On human rights and the duplicity of business

Access to healthcare is simply a human right. We have the opportunity to create tools for positive change.
4 minute read

Performative social impact capitalism

There is a rise of organizations choosing to use Pride and Black Lives Matter logo variations on their websites, while leaving their power to enact real positive change on the table. The internal messaging is often that it is important to the business to toe a moderate political line, but unironically highlight the increase in sales that their Juneteenth marketing campaign had year-over-year at their quarterly reviews.

I have worked at organizations like this. Seeing this performative social impact capitalism informed my decision to focus on projects that improve the welfare and lifestyles of the common good.

What happens behind closed Zoom calls

In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd's murder by Derek Chauvin, my then-employer delivered an "all lives matter" statement internally, believing wholeheartedly that it would calm their traumatized and exhausted Minneapolis workforce without alienating their much more socially conservative ranks. To anyone who had been a part of the protests, who showed up each morning with brooms and trash cans to clean our streets after our community spent long nights demanding justice from our system under threat of violence from out-of-town white extremists and police brutality, this felt deeply unnerving.

The opening keynote video at our customer conference that year used the rubble on the street in my own neighborhood as their backdrop to tell our customers that, despite political turmoil in the city that we're headquartered, we continued to deliver on new products and features. It was clear that the marketing opportunity was too great to pass up, but their interest in our local community was tone deaf.

In a meeting on January 6th, 2021, I was told that I can watch the recording of the insurrection at the US Capitol later on YouTube. The meeting — the business — was more important. Following company-wide pressure to increase workloads and raise prices on our customers despite the already favorable earnings reports, and as the major news outlets shifted away from our protests, the company's meager interest in social causes and the welfare of their workforce faded. I left the job several months later.

On Roe's overturn and the deafening silence of Tech

This month, under the guise of religious righteousness, five people in our highest court have determined that people with uteruses in the United States are no longer entitled to their own life story, that they do not deserve the kinds of protections and autonomy afforded to the other half of the population.

We will see stories about people sent to prison for attempting to terminate a pregnancy in the coming months. Less than 13% of Americans celebrate this cruelty, while half of Congress will block efforts to codify reproductive care into law.

Our most powerful industries have already turned a blind eye. Businesses now have more control over their workforce. In the United States, now more than ever, maintaining a job is now the requirement to spare us not just bankruptcy, but risk of death from the complications of pregnancy. We are at the mercy of the benefits and salaries of the jobs we manage to get. The companies that push against these oppressive rulings are becoming oases, mirroring political effects happening with many major cities in the US.

My previous employer attempted to silence the anguish on their internal Slack with an "all sides matter" message, again out of fear of alienating those few who were decidedly celebrating the overturn, while unwittingly alienating the majority. They issued a mandate to managers to police and shut down the discussions. Silencing and subjugating people for their justifiable anger is not a great look.

What my former co-workers are witnessing is not isolated. Big tech companies are expanding their footprint in the most oppressive states like Florida and Texas, where their political influence could create great change. Instead, they've chosen to invest in union-busting efforts while sending lobbyists to Congress to promote laws that block or slow industry regulation and protect their power to harvest personal data for profit.

Let's change things

Design is political. Business is political. Our decisions now can have ramifications for generations. Human rights cannot be just another seasonal marketing refresh opportunity. Design also has the immense power to change the world for the better. We have the most powerful tools in human history in our pockets to connect people and point them to the resources they need. Tech must choose to take a stance for human rights and the sanctity of the individual.

If you and your organization are working to bring tools to the world that help people seek passage to safe reproductive care, access to safe housing if the nearest provider is too far from home, I want to help. The Court has forced a tremendous burden on us, but we in Tech and Design have an ethical and moral responsibility to ease that as much as possible.

DM me @jshbrtz on Twitter or email me. Let's talk.

Expanded and revised for clarity on July 1st, 2022.

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