Amazon HQ2 – Prosperity or Pain for your communities of color?


Amazon Seattle Campus aerial photo

This week’s post is diverging from the normal talk about race, equity, and nonprofits. I’ve been loosely following Amazon’s request for bids as they decide where to build a second headquarters. HQ2, as it is called, will be “an equal” headquarters to their Seattle headquarters and have a projected 50,000 jobs, and generate a bleeping-lot of money. All of this sounds really enticing to many cities. Many news articles have picked apart the deal, I’m not smart enough to do that, so I want to explore what this means to Seattle from a race and community-level perspective.

As cities are wooing the company, I hope the communities of color in those cities understand what they are in for. I don’t have the answer on what it could mean but I can share what I’ve noticed over the past few years of living and working in Seattle. While I’m not a Seattle native, I’ve been here for close to twenty years. I’m also an Amazon consumer using the company to buy everything from a gigantic bucket of emergency food for the impending earthquake (did that two weeks ago while procrastinating over writing the fakequity blog post) to the book Roly Poly Pangolin. I’ve seen Seattle change over the past twenty years and have also watched Amazon’s and other tech generated growth changed the landscape.

The growth of tech companies in Seattle brought prosperity and generous wage jobs to people working in the region, but that prosperity isn’t shared. In this 2014 article on the diversity of Amazon, not surprisingly the majority of Amazon’s workforce is white males. It goes on to say Blacks and Latinos make up only 4% of manager positions (each), Asians make up 13% of the workforce and 18% of managers. Native Americans aren’t even mentioned. To be fair this is a tech industry-wide problem and Amazon isn’t alone in being a white-male dominated workforce.

I did some quick online research and found an average annual wage of an engineer or technical manager, rounded to about $110k, at Amazon can fund about half of my nonprofit for a year. That is a lot of money concentrated into an echo-chamber of white-tech workers. I don’t fault them for making the wages they do, but without an income tax (WA is one of the few states in the US without an income tax) there isn’t a mechanism to redistribute wealth and share prosperity. I also wonder if those at the bottom of their wage ladders receiving a fair, livable, and growth wage? A new study out of the University of Washington School of Social Work shows a family of four needs to make $76,000 to live a no-frills life in Seattle; this is far beyond the $15/hr. many in Seattle have been aiming for. Is Amazon investing in their bottom wage employees of color to ensure they can stay in Seattle and have career ladders jobs and can they reach a salary job that allows them to fund half of my nonprofit?

Is the Criticism of Amazon Fair?

A friend posted on her Facebook page this article: Amazon earned Seattle’s hostility, which details wage disparities caused by the growth of the tech sector in Seattle. The post opened an interesting conversation about what Amazon has done, both good and bad, to Seattle. Amazon absorbs an unnatural amount of blame for everything, a sample of things uttered and heard by me: too many Amazon lunch shuttles in Seattle’s International District blocking all the good parking, too much-wasted cardboard from all of their shipping boxes, gentrification and displacement, and the Instant Pot craze. Others asked if the overall criticism fair.

Amazon has done a lot to help Seattle grow to where it is today. The South Lake Union neighborhood where many of their offices are looks drastically different because of their company presence. Back when the company was starting they worked out of Beacon Tower on Beacon Hill in an old VA hospital. They also made a generous gift to Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter, offering them permanent space in their new Seattle headquarters. All of this is great and I still can’t ignore what Amazon and other companies are not doing to support communities of color. It isn’t Amazon’s fault and at the same time, it is.

Seattle’s communities of color have been hit hard by the growth of Amazon. African American friends share stories about how they know once they sell the family home in the Central District (a historically Black/African American neighborhood) they know they will never return because they are priced out. One family event — a job loss, a death or illness, a house fire – sends families of color fleeing from the city because they can’t hold on and stay in the city due to rising rent caused by the influx of new workers who need places to live. Yet leaving means giving up a precious network of support from schools, organizations, and friends. Is the Amazon’s fault no, but yes. The wealth generated and concentrated in the hands of a few have caused displacement and gentrification and other hardships.

The philanthropic giving Amazon has done is has been on their terms to benefit their interest. The bold and generous gift to Mary’s Place is wonderful, and it is safe. As a city we need more support for unhoused people and it will help people of color. But at the same time, I look at that gift and think “of course the donation went to Mary’s Place, a historically white led organization who looks and sounds like them,” it was a safe place to make a gift. Where is the support for an organization like Chief Seattle Club, a Native American organization supporting many Native Americans experiencing homelessness? Other news articles talk about how Amazon supports Great, makes sense supporting the pipeline of getting kids interested in computer science. While is led by a poc, when I looked at their staff pictures I had to scroll a lot before seeing pocs – so again supporting good work, but on their terms and to organizations that look and sound like them. Another friend said their giving appears very transactional, not a great way to aim for systemic change.

Be a Good Neighbor and What the Next City Should Prepare for

If Amazon and their staff want to be good neighbors I hope they will open themselves up and understand how they are changing communities. The growth they have generated has been at the expense of communities of color. What will the company do differently to be a good neighbor and not just ask what is in it for them and their shareholders? A shared vision of growth must include what is good for communities of color and allowing communities of color to have self-determination.

Some might be asking what does Amazon have to do with self-determination of communities of color. This quote by Ijeoma Oluo helps to explain what I mean: “Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody’s oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy.” The privilege of working at Amazon (and many other tech companies) comes at a cost to communities of color. The land Amazon sits on belonged to Native Americans, as we saw earlier Native American’s employment demographics weren’t even reported. The list of ills can go on and on. Communities of color need to have a say in how solutions to these problems can be found. Amazon has the power and responsibility to be part of the solution.

In a conversation with an Amazon employee, the person said government/policymaking has a responsibility to take care of housing and education and Amazon shouldn’t be blamed. I agree but I disagree, part of the solution finding has to be Amazon and their network to push policymakers and to generate the public will to change and to do it with communities of color.

Where is Amazon calling for tax-reform to share prosperity? Where are they on supporting organizations closest to communities of color? Their voice is absent from community level conversations. I could keep asking questions but I think I know the answers on where Amazon stands or doesn’t on social justice.

To the next city lucky enough to win the bid to host HQ2, good luck. To our sisters and brothers of color out there, stand strong and start organizing so Amazon doesn’t happen to you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

This blog post started as a reply to a Facebook post. Thank you to Annie for the original post.

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

No thank you, I don’t need your gifts

Late last Sunday before I headed to bed I checked Twitter and saw early reports of the violence and rampage in Las Vegas. It wasn’t until morning that I understood the carnage. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, armed with multiple assault rifles shot out of a 32-floor window into an open-air concert. He killed 59, and injured over 500. Puerto Rico is also trying to recover. Their disaster was a devastating hurricane. Please take a moment and remember the national and international context we exist in and how we are somehow all interconnected.

panda noWhite people, please stop giving. Every few weeks I’ll be in a meeting and someone will say “we want to give…” and I tune out. The act of giving can feel noble, but only if the gift is wanted and well received.

Communities of color often have what we need to solve our own problems. We don’t need programs from the outside, or outside experts to diagnose and tell us what is wrong and how to fix it without really understanding the community. We also don’t need access to programs that weren’t designed by our community.

I get it, people want to help. It is hard watching others suffer and people are compassionate. We see a problem and our instincts are to say “I’m smart I know how to solve this problem,” or “I know someone who knows how to fix this,” or “if they do this it will make things better.” Before you try to bring some program that will teach children how to meditate or some family engagement program that worked in some other community slow down and ask are you making the offer for you or for others.

This is the opposite of extraction, it is inserting yourself into a community and centering your solution. Like I just wrote, yes we want to solve problems. We can’t let things stay as they are. Problems like the achievement and opportunity gap need to end, economic instability, climate change impacting pocs, gun violence, infant mortality, and so on disproportionately impact people of color and we need to find solutions to the problems. What we don’t need though is for programs and projects to happen to us.

The problem with thinking we can import programs and projects and believing they will succeed is we need to really consider is it racial equity. Most likely it isn’t racial equity. Racial equity isn’t about giving a community access, or thinking we can give and gift our way to equity. True racial equity is about creating space for solutions to emerge from the community and resourcing people of color to test these solutions and allowing grace for people to learn from the successes and failures.

Turning Inward

One of the best lines I’ve heard recently about how to practice racial equity is “communities of color turning inward.” Often someone will want to come in and bring a project or program to a community and expect communities of color to want to embrace it. They may even be ready to face skepticism from communities of color and will be willing to tinker with the project design but overall the project or program is controlled and designed by others. If we are truly practicing racial equity communities of color embrace our own gifts and we create our own programs that center our needs first.

A few years ago, I heard professor john a. powell speak at a gathering of funders. I heard a line from him saying: “communities often have their own solutions, but they may not have the resources to solve the problem.” Interestingly the white people in the room heard the opposite, that communities don’t have the solutions or the resources. I operate under the basis that we have the solutions within our own communities and when we listen to each other solutions arise. Mainstream and dominant systems often want to import solutions and believe they will work. Bright and shiny objects and programs look appealing and easier than doing the harder work of listening to the community and working together to design from scratch a new solution to a problem.

We don’t need program plopped down on communities, we need to transform spaces that allow programs and projects to emerge – this is racial equity. Transformation doesn’t have to be some grandiose thing with fancy lighting and a soundtrack, it can be simply resourcing a community to have a conversation where they can share what is and isn’t working. Most likely at some point in the conversation the community will start to generate solutions. These solutions may look very differently than what others have in mind.

Turning inward also means decisionmakers must be ok with letting go of control. Our job is to hold the space, build trust within the community, and to offer the resources needed to make a community driven program happen. Sometimes this means suspending our desires and our predisposed solutions which can be really scary, especially if it means we’re staking our reputation on it as well.

How to create more racially equitable solutions

Center Communities of Color – Communities of color need to spend time talking and generating solutions. Help to make this happen by paying for the convening, donating space, offering to pickup refreshments, setting up and cleaning up the room, etc. When communities spend time talking and generating ideas solutions will emerge. Starting with conversation is an important way to make sure the solution is coming from the community that is most impacted.

Listen to what communities want – Often we know what we know and we want to share it. In Seattle Detective Cookie’s Chess Club is well known in S Seattle. Detective Cookie is a local police officer who provides a chess club to students. She said when she first started she asked the kids what sort of club they wanted she expected them to say basketball, hip hop, etc., nope they asked for a chess club. She helped the kids make it happen and today it is wildly popular. We need to do more of this where we suspend what we think a solution may be and be ok with pivoting to do what the community wants. It is hard to let go of our preconceived thoughts, but in the end the community generated solution will be right.

Gifts – I started this post by saying we don’t want your giving, that is only half true. We want your gifts and giving, but we want it without all of the strings and weird stuff that can come along with it. We don’t need cumbersome financial obligations, restrictions and requirements, etc. If you believe in the work then resource it and trust the community. If for some reason it doesn’t work out than consider it an investment in learning so we can make more informed decisions in the future.

Create conditions that build trust and allow the community to control the program and project – One of the ‘gifts’ you can give is starting with trust. Trust is necessary to building a good program and project. Trust is often earned through actions, so take some actions to check your power and use your privilege to center communities of color.


Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.