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Finding Common Purpose

When David Delmar Senties faces hurdles to get more companies on board as employers of Resilient Coders graduates, his “whiteness” allows him to jump over them. I ended my last blog post with a promise to tell you the details.

David, who founded Boston-based Resilient Coders to train people of color for high-growth careers as software engineers and then connect them with jobs, describes himself as “a little bit of an odd duck.” He grew up in a Spanish-speaking home and is a “white male but also Latino”—a mix that affords him some privilege.

As a white male, I wanted to hear more. I find myself wondering how best to use my own privilege to advance society—especially at a time when there is such tension and polarization across the country. So David and I explored it more deeply together.

Resilient Coders depends on employers’ willingness to hire its graduates, and it can be an uphill battle. David described one employer that referred to a Resilient Coder graduate as “not a cultural fit.” I asked him how he combats that perspective?

“I told him, ‘Yes, we know. That’s the point’,” he explained.  “We essentially have to tell two different stories.” One of them is to “the VPs of engineering who need to ship product. None of them are hiring out of Resilient Coders for the ‘feel-goody-good-goods.’ They’re hiring out of Resilient Coders because they’re damn good coders. We just produce phenomenal coders that compete with college graduates for those jobs because they have to be able to compete that way.”

When it comes to telling the other story, David believes he has a leg up. He’s able to talk with executive leaders at a company about what they should be doing “as a corporate entity, as a civic player, as a participant in the construction and re-envisioning of civilization in Boston.” To make that pitch, he needs to bring race into the conversation and make it about the barriers that keep doors shut.

“I think I get a pass speaking about race in a way that people of color, frankly, do not,” he responded. “I think this is an example of my white privilege. Sometimes, when people of color speak about race, they might feel judged as being sort of self-serving of being perceived as complaining or coming up with excuses. I also think that people of color, for a thousand reasons, are often going to be more cautious when talking about race with white people.”

Being Latino but also white gives David an entry point others don’t typically have. 

“To some people, I’m Latino, and to some people, I’m white. Obviously, I’m both. And I have made my peace with the fact that those are two different windows into the same house. And so if I’m telling a story on behalf of our coders and the person’s entry point of engagement with that story is one in which I am Latino, so be it. If the entry point into that story is one in which I’m white, so be it.”

Perhaps as I do, some of you reading this blog wonder how to create the kinds of bridges of understanding David is seeking. That’s what prompted me to ask David to put us in the room with him and the senior management of one of the employers with which he’s meeting. He responded first with what he called a “fictional scenario” in which he meets with executives after a young Black woman has had a job interview with an employer.

“Let’s suppose her first interview, with a couple of white men, went well, she’s scheduled for a second interview, and she doesn’t show up. She just disappears. They might ask: what happened? We were so happy. We really liked her. It was going really well. We speak to the young woman and ask her what’s going on and she says, ‘Well, it’s very clear to me that I just don’t belong there’.”

David unpacked that for me. “Some of that is her own experience,” he explained. “Some is the imposter syndrome she is experiencing throughout the entire episode. And some of it might have been actual micro-aggression she experienced during the interview. Although fictional, that sort of setup—two parties in the same meeting having two different takeaways—is actually very familiar to us.”

It was good background to the conversations David has with employers. I told him I imagined he wasn’t starting those out by pointing to the company’s systemic and structural racism.

“There’s no faster way to shut down a conversation in this country than throw out the ‘racism’ word. If I sit down with a bunch of white men from Megacorp, LLC, I have to engage in that conversation either assuming or sometimes pretending to assume that they want to build an inclusive and diverse team.

My effort is to engage everyone as though they want to be an ally, to make the conversation becomes less about the person and the company as entities and more about the behaviors and practices that are antiquated and ill serving that objective. That puts me in the position of giving tips rather than making criticisms.”

I wondered how David closes the deal, and I asked him about the “try before you buy” idea Mike Scannell had brought up—making it possible for employers to try out potential employees as a way to remove barriers.

“Some of our companies do like a three- or four-month temp-to-perm hiring thing,” David answered. “That’s fine, but we need to be very explicit with what it would look like for that person to be successful so that we’re not opening ourselves up to bias or to subjective decision- making. It’s also worth expressing, quite frankly, a little bit of frustration white college graduates are not always subjected to the same degree of scrutiny.”

As we talked more, David agreed with me that the pathway from people graduating high school to move in to college or some sort of postsecondary training program to a good-paying job is not working that well for the majority of people.

The story of Resilient Coders suggests at least part of what needs to happen to improve the handoff problem along the pathway, from high school to a good-paying job. But so much more is needed.

“I think more people with some degree of power have to care,” David said, and he pointed to the need for both “civic action” and “commercial action.”

“I think we need to rethink who and how we employ. Some of the most empowered folks out there in Boston today are high-earning professionals. If they were to decide en masse that it really matters to them that their companies hire differently, they could approach their leaderships and say it matters to us that we remove the bachelor’s degree requirement, that we think differently about how we hire, that we take a chance on potential rather than just hiring for pedigree over and over and over again. In this scenario, those with power have to decide they care.” 

My discussion with David further solidified for me the obligation we all have to help ensure more people move along a pathway from healthy birth, to a quality education, to a good paying job. All of us have different roles to play: it’s just a matter of finding the one you feel most comfortable with. David has clearly found his, and suggested to me a first step. 

“I think it’s time for a 21st-century version of organizing in which people can come together and approach their leadership and say, ‘This matters to us’.”  

Take a moment after reading this blog and ask yourself: How can I can use my privilege, my positions of power, for the benefit of others that are at a disadvantage based on class or race? Then try it out. David did.   

As I’ve done with many of my interviewees, I asked David to choose a song to end the post. He chose “Latinoamérica” by Calle 13. “The video beautifully illustrates that ‘Latinx/Hispanic’ refers to an incredibly broad range of cultures, a beautiful plurality of races/ethnicities, nationalities, religious practices, languages, and experiences—a sentiment more common in the United States than in Latin America. My friends and neighbors here are Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran, not just Mexican. ‘Latinx/Hispanic’ culture’ is itself an act of embracing a really wide grouping of people with almost nothing in common but a conviction that they must forge a culture in common.”