Black History is American history, and Black and African American technologists shape every definition of innovation. This past February at the Technology Transformation Services (TTS), we celebrated Black and African American innovators in our program and our country. But Black History Month can’t be contained to a single month. The histories and the peoples that Black History Month recognizes are with us always. Every day, we have the opportunity and responsibility to lift up Black voices and Black achievement that has been made despite the pressures, violence, and traumas that Blacks communities have faced—and continue to face. Much work remains to be done.
In this blog, we share lessons learned through our Black History Month storytelling that can be used year-round.
The TTS Diversity guild and the TTS’ Working While Black (WWB) affinity group worked together to launch an internal campaign. During the month of February, one person from the WWB “took over”our internal chat room and highlighted a person, tradition, or moment from American Black History.
The TTS Outreach team also created social media campaigns focused on highlighting what Black History Month meant for our Black colleagues. We reached out to them and gathered content and feedback to create a social media campaign that not only provided our Black employees an opportunity to share their voice, but also showcase their outstanding work and expertise.
This #BlackHistoryMonth TTS is celebrating Black and African American Innovators in government. Brittney Chappell is the Director of the TTS Office of Acquisition. She's passionate about her job and helping to modernize the federal government. #RepresentationMatters pic.twitter.com/28pnGfXbzQ— Technology Transformation Services (@GSA_TTS) February 11, 2021
Black history is American history, and Black & African American technologists shape every definition of innovation. A PIF @DeptVetAffairs, Sabrina Mohamed is using her expertise in product & inclusive design to expand digital benefits access for all veterans. #BlackHistoryMonth pic.twitter.com/uSPBwAIPov— Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) (@PIFgov) February 8, 2021
Below are snapshots of these campaigns in action. Each vignette below has been shared by a member of TTS' Black employee affinity group, Working While Black. We hope you enjoy, and find timeless lessons that inspire more inclusive and equitable workplaces and communities, every month of the year.
I used to be a scientist, and I have scientist/engineer parents. I believe in science, and I can’t wait to get vaccinated. As the COVID-19 vaccine continues to roll out throughout our country, the phrase ‘Trust the Science’ has started to pick up. I can’t get down with this phrase, because it rubs me the wrong way. As it pertains to Black communities, ‘Trust the science’ lacks empathy and contextual understanding of the suffering and sacrifice these communities have been put through to enable us to achieve medical advances over centuries, and the vaccine we have now.
Here are some medical ‘advances’ at the cost of Black lives:
- Antebellum gynecology: A group of doctors dedicated four years experimenting on 14 Black enslaved women to develop a treatment for fistulas. To this day, Black women are three times as likely to die giving birth, and are often not believed by medical professionals when they complain of pain.
- The Tuskegee Study: In 1932, the Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis. The study initially involved 600 black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent, with some being informed that they were receiving treatment when, in reality, they received no treatment at all.
Instead of saying, "Trust the science," maybe we should say, "We’re sorry we’ve broken your trust, and we thank and honor the people above, and all who have given their life to scientific research, be it voluntary or not. We can and we will do better."
— Uchenna Moka-Solana (she/her), Acting Executive Director, 18F
Black History is such a vast field of study, I decided to focus on the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and parallel how the acronym can be used in multiple ways to describe the contributions and experiences of Africans (Black Peoples).
First, Black Peoples Shake-Up how the world does things, we create and Transform how the world Excogitates and develops elegant solutions that Modernize the world. And, I am sure that you already know this, but since we are celebrating, let’s not forget that Black Peoples are Spiritual, Talented, Essential, and Majestic. Please take a few minutes every day in February to learn something new about Black Peoples during America’s Black History Month Celebration.
— Pia Scott (she/her), Senior Advisor, TTS Solutions
Let’s spotlight three African American playwrights who have shaped American theater and had an enduring legacy on the art form! There are so many incredibly talented Black playwrights, actors/actresses, directors, and producers, past and present, in both the U.S. and worldwide, who have transformed theater into a vehicle for telling empowering, uplifting, and authentic stories about Black people.
Here’s three to know:
- August Wilson: This Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright wrote 10 plays, collectively known as ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle,’ chronicling the dynamic, complex experiences and heritage of African Americans in the 20th century.
- Lorraine Hansberry: This Chicago native was the first African-American female playwright to have a play performed on Broadway. That play, A Raisin in the Sun, is her best known work and debuted when she was only 29 years old! The play highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago.
- Suzan Lori-Parks: A writer of stage plays, screenplays, teleplays, and a book, Suzan is the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog.
— Malaika Carpenter (she/her), Content Strategist, 18F
Let us celebrate Black Ingenuity. I’d like to shout out the work of Mobile, Alabama’s Lonnie Johnson. As an engineer with the Air Force and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lonnie Johnson contributed to the development of countless high-profile projects, including the Stealth Bomber and the nuclear power source for NASA’s 1989 Galileo mission to Jupiter. But the most celebrated of Lonnie Johnson’s 120+ patents? The Super Soaker water gun! The Super Soaker was a runway success and became one of the most popular toys of the 1990s. The man is now a billionaire, and yet he continues to innovate. ‘The Super Soaker is good. But I want to do better.’ He continues to work and innovate on solid state batteries and thermoelectric energy conversion.
— Patrick Kigongo (he/him), Product Manager, 18F
Improving how we share our stories
Collaborating with our staff on this campaign also paved the way for an ongoing cultural communications plan to ensure that we continue campaigns equitably and with adequate support. Here are best practices we’ve learned that are informing our storytelling moving forward:
- Plan early. We’ve created a calendar to recognize heritage, celebration, and remembrance days, weeks, and months. For each, our communications team will connect with TTS affinity groups to ensure every campaign is co-created with and meaningful for those who identify with the cultures and communities being celebrated or commemorated. Searching for a calendar to begin your own planning? Here is a list Special Emphasis Observances implemented by Presidential Proclamation, Executive Orders and/or Public Law.
- Communicate throughout. We work with transparency and always welcome feedback. Our communications team will continue to share messaging both internally and externally through our many channels including team meetings, newsletters, blogs, and social media. A few things we’ve found essential to communicate internally, early and often, are: permission (for example, did this employee express permission to highlight them and their work?), attribution (for example, quotes), and processes (for example, sharing how and on what timeline we are working with our legal counsel to ensure we are following all applicable laws).
- Leadership & decision making. Power and permission resides with those who identify with the cultures and communities that a campaign celebrates and/or commemorates. Alongside TTS affinity groups, our communications team will also work with the TTS Diversity Guild and senior leadership to ensure content and strategy align with TTS mission and values.
- Provide recognition. We ensured content not only represents our employees’ diverse backgrounds, but also their work and how it’s improving the lives of the public and public servants. We make campaign performance and metrics available to every colleague involved. This helps ensure that participants can measure and report on their impact. We share credit.
- Support throughout. Throughout planning, creation, and implementation, our communications team and the TTS Diversity Guild supported our employees. Support includes content creation, like design, copy, and video editing, where applicable.
Commitment to Diversity
We at TTS are committed to giving all voices space to be heard. A diverse organization creates a spectrum of solutions and ideas, and helps us challenge status quo thinking. Inside TTS, the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a collective effort: every employee makes a difference.
“The TTS Handbook states that we 'actively work to eliminate bigotry and subtle forms of disrespect (e.g. microaggressions, microinvalidations, etc.) from our workplace.' It is not enough to simply acknowledge the contributions of Black Americans to our nation, within TTS, and beyond. We need to commit to the active disruption of racism, and to promote racial equity and inclusion.”—TTS Executive Director Dave Zvenyach
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