On Monday afternoon, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents California’s 13thDistrict, which includes Oakland, stood in front of a stage at the Barbara Lee Science and Allied Health Center at Merritt College in Oakland. She was speaking at a media briefing with three other members of Congress who belong to the Congressional Black Caucus(CBC) Diversity Task Force, which she co-chairs. “We here not only to discuss the lack of equity and inclusion, but also the broader impact that the tech sector has on our economy,” said Lee.
The briefing was part of the congressional delegation’s trip to Silicon Valley, which was arranged to announce principles for building an inclusive tech economy. The delegation met with tech executives, employees and nonprofit organizations during the three-day trip, which started on Sunday. “We are not here this weekend as individual members of Congress,” said Congressman G. K. Butterfield, who represents North Carolina’s District 1, and is a co-chair of the task force. “We are here representing the Congressional Black Caucus. We are here today as policymakers.”
Lee spoke about how income and racial disparities have been affected by the rising tech industry. “In my district, for example, we border Silicon Valley, and we have been significantly transformed by the tech economy,” she said. She emphasized that the tech sector is one of the largest drivers of economic inequality in the Bay Area, because some people are excluded from this newfound prosperity and not able to afford to stay in their home in the area where they want to live. The rising cost of living, she said, “has displaced long-time residents.”
“Nowhere is this more apparent in the African American community in my district. And this is taking place throughout the entire country,” Lee added.
The trip to Silicon Valley is the third for the delegation, following trips in 2015 and 2017, after the CBC TECH 2020 was launched in 2015. The CBC TECH 2020 is an initiative to bring together the best minds in the tech, non-profit, education and public sectors to increase African American inclusion at all levels of the technology industry. The initiative has a goal of achieving full representation of African Americans at every level of the tech industry by 2020. Lee said that the members have seen “some progress in a few companies” after the past trips, but have seen “regression in many of the companies”—that’s why the members arranged the trip again.
“We know that the jobs that are paying a lot of money now, they are in tech,” said Congressman Gregory Meeks, who represents New York’s 5thDistrict. “It is important to have that door open now, so that there is an opportunity for everybody to get in on tech and to create wealth within the African-American community.”
“Poverty rates, income inequality and affordable housing—those are three issues that we are trying to partner with the tech sector and talk about so they can be win-win for everyone,” said Lee. “So, we are asking the tech companies to not only look at inclusion and racial equity, but look at the economic impact and how they can help.”
CBC TECH 2020 was formed under Butterfield’s leadership, after he was elected as the Chairman of the CBC for the 114thCongress in November, 2014. “We looked at the Fortune 500 companies and we were absolutely appalled with the data that we were able to obtain,” Butterfield recalled. “Of the Fortune 500 companies, 200 of those had no African Americans on their boards at all. Another 200 only had one, and the other 100 had, of course, more than one.”
The members of CBC came to focus on the tech industry after looking closely at the different sectors that make up the Fortune 500 companies. “When we get to the technology sector, we were shocked—because African Americans are consumers of technology at the same level, if not more than their counterparts, in America,” said Butterfield. “The top 20 technology companies, not a single one had an African American on their board of directors.”
When the CBC tried to collect employment data from tech companies, some didn’t make their data available, according to Butterfield. From the data that they could collect, they found that only 1 to 2 percent of the workforce at those companies was African American. “So, we formed an entity called CBC TECH 2020, and we have been executing a plan for the last three years. We are here today to continue that plan,” he said.
The members said that they are going to take stronger stance in interacting with tech companies. “At the first trip to the valley, we were little bit more diplomatic with them,” said Butterfield. “We thought we could get progress through persuasion. And [at] some companies it worked, and other companies it’s not working.” Butterfield added that the members became more “adamant in their demand” on the second trip and that this time, “It’s no longer a request, it’s a demand that technology reflect America.”
“We have to get little bit tougher,” agreed Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who represents California’s 43rdDistrict.
The delegation met with Apple, Paypal on Monday and is visiting Square on Tuesday. They have visited or meeting with some other companies that they didn’t specify the names.
Lee said that the members had visited tech companies in New York in the past and learned that there are the same issues all across the country. “I think what we are learning here [in Silicon Valley], it’s applicable everywhere in the country what we see taking place, the dynamics around the tech sector,” she said. “So hopefully this can be, we can turn this in maybe to a model area.”