Honoring Black History Month in tech companies

Black history is US history. Here's how tech companies can commemorate and honor the achievements and interests of Black Americans.

President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month for the first time in 1976. But the origins of this annual observance go back more than 100 years. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson traveled from Washington, DC to Chicago to participate in a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation. 

The overwhelmingly positive response to the celebration inspired Woodson, an author, publisher, and historian, to choose February to honor the birthdays of two people who influenced Black American history: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson would go on to found the organization known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). 

The weeklong observance grew over the decades in individual schools, communities, and cities. By the late 1960s, colleges and communities began celebrating and commemorating African American History Month, or Black History Month, throughout February.

Black History Month isn't exclusive to the US. Canada and the United Kingdom also celebrate.

How can tech organizations and individuals do better for BIPOC?

We put this question to several computer science and technology professors of color. 

BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. It's a newer term that's meant to be inclusive. But some people say the term enables erasure. That's because the people the term refers to aren't one homogeneous group. Everyone faces different issues. With that clarification in mind, here's what some experts had to say:

Shaundra Daily, Duke University

"Many organizations take an employee-focused approach to diversity — meaning affinity groups, mentoring, and other activities geared towards giving employees the tools to survive environments. Instead, organizations need to examine the people, practices, and policies that create toxic environments that aren't conducive to marginalized employees' success." 

Juan Gilbert, University of Florida

"Tech organizations and individuals can do better by first trying to do better. They must recognize that there is an issue — specifically, severe underrepresentation — and then want to do better. Once they want to do better, there are many steps that can be taken to make improvements. For example, tech organizations can reach out to BIPOC communities with respect to hiring, providing services, etc. Directly engaging the BIPOC communities is necessary."

Julian Brinkley, Clemson University

"Generally speaking, I think tech organizations can do better by and for the Black community by expanding opportunities for employment. Even well-meaning organizations often fall short in this regard. You have many organizations that support social justice movements and have public postures that advocate for issues that the Black community cares about, but many of these organizations fall short in their hiring practices. 

"Put simply, if you want to help eradicate racism and you want to support a more just society, find ways to increase the number of Black employees in your ranks. And for those companies that are excelling at minority hiring, it is important to make sure that Black employees feel valued and heard."

Improve diversity and inclusion practices

The tech industry and tech leaders have opportunities to improve diversity and inclusion. We also asked our experts to identify some recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and retention goals or strategies that could open doors for Black Americans who are interested in working in tech.

Dr. Gilbert: "Tech companies should know their demographics. They often know their customers' demographics, but what about their employees? Next, set goals to increase your diversity based on your current demographics. If you do not know how to do this, seek help from experts. There are strategies that can be taken to recruit, hire, and retain Black Americans in tech."

According to Glassdoor, some of those strategies include identifying new sources for candidates, creating paths to leadership for diverse candidates, partnering with minority supporting organizations, and showing people — rather than telling them about— your organization's diversity.

Dr. Brinkley: "From my perspective, the most important factor in the hiring and retention of Black tech talent is commitment: Is your organization committed to finding Black tech talent and retaining those employees once hired? 

"Some recent reports suggest that the largest tech companies are doing a better job of finding Black tech talent relative to what we have seen as recently as five years ago. But these same reports suggest that there is a serious problem with retention. I think this speaks to the reality that an organization's commitment to Black employees should not end once the employee is in the building. 

"There need to be concerted efforts to support, retain, and nurture this talent. I find that people want to remain in spaces where they feel a sense of belonging, and where they feel heard and valued. Black employees can be stellar contributors to business success and may bring unique perspectives and lived experience that is invaluable. Recognizing the inherent value of Black tech talent and creating cultures of inclusivity can go a long way in recruiting and retention."

How can you honor the spirit of Black History all year long?

There are ways to honor Black History all year. These steps include taking the initiative to learn about the experiences of Black Americans, recognizing the value of representation, and remembering that everyone is an individual.

Another way to honor the spirit of Black History Month all year is to consider the annual theme. The practice of naming a theme dates to the observance's earliest days. Woodson believed a theme could help focus the public's attention. The ASALH says the intent of an annual theme is to provide a conversation starting point.

This year's theme is Black health and wellness. The ASALH is spotlighting Black healthcare professionals, health practitioners, and traditions, like midwives and naturopaths. This year's theme also focuses on the Black community's wellness activities and initiatives.

Unfortunately, public health data indicates that Black Americans develop serious diseases at younger ages more often. Black adults also say that cost may prevent them from seeking healthcare. One way tech companies can show they value Black health is by providing paid time off for all employees to take care of their health.

However your company chooses to honor the value, contributions, and talent of Black employees during African American History Month, let the spirit live on year-round by adopting these initiatives into your organizational culture.

This article was reviewed by Dr. Paige J. Gardner, Ph.D. 

Dr. Paige Gardner, a Black woman wearing professional clothing, poses next to a railing.

Dr. Paige J. Gardner is currently an Assistant Professor of Student Development Administration at Seattle University. Prior to this role, Dr. Gardner served as Assistant Dean of Students at Loyola University Chicago and has 12 years of experience in crisis management, facilitating diversity and equity training, identity development workshops, and professional development retreats for college students, staff, and faculty. Her research centers race and gender equity in the workplace, the experience of emotional labor at historically White institutions, and scholar-practitioner identity development. As a queer, Black, cisgender Woman of Color, Dr. Gardner is deeply invested in advocating, empowering, and building solidarity-based coalitions with and for those on the margins of society.

Paige Gardner is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

Page last reviewed on January 28, 2022.

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