The conversation around race is shifting in the United States, according to leaders of four local nonprofit organizations.
Many employers are more willing to have uncomfortable conversations about racial inequity and are beginning to take concrete steps to level the playing field, the nonprofit leaders said during an online discussion Friday presented by Tampa Bay Tech.
Tampa Bay Tech hosted the discussion at the request of members who are committed to driving change and want to learn what they can do to play a role, said Jill St. Thomas, Tampa Bay Tech’s executive director.
One starting point is understanding privilege, said Autumn Solomon, associate director of corporate engagement at Year Up Tampa, an organization that provides skill development, career training and education to move young adults from minimum wage jobs to a meaningful career.
Solomon described a young white woman who had an issue with the word “privilege” because her own life had been difficult. “It isn’t that you don’t face challenges,” Solomon told the young woman. “It’s just that simply because of the color of your skin, things aren’t more difficult for you.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has begun talking with its adult volunteers, the “bigs,” about privilege, said Tanya Gibson, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and human resources. That’s important because 70 percent of the children in the program, the “littles,” are Black, Indigenous or People of Color.
Those discussions allow what had been a traditional mentoring relationship to go much deeper, Gibson said.
“We’re keenly aware that many of our bigs are white and may not have ever had to have that conversation previously, so we’ve tried to engage in national conversations around the topic of how to talk about race in a way that doesn’t burden the little and empowers the big to learn more about systemic racism,” she said.
The same concept is true at workplaces, where Black, Indigenous and People of Color may feel like the “other” in the room, Gibson said. “As employers … It’s time for us to act and address it, as opposed to putting the onus on the other person to do the work.”
In the field of cybersecurity, Blacks and women make up a small percentage of the workforce, said Larry Whiteside Jr., co-founder and president of the Tampa chapter of the International Consortium of Minority Cyber Professionals.
“For my peers across the industry, this has been the opportunity to lean in. I’ve had to help them recognize that hearing these types of things and sitting back is no longer OK. It’s OK to lean in and get a little uncomfortable, to understand what’s going on, why it’s going on and why people of color are feeling a certain way based on what’s happening,” Whiteside said. “My counterparts who are not of color now are more comfortable having those conversations, or at least allowing themselves to get uncomfortable to have them, and that has been more impactful to the change that needs to happen, specifically in cyber, than anything.”
There’s a lot to be said for white allies who lean in and say enough is enough, Gibson said.
“But it’s not enough just to have the conversation. Now we’ve got to put a plan together and strategize how to fix it,” she said. “That is what we’re starting to see now. We recognize there’s a problem. Now what are we going to do to make sure we level the playing field. That’s what equity is all about. It’s providing opportunity and access.”
Creating opportunities is key, said Tony DiBenedetto, founder of Think Big for Kids, a Tampa nonprofit that helps underprivileged youth discover their untapped potential.
As co-founder and former CEO of Tribridge, a Tampa software and cloud services company, DiBenedetto said he expanded the recruiting pool in order to hire more women and people of color. By the time the company was sold in 2017, 43 percent of the workforce was female and there was a “low double digit” percentage of people of color, which DiBenedetto said was still not enough.
Year Up works with the managers at the companies that hire the young adults who go through its program. Solomon wants managers to understand that Year Up is not a college internship.
“The manager has to understand that this is a completely new environment,” Solomon said. “They are moving into a role where predominantly people still don’t look like them, don’t sound like them. As we work with the managers, we’re trying to bridge that gap.”
Getting a job for the young people in the Year Up program is one thing. Sticking with it is another, as family and friends sometimes feel threatened and push back when they see the young person start to succeed.
“I lived that world, the tear-down mentality when someone is attempting to do better,” Whiteside said. “You are trying to get out, trying to do better and make a difference in own life — hoping you will be an example and you can pull others along — and they don’t see it that way. It is a real struggle that a lot of people don’t realize happens.”
DiBenedetto is white but grew up poor, and he said he also got pushback after he learned about computers, turned his life around and became the first in his family to graduate from high school.
At Think Big for Kids, “We do have kids who get a lot of pressure, based on the neighborhood they come from or the color of their skin, to not ‘sell out,'” DiBenedetto said. “Our job is to make it more inclusive so it’s not a sellout.”