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All talk, no action: Black employees respond to the racial inequity in Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative

[OPINION EDITORIALS] Black employees at the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative call out co-CEOs Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg for perpetuating an “All Lives Matter” approach to racial justice, internally, and externally.

Black man in a suit seated with brick wall behind him.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $80 billion eponymous Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is working hard to disrupt traditional philanthropy to advance social change and racial justice, but Black employees at CZI call BS.

In what was surely a PR move for Zuckerberg to appeal to the left, the 36-year-old CEO posted about the death of George Floyd. It was obviously a ploy to shine some attention on CZI’s racial justice investments, but whatever good intentions the post had fell flat.

“To help in this fight, I know Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms. As hard as it was to watch, I’m grateful that Darnella Frazier posted on Facebook her video of George Floyd’s murder because we all needed to see that. We need to know George Floyd’s name. But it’s clear Facebook also has more work to do to keep people safe and ensure our systems don’t amplify bias.”

Did we need to see that, Mark? Did we need to see another Black person killed by the police? It’s no wonder that Black CZI employees are frustrated by the organization’s seemingly lackadaisical and ineffectual approach to racial equity. 

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In response to Zuckerberg’s tone-deaf statement and the protests that followed Floyd’s death, CZI’s Black employees resource group, Building Leadership & Knowledge (BLK), wrote a letter to Chan to call out the organization’s resistance to internal and external work grounded in racial equity.  

“You, Mark, and the senior leadership team have asked us to trust your commitment to making CZI a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization,” the letter said. “You’ve asked for grace as you each engage in your personal racial equity journeys. You have made these requests of us for years, yet you have not made much progress.”

COO Josué Estrada spoke to the Washington Post about the matter. “We also have work to do internally. As a growing start-up philanthropy, we need to build systems that ensure we are supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within our own organization,” he said. Using the DEI buzzword is cute, and technically a mirror to the letter’s assertions, but as a whole is insufficient, primarily because CZI’s leadership doesn’t seem to understand what those words mean.

CZI and Facebook are not the only places where external communications around intentions to address racial inequity are not reflective of internal company culture. This type of behavior is pervasive in the tech sector overall, where Black employees are asked to carry the weight of racial justice work on behalf of their organizations.

The effect is not only emotional and professional stress for an already marginalized group, but also a denial of its importance. At a CZI town hall meeting in June, Chan implored staff that, “it is all of our responsibility to look at our work and think about making sure we’re serving everyone,” which, if you ask me, feels like a thinly veiled euphemism for All Lives Matter.

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In fact, Black employees at CZI concur. In a 2018 survey, Black employees asserted that CZI’s philosophy had in fact become “All Lives Matter.” In an April 2020 employee engagement survey, 87 percent of White employees and 86 percent of Asian and Latino employees felt CZI was inclusive. Only 59 percent of Black employees agreed.

This blind spot is painfully obvious in the watered-down rhetoric that Chan and Zuckerburg have employed as they describe their efforts. Employees and other critics believe CZI is a tool for the couple to enforce their own political beliefs and values through philanthropy, while trying to appear non-partisan on the surface. And it very well may be. Zuckerberg chose LLC status for CZI instead of the traditional 501(c)3 favored by foundations, specifically to give it more flexibility, including the ability to influence policy.

It should be no surprise that someone like Zuckerberg, who was worth $4 billion and counting ten years ago at age 26, has not bothered himself with the difficult work of racial equity self-education. If he and Chan plan to follow through on their promise to disrupt philanthropy for the better, they will need to do some serious internal work, or step aside for more critical thinkers to lead.

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Heather Buffo is a Cleveland native, a recovering Bostonian, and an Austin newbie. Heather is the Venture Growth & Partnerships Lead at Republic where she works with partners in private investing to democratize access to capital for entrepreneurs. Heather studied neurobiology at Harvard University, and is a City Year Boston AmeriCorps alum. She likes to write for AG, drink Austin beer, and ride around town on her road bicycle. His name is Pippin. Say hello if you see them.



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