Editor’s note: This is part of series of stories from WRAL TechWire focusing on the calls to action by African American executives in the Research Triangle technology sector following the death of George Floyd.
RALEIGH – Early in her career, Katie Gailes spent 27 years rising through the ranks of tech giant IBM. Later, she moved into the public sector working at the NC Rural Economic Development Center, coaching aspiring entrepreneurs in the state’s rural counties on how to start their own businesses.
These days, she serves as director of Wake Technical Community College’s Entrepreneurship Initiatives aimed at making at entrepreneurship education and information more accessible to each of Wake Tech’s roughly 30,000 curriculum students. She also runs her own small business consulting firm.
As a black woman and entrepreneur herself, she has spent her entire career fighting for equal access and opportunity for all, and sees the events of the past week as a “boiling over of grief, frustration and anger” in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.
Like other African American business leaders in the Triangle, she is calling for change. These are her personal opinions and do not reflect the official sentiments of her employer, Wake Technical Community College. You can find those here.
- What is your view on the ground here in the Triangle?
What we are seeing is pent-up pressure, a boiling over of grief, frustration, and anger caused by the two recent murders and one attempted murder of unarmed black men — Ahmad Aubery shot by two white men for jogging; George Floyd the death of the hands of four police officers for allegedly possessing a counterfeit $20; and Amy Cooper’s attempted murder-by-cop of Christian Cooper for asking her to obey the law and leash her dog. It’s everywhere, and that’s why there are protests here in Raleigh, around the country, and around the world. Everybody is seeing it.
I mean, just think about the number of incidents we have had here in the Triangle. And think about over 20 men with guns just a couple of weeks ago that were protesting against business closing and walking towards the state capitol in Raleigh. No police and military gear. No tear gas at those white men with guns. Contrast that to the shooting by police of Javier Torres in March. So, I guarantee you, if 20 black men with guns were walking anywhere, immediately you would have the police and riot gear, breaking up the crowd because they’re “dangerous.” We see that with black and brown people who are walking in a group, even if they’re not armed. So just look at that contrast.
- What can be done on a local level to affect change?
I often question who we hire in local law enforcement, and how we hire them. Clearly we are not holding law enforcement to the highest high ethical standard.
There must be a cultural shift in law enforcement, away from the militaristic perspective and more towards a culture of community service and servant leadership. Police officers cannot be more in love with their costume, complete with badge, gun, and baton, than they are in serving the community.
What we’re talking about is a cultural change. And in this case, culture will have to push policy because, in my opinion, history has shown that our political machine lacks the will to make permanent change without that push.
The CEO of Bank of America issued a statement [condemning George Floyd’s death], which was beautiful. But it’s so easy to make those statements. And of course, everybody’s making statements right now. It’s good that they’re making the statements, but it needs to be followed up with action. So, when I saw that statement, I said, well, this is wonderful, but what’s happening at Bank of America? What are the diversity numbers in Bank of America? And the culture? I know Bank of America gives a lot of money to nonprofits for racial sensitivity training and equality training. But what I’d say is writing the check is actually easier than making the cultural changes within organizations.
- Do you feel this is a watershed moment? If so, why?
This is a watershed moment for many reasons: All of the protesters are not black. This indicates a level of awareness that has not existed since white people marched in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in voter registration drives in the deep South.
Many members of the law enforcement profession, from the police officers on the street to Chiefs-of-Police, have been willing to break the blue-wall-of-silence and condemn the action of officer Derek Chauvin and the inaction of the other three police officers in the murder of George Floyd. I am grateful for their courage. I believe this is the first step towards a change in an underlying culture from an to-intimidate-and-to-harm attitude to what it is supposed to be: to-protect-and-to-serve.
There were protests in over 25 other countries this past weekend. The world is recognizing the human and civil rights abuses against black and brown people in the US; abuses that we often condemn in other countries. Can America look in the mirror? Is America appalled and embarrassed enough to make change? Are we willing to forfeit any position on human rights abuses in any other part of the world?
- Where do we go from here?
We do not have a black problem or a white problem. We have an American problem that is rooted in America’s brutal history of slavery and mistreatment of all non-whites.
So, we cannot continue to treat the symptoms as they flare up. We need something that attacks this disease at its root cause. America was founded on an image of white supremacy and domination. That is why the mass murder of millions of this continent’s indigenous people was acceptable. That is why enslavement of over 12 million Africans was acceptable. That is why the mass abuse of Chinese people to build the US rail system was acceptable. That is why the Japanese concentration camps were acceptable. Until white people recognize what is happening as an American problem, it will not change.
If 12 percent of the US population is African American, that means 88 percent of the US population is not. So how do we make change unless the number of people who care about that change and are willing to take action goes up? It can’t be just the 12 percent of us.
Because of our history in this country, of slavery and racism and segregation, we still have vestiges of that in all of our institutions. In a lot of our practices, they’ve almost become subconscious. If people don’t see themselves being affected by this, how will change happen? As human beings, we tend to forget, after a while, something that’s not impacting us.
Change has to start internally. People have to ask the tough questions: am I a participant and furthering this? Am I ignoring this because it does not affect me directly? Have I seen inequity and injustice and didn’t say anything about it because it wasn’t aimed at me? Have I seen unfairness is my circle? When I look around my circle, do they all look exactly like me? If we are insular in the way that we run our lives, how will we ever be able to empathize?
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