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More than 70 employees at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy say it needs to change how it deals with race

Workers at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative ask: “What side of history will this organization be on moving forward?”

Mark Zuckerberg onstage with Chris Christie and Cory Booker.
Mark Zuckerberg has been trying to do something about education in America since 2010, when he dedicated $100 million to fixing Newark’s schools.
Charles Sykes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

More than 70 employees at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy are calling for significant internal change at the organization to combat systemic racism. It’s a rare display of activism inside the walls of a major charity.

Dozens of people who work on the education team at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are asking Zuckerberg and his co-CEO, his wife Priscilla Chan, to commit to 12 changes that will make the philanthropy more inclusive as it spends millions to reform the American education system. The proposals run the gamut from boosting the number of black leaders in CZI’s management ranks to assembling an advisory group of people from historically marginalized backgrounds to advise CZI on its priorities.

But the real significance of the letter is that 74 people who work for Zuckerberg — 60 of whom are on CZI’s education team — are attaching their names to the public document, braving possible consequences. Bottom-up activism is extremely rare in the world of philanthropy, even though is it becoming less so in Silicon Valley more broadly.

“We acknowledge the impactful work that CZI has done recently, from our grants work to our industry-leading diversity stats. But the deeper needs of this organization remain unaddressed — our call to action is for leadership to work directly with employees to address and implement the following,” the employees wrote in the letter obtained by Recode. “Given that we are the technologists working with subject matter experts in this space, the bar of responsibility is high on our end to ensure what we design is not excluding people. What side of history will this organization be on moving forward?”

About a quarter of CZI’s leadership are from any underrepresented group. Raymonde Charles, a spokesperson for CZI’s education team, said that while “racial equity is already a focus of some of our work” — such as its efforts to boost the diversity of students who enter the sciences or its grants to certain diverse groups — CZI was “committed to expanding beyond these efforts.”

“We welcome feedback from our team members and have worked hard to create a safe environment for employees to make their voices heard,” Charles said. “We’re proud of the many CZI employees who have raised their hands in recent weeks to help in this new call to action.”

The letter, delivered to CZI leadership on Tuesday, comes about 10 days after a group of CZI-backed scientists — who, unlike these signatories, are not employed by CZI — sent Zuckerberg and Chan a letter protesting how Facebook has not taken any actions against President Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts on its platform. The scientists said that allowing Trump to speak without proper fact-checking or moderation, especially when his posts are misleading or imply threats of violence, was “antithetical” to CZI’s mission. Zuckerberg and Chan responded a few days later in a letter also obtained by Recode, in which they reiterated Facebook’s policies but said they were personally “disgusted” by Trump’s rhetoric on race.

A small handful of CZI employees signed the scientists’ letter, too, but the letter delivered on Tuesday amounts to a far greater statement.

Zuckerberg has been a committed education reformer dating back to his infamous $100 million investment in Newark’s public school system, which has largely been judged as a failure. CZI’s current education projects include work like Summit Learning, a technology platform for personalized learning.

Other requests raised in the CZI employees’ letter include performing an audit of Summit’s curriculum to find possible ways to make it more culturally sensitive, standing up a process to review how CZI education products affect marginalized people, and to hold every team “accountable for an equity goal the same way we do for quality.”

“We, the signatories of this letter, are calling for direct action,” the letter concludes. “Show us you’re listening. Take decisive action now.”

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