At Change.org, Black Employees Made Their Opinions Known — and Leadership Listened
By Ansa Edim Change.org
There has been a giant elephant in the room of tech and social justice industries: the extreme lack of diversity in recruitment and leadership. The recent fight for Black lives has transformed worldwide activism at a record-breaking scale yet, many of the biggest players at the intersection of social justice and tech are led by non-Black people. In many of those cases, as reported in the Washington Post, white executives are leaning heavily on Black staff for direction. In addition to carrying the emotional labor of being Black in corporate America, Black employees are having to step up — often without compensation for their extra work.
Change.org, one of the largest players in online activism, faced this challenge head-on when those of us in its Black affinity group, Change.Noire, called out this issue in June. Following the murder of George Floyd, we considered our dilemma. As Black professionals, we are often put in a position to have to prioritize our paychecks over fighting the systemic oppression that impacts us at our desks. But the corporate scramble that followed the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more was a wake-up call to action.
“They’re talking about us, without us.”
We saw companies make statements in support of Black lives with contradictory policies and practices in place that uphold white supremacy. Their efforts often excluded and disempowered Black voices and employees, all while exploiting them for their life experiences. The feeling is: “They’re talking about us, without us.”
So we spoke up. Energized by the movement building around us in the name of Black lives, we wrote an open letter to a largely white Change.org leadership team. In the letter, we demanded more Black leadership and structures that uplifted us.
To understand where we got the audacity to do this without fearing any ramifications, you must understand the Change.org culture. With experience in many different industries — including a stint at a white-male-dominated tech firm that involved some of the most racially-charged moments of my career — I can say that there is something unique about the culture here.
Despite a lack of racial diversity, diverse perspectives are sought out and we seized the moment to speak freely and be our most authentic selves. Perhaps because Change.org was built by true activists who want to fight for a more equitable world, even if that means challenging their own actions and assumptions. Even if that means challenging their own company.
What followed and continues today is an attempt at an organizational transformation. It is reevaluating systems that encourage white supremacy, systems that should be examined by all tech and social justice organizations trying to make an impact in this moment.
Following our letter, a small team composed mostly of Change.Noire members was formed to determine how to best support the Black Lives Matter movement using the revenue from record-breaking racial justice petitions. We were compensated as consultants for every hour of extra labor we provided. Suddenly, our group was meeting with C-level executives regularly and given opportunities to own how Change.org impacts Black lives.
It didn’t stop there. As our colleagues jumped in with their support, the company decided to pause most work outside of racial justice and form committees to interrogate and reshape our company policies, revenue model, leadership structure, and impact strategy.
None of us can say that we expected our letter to be met with such immediate action. In our personal experiences as Black professionals, it’s hard to think of any organization — let alone any other white-led tech company or social justice organization — that would have a culture that empowers Black staff to act without fear.
Many of the organizations that find themselves grappling with their place in anti-racism are well-intentioned. But good intentions aren’t enough. These companies must empower Black staff to lead as decision-makers in this process, not just use them for their faces and voices for public display.
“If you fail to include Black voices in your response to Black tragedy, you will struggle.”
For any company hoping to support the fight against systemic oppression: if you don’t have a company culture that empowers your staff to organize and take action for what they believe in, you will struggle. If you don’t reckon with your participation in upholding systems that only benefit your hold on leadership positions while excluding Black staff from those positions, you will struggle. If you fail to include Black voices in your response to Black tragedy, you will struggle.
And for Black employees out there: you matter. Your voice matters. If your company wants to truly fight for racial justice, they must look to you first.