‘I can’t sit on the sideline’: Black CIOs on facing racial bias
A few days after the May 25 death of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, Illinois Chief Information Officer Ron Guerrier found himself thinking about times in his career when he, an accomplished technology executive, was confronted with the racial biases of some of his white counterparts.
In particular, Guerrier recalled a conference he attended during his private-sector career at which he was scheduled to give the keynote address. During a cocktail hour the night before the main convention, he told StateScoop, he found himself mingling around a table with a few other attendees — drinks in hand and conference badges around their necks — when it happened:
“An individual turns to me and says, ‘Hey, can you fetch me a coffee?’” said Guerrier, who before joining the Illinois state government had worked as a CIO for several large corporations, including Farmers Insurance Group and Toyota North America.
Guerrier, initially thinking he was bantering about the location of beverages, said he didn’t know where the coffee was. Then his questioner asked again, and Guerrier realized what was happening.
“He looks me up and down with disdain and that’s when I realize he thinks I work for the hotel, and that’s despite the fact I’m a fellow CIO standing at his table, despite the fact I actually have a lanyard,” he said. “I slink away from the table and act like I’m on the phone. Then the manager of the hotel asks for my credential. He glances over at the table I was just at and the guy glances back and they have a kind of understanding that ‘he’s good.’”
‘Everything I do is super public’
Government IT officials are, most of the time, heads-down, apolitical business leaders focused on supporting other agencies and ensuring the continuity of operations. But over the past two weeks, as Floyd’s death — captured on a bystander’s video that went viral immediately — has sparked a global wave of demonstrations against police violence and a national reconciliation on race and the historic treatment of black people in America, Guerrier and other black CIOs are also speaking up about their own experiences with racism and bias.
“I’ve been processing all the times I’ve had to swallow hard, turn a cheek,” Guerrier said. “I’ve never been in the military, but the closest thing I can think of is some form of PTSD.”
For Louis Stewart, the chief innovation officer for the City of Sacramento, California, the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death — which came two months after the fatal police shooting of Louisville, Kentucky, resident Breonna Taylor, and the murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia — said he sometimes felt helpless. In a June 4 blog post, Stewart wondered whether growing up abroad as the son of a professional basketball player disconnected him from the experiences of other black Americans, and whether his professional achievements have been worthwhile.
“As I strain to find my voice, I wonder why it is so hard,” he wrote. “Is it because I don’t fit with the status quo? Am I still not seen as black? After three years of accomplishments and trying to prove my value, why are my ideas tossed aside? Some have hypothesized it is because I am black. I usually try not to subscribe to that line of thinking, but the pandemic has me wondering … is it really?”
Stewart, who was named Sacramento’s inaugural chief innovation officer in 2017, said in an interview that he’s been trying to find his voice as both an IT leader and a black man.
“Everything I do is super public,” he said. “The way I see it, I’m doing it as a black man and I’m doing it on behalf of my community as a whole: the black community, the city of Sacramento and my family. I didn’t grow up like everyone else. I didn’t have the experiences of the typical American black life. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know what struggle is.”
Like Guerrier, Stewart’s career is also lined with moments when people took him for someone he’s not. In 2006, while working as the IT director for then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election effort, visitors to the campaign headquarters would sometimes assume that the six-foot-eight black man was a security guard.
“There was an automatic assumption made about who I was,” he said. “I was wearing a suit and earpiece so I could be on a phone call. But I wasn’t walking around mingling, so folks looked at me like I was security. I would get reports of things I should check out.”
A familiar conversation
Stewart said the killings of Floyd, Taylor and Arbery have made the mood around his home somber, especially when he discusses them with his 16-, 17- and 21-year-old children.
“It’s been really heavy dealing with what is ultimately the realization of your own mortality, and that you don’t control it,” he said. “Every day, my [21-year-old] son goes to work and I worry. I just mention, be safe out there.”
In Illinois, Guerrier’s also been having conversations with his kids, who were home from college due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that are all too familiar to black families.
“We have very open conversations and I remind them of the chats we have had in the past,” he said. “But I’m at a point with my kids where these conversations have happened so much that when I say we’ve got to chat, they’re telling me the story. They’re narrating it to me.”
But Guerrier said watching nearly two weeks of sustained demonstrations, including many taking place in mostly white communities outside major cities, and seeing white political leaders embrace the need for police reform suggests this time might truly be different.
“You start seeing the conversations and accountability of the mayor, an acceptance by the governor that the leaders in politics came to a conclusion that based on what they saw, that was a murder and justice need to be served,” he said. “And both these individuals are white males. Then you start seeing stories of protests in areas that are predominately white. I see photos and I can count three black people, and there were like 150 people in the crowd. You start sensing something is happening.”
‘I have a platform’
Guerrier said he’s also seeing opportunities for change from his perch as a statewide CIO.
“In government, it’s not about stockholder value. It’s about the improvement of the lives of your residents,” he said. “The mission of CIO fits for me in a better way.”
Guerrier, who also serves as secretary of the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology, credited Gov. J.B. Pritzker with giving him the authority to pursue a broad IT agenda that he said is aimed at promoting equity around the fifth-most populous state.
“I have a platform,” he said. “We have hackathons in the black community. We met with as many black-owned technology companies as we could and we shared our strategy. I let them know where I’m going with AI and mainframe, and had a discussion about how we promote them to the next level, so they don’t always have to be connected to a Microsoft or SAP or Google. I want them to have a seat at the table.”
He also mentioned Illinois’ $420 million broadband expansion program and promotion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in black and Latino communities. Guerrier mentioned Chicago Tech Academy, a 98% black STEM-focused high-school on the city’s West Side — where he’s giving a commencement address Saturday — and luring a major conference for black IT professionals to relocate from Minneapolis to Chicago in 2021.
“The thing is, how do I help build a black talent pipeline in tech?” he said. “I’m a lean-forward kind of guy. I can’t sit on the sideline.”
Stewart said he’s also trying to use his office to improve the lives of the city’s black residents, and attending monthly lunches with other black IT professionals around Sacramento.
“There’s some brilliant black city employees that are doing amazing work that nobody ever hears about,” he said. “Are there opportunities to lift them up? Are there ways to open up new job opportunities? Yes. Everything I’m doing on the innovation side is intended to uplift the black community and bring them into cybersecurity, into autonomous cars, all these areas of technology that are emerging.”
And Guerrier said that in recent conversations he’s had with other black state CIOs, including Ervan Rodgers in Ohio and James Collins in Delaware, there may be a greater emphasis on how IT can heal racial divides in addition to digital ones.
“I will say the one-two punch of COVID and this is definitely going to raise the conversation,” he said. “That being said, our job as technologists should be providing solutions. I can see where broadband can play a critical role with the gaps you see in COVID, like telehealth. A lot of times, people of color can’t get to a doctor. If they had better access to the internet, things may be more convenient. Contact tracing? That’s a technical solution.”
For Guerrier, using technology to promote equality and equity is also deeply personal.
“I’m not the voice of all black folks. I never said I would be,” he said. “But I do have family members who need help. I went through a foster program. I now support an agency that used to support me. I take this really personally, and I think we in state government should be able to find solutions. We should always be at the table, putting our nose in it, saying, ‘What about tech?’”