In today’s Diversity & Inclusion Leader Spotlight, we hear from Karen Fleshman, Founder of Racy Conversations. Karen facilitates conversations about race that help people of all demographics see, hear, and understand each other. Her particular focus is on helping individuals and organizations move forward from awareness of race, diversity, and inclusion to action and accountability.
Change Catalyst: What are you currently working on to improve diversity and inclusion in tech?
Karen: I change tech culture so that people of color can belong and thrive. I do this by facilitating Racy Conversations, authentic conversations about race that lead to meaningful change at work.
Change Catalyst: What motivates you to work towards an inclusive tech ecosystem?
Karen: I am motivated by love and compassion for all people. The science is clear that racial inequity harms everyone. We will all be much happier, healthier, more productive, more prosperous, and more effective when we achieve racial equity. But unfortunately, we are not moving in that direction.
I share many demographic characteristics with tech leaders — I’m white and I grew up in a nearly all white community. My parents taught me that racism is terrible, and the way to address it is to be colorblind, and never mention race. I also learned that all people who work hard can achieve their aspirations in our society.
I understand why people like me feel awkward in conversations about race because for most of my life I felt that way myself.
Our society’s demographics are changing rapidly and it is important for Americans of all ages to learn a new narrative — a truthful one — about how race operates in our society. The retirement that baby boomers planned for themselves will not be affordable without an investment in young people of color. The companies and organizations GenX and Millennials now lead will become irrelevant if we don’t change our racial attitudes. As parents, we need to teach our children a different narrative about race than we learned growing up because the US will be majority people of color by 2044.
Learning how to not only talk about race, but changing our understanding and actions about race will keep our organizations relevant, our efforts to solve problems productive, and set our children up for success.
My career has focussed on preparing people of color to thrive in white environments. My mentees — young adults of color — became my best mentors. They taught me why the narrative I learned about race growing up is not only inaccurate but causing tremendous harm. My many conversations with them opened my eyes and transformed my understanding of myself and our society.
When the Grand Jury decided that Officer Darren Wilson would not face trial for killing Michael Brown in 2014, I was devastated. I saw in Michael Brown the many young adults I have come to know and love.
I realized I needed to shift my focus to helping people like me experience the transformative power of authentic conversations about race. I facilitate these conversations and teach people practical ways we can change ourselves, our relationships, and our workplaces to end racial inequity in our society.
Change Catalyst: What will be the biggest story around diversity and inclusion in 2017?
Karen: How the private sector built bridges in the midst of politics designed to divide.
Change Catalyst: What one key solution would make a huge difference in creating a more inclusive tech ecosystem?
Karen: An emphasis on local hiring. As an adult, I have lived in Austin, Washington, New York City, and San Francisco. In each city I have observed the same trends: limitless career opportunities for white, college-educated professionals like me who move to these cities to pursue our careers, while many people of color who were born and raised in these communities subsist in joblessness and low wage work. We are driving them out of the communities they created.
I find too much of the diversity in tech conversation is about recruiting talent of color from other parts of the United States to the Bay Area. Meanwhile the Bay Area is the second most racially diverse region in the United States. Tech has all the talent it needs at its doorstep, but tech is discriminating, and we are not strategically investing in developing the skills and connections of longstanding local communities to enter tech.
The result is bad for everyone — rising housing costs, long commutes, and hardening racial inequality.
It’s very important for tech leaders to realize that the very reason why the Bay Area is so innovative — and the cradle of changes that reverberate around the world — is our racial and ethnic diversity. We have a long legacy as a region where people who were persecuted elsewhere could find freedom and a creative community. This is at risk of being lost. We will all suffer when the only folks who can afford to live in the Bay Area are very homogenous.
My dream is to develop a network of leaders committed to racial equity in the Bay Area who will dramatically improve local hiring. We are a majority of people color region in a majority people of color state. We have the opportunity to get this right in the Bay Area and demonstrate to the rest of the country how to successfully transition to our new demography, but currently we are not seizing it, in large part, because although we are neighbors, we literally don’t know each other.
This is a huge lost opportunity.
Change Catalyst: What is the best example of leadership in inclusion you’ve seen recently?
Karen: I am continuously inspired by millennials of color, especially women––Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Morgan DeBaun, Abby Bobe, laura i. gómez, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, Jasmine Gill, Danielle Leslie, Felicia Medina, Stephanie Lampkin, Britanny Packnett, Johnetta Elzie. Millennial men of color, too — Samuel Sinyangwe, DeRay Mckesson, Porter Braswell, and Ryan Williams. I also love the work my friends Jessica Gonzalez Rojas and Glenn E Martin are doing in the nonprofit sector.
I believe that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution and often the furthest from the resources to solve it. These brilliant entrepreneurs and activists are not willing to accept the status quo; they are working hard with what they have to make a huge transformation in our society.
Change Catalyst: Describe the impact you’re having in your role.
Karen: My greatest impact is in demystifying why interracial encounters are often awkward, and helping people learn to act in alignment with their beliefs about race. People report growth in their self-understanding, the way they interact at work, in their personal life and out in the community as a result of what I teach. Learning the truth about how race operates in our society — and knowing specifically what we can do to make it better — is very liberating.
Change Catalyst: Just for fun, what unique or unusual talent/skill do you have?
Karen: I am really good at listening deeply to people, and at connecting people who should know each other.
Diversity & Inclusion Leader Spotlight: Karen Fleshman, Founder of Racy Conversations