Letting the Light In

Ideas

Letting the Light In

Briteweb May 7, 2021

Hi. I’m Geoffrey Daniel, the Director of Strategy at Briteweb. Also: I’m a person, not a boa constrictor.

That’s a strange way to introduce myself, I know. It’ll make sense if you’ll indulge me for a few more sentences. Let me explain: while much of what I bring to this role is reflected in my resumé, a lot of it doesn’t fit into any of the fields in my LinkedIn profile. That’s because my skills and perspective are informed by my experiences thus far—and to be clear, I’m referring to all of my experiences, both in and out of the workplace. They’re fundamental to me and my professional life; shedding them would be akin to shedding my skin. Which I can’t do, hence my clarification earlier. That’s why it was strange, last week, to read about another forward-thinking company (or so I thought) that seems to imagine otherwise.

Some background: Jason Fried (co-founder and president of Basecamp, a collaborative project management software company), wrote a blog post last week about the company’s new policy banning “societal and political discussions” within internal company channels. Employees can talk about whatever they want on Signal or social media, but not at work. His co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, amidst a fiery round of responses on Twitter, added a follow-up. The fallout continued with mass resignations as Basecamp offered buyouts after a contentious staff meeting and the resignation of a senior staff member. 

Jason explained his reasoning in his original post: “. . . every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target . . . It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well.”

Jason and David are well-known for thinking, writing (entire books, even!), and speaking differently about work—usually in very human-centric ways. That’s part of what makes their announcement so surprising: it suggests that Basecamp’s leaders are failing to recognize the full personhood of their employees who don’t get to check their identities at the door when they sign into their corporate Basecamp accounts. Anyone who experiences social marginalization doesn’t get to decide whether or where systemic oppression targets them—including while they’re at work. 

My entire existence as a Black man is political, in and out of the office. I shoulder the emotional labor of staying ever-vigilant of how others define “professionalism” as I navigate potential microaggressions or negative assumptions based on how I show up in the world. And, to use Jason’s words, my personal experience can quickly “spin away from pleasant.” I don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or when that happens—or simply pretending that it doesn’t. A simple directive to universally “not talk politics at work,” with no extra support, assumes that I can pretend—as I navigate spaces that were not originally designed to recognize or account for the fullness of my experience. 

Part of my leadership role at Briteweb involves shaping our agency culture. As a team, we have a very different perspective than Basecamp’s on how to handle “social and political” issues: we’re focused on supporting our employees’ work, but not at the expense of supporting their humanity. We’re regularly asking ourselves questions like:

  • What values do we espouse as a company, and how do they support meaningful discussion and learning? 
  • How do we encourage good-faith questions and interactions that help us better understand each other (and our partners, and our clients)?
  • How do we create a feeling of belonging for every team member?
  • What policies, educational opportunities, and benefits can we offer that support our team and fit our values?

The answers to those questions are constantly evolving as we learn from and with each other. Meanwhile, the world around us shifts quickly in some ways—and stays alarmingly the same in others. Conversations around issues of equity, diversity, and discrimination are hard, even among the best-intentioned people. Challenging systems that have existed for centuries isn’t easy, especially when they’ve been so carefully designed to perpetuate themselves. Breaking them down requires building real trust; if we can’t show up in our full humanity and share our experiences, we can’t build that kind of trust. We try to foster an environment and model behaviour that encourages conversations that are actual conversations, rooted in respect and curiosity—not “debates,” where one of us is winning and the other is losing.

Another thing that struck me about Jason’s blog post was his assertion that Basecamp isn’t “a social impact company”; they make software, and that’s what they’re responsible for. Which, of course, is true at first glance. But, as a global society that increasingly interacts online, software development absolutely interacts with social and political issues all the time. When we act as though it doesn’t, we see things like Uber showing off its “God mode” feature in a meeting, displaying users’ locations without their knowledge. We see social media platforms with no plans to address the barrage of rape and death threats that push female journalists and commentators of color off of Twitter, despite the professional expectation that they stay on to stay relevant. We see CEO after CEO fail to recognize potentially dangerous design decisions that don’t affect them personally. Their users suffer—which means that people suffer. As does society at large.

At Briteweb, our work is technically to develop resilient brands, often through digital platforms. That mandate is deceptively simple, though—and doing it well involves a great deal of responsibility. Are our sites accessible to people with different levels of ability? Do we understand the needs of diverse target audiences well enough to meet them? Have we developed the empathy necessary to really immerse ourselves in each client engagement, giving them the tools and strategy they need to shift things for the better? The answer needs to be a resounding yes. And we can’t be confident in that answer unless we recognize the complexity in each other, listen to honest feedback, and harness the courage to face the world as it is. 

We won’t find that courage if we mandate silence. When we don’t talk about difficult things, we can’t understand them. If we don’t understand them, we can plead ignorance or embrace denial when we’re confronted with the harshness of another person’s reality—let alone the part we may have unwittingly played in maintaining it. Categorizing forces like racism and sexism as separate and “political”, rather than ingrained and inescapable, is a privilege that most people don’t have.

Real change requires seeing clearly. Looking away from the “dark places” keeps them dark. The only way forward is to let the light in.

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