. But when I am not doing that, it’s very important for me to ensure that the influence and the time that I spend is really focused on how Wikipedia, which is an incredible product that also has its flaws, and we have our biases and challenges that we’re facing on our platform. And it’s okay because the reason it’s okay is because we’re working on a fix. So not because we have these challenges, but because we’re aware of them, we are looking them right down the nose and saying, we’re here to ensure that the things that we see as inequitable on our platform, we’re shining the light on our own selves.

And for me, when I talk about who tells your story, which is a talk that I give often, it’s really talking about 1% of the world not being given the privilege basket to tell the whole world story. And ensuring that we have a diversity of voices and storytellers that are writing information on our platform. How we do that, what our community looks like, what our affiliates, and affiliates are smaller groups that lead efforts across Wikipedia. In some cases, we have some affiliates that are Black. For example, Black Lunch Table, they are specifically focused on writing on Wikipedia about Blacks in arts. They host round table discussions and they’re gathering information to ensure that those stories are stronger.

Talking in conversations like this and ensuring that Blacks are picked up in the media, which adds and bolsters their Wikipedia pages, these things are really important to me. And getting Black imagery so that when Anjuan uses his slides and he’s looking for images of Black women, he can find them on Wikipedia Commons, where our pictures are because people are uploading images about Black women, so that when you Google “Black woman thinking,” you don’t get just nothing or one or two photo stock pictures.

These are things that we can bridge the gap on and help fill that content space and ensure that the perceptions of people are not based on the one or two encounters that they’ve either had or not had, or maybe heard about. But instead, you can read and learn more about people that are exactly like you and the accuracy of these stories are sharper and stronger because they’ve been written by people who actually live those stories.

Karen: Yeah, and Wikimedia is such an important content provider and platform for us to all tell each other’s stories so you’re certainly working right in the heart of it all. So let me move to my last question, and that is maybe, Anjuan, I’ll start with you. What is one practical step that our listeners can take in their place of work today to be a better ally?

Practical advice for being an ally

Anjuan: I think that one practical step that companies can do to be a better ally is to announce that they want to be better allies. And I think that also includes the companies taking the time to define what that means. What does being a better ally mean for that company? And this is not something that the leadership team can do in isolation. They have to involve everyone at that company in defining what a good ally means for them. After all, it’s going to be the employees who are going to do the interviews. They’re going to work with the diverse people that you hope come into the front doors of your company. And so you have to make sure that everyone in your company is involved and is really inspired by that definition. So you have to make sure that everyone is involved in defining what that means. Allyship has to be modeled at the top of the company, but it has to be embraced from the bottom.

“If your company looks the same, then that’s probably because you only recruit from homogenous sources. Companies need to find sources that are diverse”

And I guess for one thing, but if I can say one tangible thing that I think companies can do, and that is diversifying their hiring pool. If your company looks the same, then that’s probably because you only recruit from homogenous sources. Companies need to find sources that are diverse. They need to go to different places and different sources to find the people who don’t look like them if they want to hire people who don’t look like them. And I’m often shocked that when I suggest a company should do this, they often say, “Well, we’re willing to do that, but we don’t want to lower the bar.” And that’s shocking because I don’t know why they equate diversity with lower quality. And because I like word pictures, this is how I respond to people who say that.

Let’s say that you’re a single person and you’re looking for someone to date. So you go to the same bar every night to find the right person. And so every night, you’re never happy with the results. You never find people who align with what you’re looking for. You just see the same kinds of people. Well, why not go to another bar? That’s not lowering the bar. That’s actually raising the chance that you’ll find the right person. And that’s the power of diversifying where you source talent. So that’s one thing that I think companies can do to be good allies. They can diversify where they look for people to come into their companies. And then by doing that, hopefully they’ll learn how to be better allies by making sure that the people who come into their doors to work for the company and share their talents feel welcome.

Karen: That’s a great, great practical example. So Janeen, I’ll turn it to you. What is one practical step our listeners can take in their place of work today to be a better ally? And we would love your thoughts both if you are a senior person in a company or lead a company, as well as if you’re an individual contributor and you want to be a better ally.

Janeen: So I’ll start with the leadership, and me being in the operations background, I have to tell you after you make the statement, after you decide that you’re going to practice allyship, after you do things like suggesting who we hire and where we go, I want to see the results so you’ve got to measure it. If you decide that you’re going to take a stand and write about it, I want you to be bold enough to put some goals and some scope around it and I want you to measure it and I want you to hold yourself accountable. If you’re an organization that gives bonuses, put equity into your bonus practice. If you don’t lead with bonuses but it’s a part of how you perform in your system of performance, put it in there because if you’re one of the largest entities in an organization, if your department is one of the largest and you have X amount of head count to hire, I want to see what it is you’re looking to do. I want to see how you’re supporting the ERGs that have asked for one thing or another.

“The one thing I would caution you on is to not presume that you know so much as to say you know what an ally needs, because to me, that’s privilege speaking again”

And some of this is not hard, it’s just different. It takes us out of our comfort zone, and it’s just the things that we don’t want to do, but you have to take it on and then I want to see you measure it.

If you’re an individual contributor, I think being brave enough to speak up and say, “I need allyship,” or if you choose to be an ally, but the one thing I would caution you on is to not presume that you know so much as to say you know what an ally needs, because to me, that’s privilege speaking again. But ask and be okay if someone says, “I prefer not to have anything from you.” Sometimes, like I said, allyship, it’s partnering and it’s trust and you could decide to tell me that you’re going to be my ally but if that is not the space that I choose to put you in, you need to accept that. Doesn’t mean we can’t work together, doesn’t mean we’re not solving problems in the workspace, but I may not trust you as my ally and you need to be okay with that.

But what you shouldn’t do is decide that you want to let me know every day what protest you went to and how many books you’re reading and start your own channel on how you’re going to teach everyone to be a great ally when you haven’t asked or even had the brave conversations, which can make you feel somewhat uncomfortable, but you’ll likely emerge from them much more informed and aware and then ready to do some of the work after that.

Karen: That’s great advice. Being open, understanding that each person is an individual and learning how you could best help in any situation. And sometimes that might be by doing nothing, but other times, there’ll be something very specific that you can do to help there. So great advice. Really want to thank both of you. Janeen, Anjuan, this was a really terrific conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and for your advice and lots for all of us to do ahead. Thank you again for your time.