Rev. Jesse Jackson has had his eye on Silicon Valley for a long time. The civil rights activist and former presidential candidate has been a critic of hiring practices in the tech industry since the dot-com bubble of the 1990s.
While he's not ready to call off the fight, in comments at the Capital Connections Conference in Oakland, California, Thursday, Jackson said he has seen a productive shift in the conversation about including marginalized groups in the tech work force.
"The conversation is beginning to open up," he said in a second-floor hallway of the Kaiser Center, after leaving an auditorium where he delivered scheduled remarks as part of the conference hosted by the nonprofit Alliance for Community Development.
The conference focused on the role of Oakland, a city that has historically been largely black, in the Bay Area tech economy, and on promoting diversity among startups and established tech companies.
Surrounded by a handful of tech and nonprofit workers who had followed him out of the auditorium, he cited Apple CEO Tim Cook's willingness to attribute responsibility for lack of diversity to executive management in tech. Cook wrote in a 2014 letter that he was not satisfied with the level of diversity at Apple, and in 2015, he told a group of Apple Worldwide Developer Conference scholarship recipients that lack of women in tech was "our fault."
"'Our' meaning the whole tech community," Cook said, according to Mashable. "I think in general we haven't done enough to reach out and show young women that it's cool to do it and how much fun it can be." Jackson's activist organization, RainbowPUSH, owns stock in Apple and other tech companies, and regularly meets with those companies to discuss issues such as diversity.
Jackson said he believed tech companies should turn to Oakland to mine for talent rather than relying on recruiting from abroad. "Oakland can be the land of promise," he said. "Oakland should be the model, the training ground."
Enhancements in tech education can help the city and area tech companies ensure diverse talent connects with job opportunities. Addressing controversies over issues of gentrification in Oakland over the past few years, as tech companies expand--Uber's plan to open an Oakland office in 2017 has been a lightning-rod issue for housing activists concerned about rising rent--Jackson said safeguards were needed.
"We must fight for housing laws to protect the poor from being devoured by the rich," he said.
Prior to answering questions in the hallway, Jackson gave a talk in which he framed access to capital--tech capital in particular--as the fourth stage of the civil rights movement. The prior stages were emancipation, desegregation, and voting rights. In past statements, Jackson has described the stages through the metaphor of movements in a symphony.
African Americans and other marginalized communities "must be as vigilant in fighting for access to capital" as they were in fighting for their rights to vote, Jackson said in a soft voice from the podium in the auditorium.
Such a fight could entail picketing and boycotting, he told the audience, which included a number of startup and nonprofit employees and executives who focus their efforts on promoting inclusion of people of color and LGBTQ employees in tech, "but it does require a fight. Talent alone is not enough."
"You are to the tech industry what Alabama was to denying the right to vote," he said.