Knowledge, as they say, is power. But when information is a one-way street, even the smartest minds have trouble making progress.
I was reminded of this the other day when I heard of the challenges faced by two members of The Greenlining Institute's Leadership Academy, which trains young people of color in policy and advocacy. Two young people in our Summer Associate program have been finding that getting information from corporate America can be much harder than figuring out what to do with the information once you get it.
Jubek Yongo-Bure has been looking - or at least trying to look - at the diversity efforts of Silicon Valley tech companies. Many of these firms refused to release any meaningful information on the diversity of their staff and management until last year, when a number of major firms like Google acknowledged how few of their employees - particularly in high-level positions -- were women, Latino or African American.
Back then a number of execs pledged greater efforts at diversity, so we asked Jubek to look into what they were actually doing. As an organization with some experience promoting diversity in a variety of settings, we thought a dialogue with major companies wrestling with these issues could be valuable for all. So Jubek wrote to 11 prominent companies working in various aspects of the tech world.
Unfortunately, Jubek has run into a wall of silence from most companies, getting substantive responses from only three. From the others, including Google, she mainly got polite brush-offs. One of those companies did host the whole group of Summer Associates at a sort of meet-and-greet, but when asked about what they're doing to recruit diverse candidates, a company rep said, "They should just apply." No one was willing to engage about what, if anything, they were actually doing to make diverse applicants believe they would be welcomed and that applying wouldn't be a waste of time.
Meanwhile, Kerry Sakimoto has been looking into community benefit practices of nonprofit hospitals in California's San Joaquin Valley. Nonprofit hospitals include some of America's largest hospital systems, companies that would easily make the Fortune 500 if they were organized as for-profit businesses. These hospitals make a bargain with the public: In exchange for the billions of dollars in tax breaks they get each year by being allowed to organize as nonprofits, they're supposed to provide "community benefit" by providing care for the poor and uninsured and helping communities stay healthy.
Unfortunately, in the real world it's not always clear where those community benefit dollars go and what good they do - in other words, whether these hospitals are keeping their half of the bargain. Last year, for example, our health team looked at San Francisco hospitals and found that the available information raised more questions than it answered.
Kerry looked at seven major nonprofit hospitals serving the Valley - a major agricultural region plagued by high levels of poverty, the sort of region where nonprofit hospitals could play a critical role in promoting community health. For two of the seven, not enough information was available to determine how much of the hospital's income was spent on community benefit. For others, critical pieces of the puzzle were missing - for example, how much spending was directed at the broad community (e.g. antismoking campaigns) and how much, if any, was directed specifically toward addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, such as the poor, elderly, disabled, communities of color and those who speak little English.
When Kerry followed up, a few hospitals filled in some missing details while others just gave him the runaround. Statewide, the hospital industry has fought tooth and nail against legislation to improve transparency and promote community involvement in the community benefit activities that are supposed to earn these institutions their enormous tax breaks.
These summer projects are supposed to be learning experiences, and I have no doubt that both Kerry and Jubek did learn. But I can't help but feel a bit sad that some of what they learned is how large corporations that play hugely important roles in our communities are happy to put out generalities about their good corporate citizenship, but put up walls when asked for specifics.