Mutale Nkonde is an artificial intelligence policy analyst and founding CEO of AI for the People, a nonprofit creative agency that seeks to eliminate the under-representation of black professionals in the American technology sector.

On April 18 I sent this tweet:

My ask was intentionally vague. I wanted Black people who identified as technologists and worked in nonprofits in the U.S. and hoped that casting a wide net would result in a rush of responses. It didn’t. It took four days and resulted in less than 10 people coming forward. If I were a hiring manager looking for a policy analyst or researcher with experience in the racial justice sector, not only would I be seeking applicants from a very small applicant pool, but there would be very few qualified Black candidates.

Over the last three years, I have taken part in three fellowships programs for which I was paid under $25,000 and given neither healthcare nor a clear pathway to full-time employment while working on projects similar in form and substance to those undertaken by white, middle class, well-educated professionals earning market-rate salaries with full benefits. The hiring of white employees and hosting of Black fellows creates a two-tier labor market in which Black technologists are hired as gig workers while white colleagues become nationally acclaimed experts for doing the same work. But who is going to tell this story?

The tech field erases the voices of Black and other technologists of color who have raised awareness about racism, sexism, ableism, trans erasure, and a host of other intersectional issues in this space. The Netflix documentary Social Dilemma makes this case. Since American newsrooms are only five percent Black, when these types of erasures take place, who is telling the story? The same people who are left out, forced to generate a litany of think pieces protesting this erasure, instead of attending to the urgent and important work of designing a post-COVID-19 tech sector that places anti-racist, human rights-affirming design principles at its center.

In private conversations with me, BIPOC technologists have agreed the underlying issue is a lack of anti-racist workspaces for Black and other technologists of color to build their careers in this sector. This is not an issue of individual acts of interpersonal racism, although that does exist. Diversity and inclusion training sessions are used to provide the appearance of anti-racism in practice, but within those workspaces, BIPOC professionals are most likely limited to working in operations teams.

What if…the philanthropic community tied funding to an organization’s ability to develop a field of BIPOC strategic decision makers who live at the intersections of various marginalized identities? This would force executive directors to take an organizer’s stance on sharing power with BIPOC leaders in the cultural nonprofit space. The goal would be to make the success of people from the most marginalized groups a key to unlocking funding across the sector.

What if…the funding community prioritized supporting BIPOC-led nonprofits? In times of national crisis, BIPOC-led organizations can intensify the work they are already doing to push against white supremacy, instead of being expected to answer rudimentary questions about how race, class, immigration or ability status shape the American body politic.

What if…philanthropists trusted BIPOC enough to give out more unrestricted funding, and permanently relaxed reporting requirements? With this kind of funding, BIPOC-led organizations could build the infrastructure needed for sustainable institutions, and focus their energies on the creation of anti-racist, feminist, queer-affirming futures accessible to all.

Illustration of two hands holding a vase of multicolored flowers.

This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.