OAKLAND, Calif. — Asked what message he’d like to send the technology industry, Jesse Williams leans back in his chair and pauses for a moment to reflect.
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“Stop excluding black people,” he replies.
Williams, famous for his role as Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, isn’t one to pull punches. The actor, who raised his voice in Ferguson, Mo., And Flint, Mich., And who delivered a searing indictment of police brutality and racial oppression at the BET Awards, is unapologetic about using his star power to fight racial injustice. And these days, he’s training that activism on the world of apps and games.
“The con around this word diversity is that it’s an additive thing. It’s a burden. It’s a new thing that you have to add. You are already doing the action. The action is excluding us,” Williams, 36, told USA TODAY in an interview. “We all need chances, access and opportunity. So you can start there.”.
Dressed all in black, Williams is relaxing at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland, a 1920s lodge overlooking Lake Merritt, before headlining an event put on by the Kapor Center to honor people fighting for greater representation of people of color in the tech industry. At Facebook, 3% of employees are black. At Google, it’s 2%.
“I view this as an opportunity,” Williams says, “to lead by example, to try and pave a way and knock on and down some doors.”.
He’s starting by modeling the kind of inclusion the tech industry only talks about, building technology that is by black people and for everyone.
He’s behind Ebroji, an interactive keyboard with GIFs featuring people of all races and gender identities, and BLeBRiTY, a pop-culture charades game where you pick categories such as “Things Bougie Black Folks Love” or “Celebrities Only Black Folks Know.” A new game is coming out soon, he says. And he’s proud of his advocacy as a board member for Scholly, a mobile app that connects students to millions of dollars in scholarships that are not claimed each year.
“Our team has noticed a real dearth in the market for black gaming in particular,” Williams says, though he’s quick to say he’s not interested in building just another gaming company.
“We are about narrative. We are about culture. And we are about controlling our images in media,” he says.
Williams’ activism sets him apart from celebrities in sports and entertainment who’ve been drawn in greater numbers to the digital world in recent years. Like the others, he relishes being challenged by a new craft on the cutting edge of business. But the foray from acting into tech is also an extension of this former Philadelphia school teacher’s social justice work.
In Ferguson, Williams protested alongside activists and community members after a policeman killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. He raised money and awareness at the #JusticeForFlint charity event for the citizens in Michigan whose water supply has been contaminated by high levels of lead. He sits on the board of the Advancement Project, a human rights group, and has produced documentaries about the Black Lives Matter movement and about the student achievement gap and school-to-prison pipeline.
“It’s sad, but while everybody else is spending their life doing what they want, we have to spend our lives dedicated to campaigning for humanity in our own lives,” Williams says.
What thrust Williams’ social justice efforts into the heated and divisive debate over race in America was his five-minute speech in 2016 while accepting a BET humanitarian award, where he addressed the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd, all black people who died in confrontations with the police, and described white culture “burying black people out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil — black gold.”.
Thousands signed a Change.Org petition demanding that Williams be fired from his Grey’s Anatomy gig for “inappropriate, unprofessional and racist commentary against police officers and Caucasians.” But supporters far outnumbered critics, and series creator Shonda Rhimes made it clear Williams wasn’t going anywhere. Ultimately, the remarks handed him an even larger national platform for his advocacy.
Williams notes the Internet, too, has heavily mined black culture.
“Black communication style, trends, behavior, speech patterns, dances, fashion are the cutting edge and are at the forefront of culture in this country, yet we don’t own anything, we don’t operate anything, we don’t employ anyone,” he said.
That’s what Williams is determined to change. What if black people designed the apps and games of the future?
“I assembled a group of smart, interesting, creative people around me and decided: Let’s just do this and stop waiting for the middle man, stop waiting for white America or corporate America … To validate our culture and sell it back to us,” he says.
Part of the challenge he has set out for himself: normalizing blackness in tech. So expect to see more of Williams in tech circles and events. Last week, he accepted a Webby Award presented by music producer Swizz Beatz. And this week he addressed this tech gathering just miles from the headquarters of Facebook, Google and Apple.
African Americans and Hispanics still make up half of the residents in this historically working-class city with deep cultural roots in social justice, the arts and music, which is being swept up in a wave of gentrification spilling over from San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech.
From their home base here in Oakland, tech veterans Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein are pushing the industry to reverse decades-old patterns of exclusion and open up opportunities for more women and people of color in the nation’s fastest-growing, highest-paying industry.
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On Thursday night, their organization handed out awards to Google.Org’s Justin Steele, whose grants are supporting organizations that break down barriers to access in tech; Claire Shorall, who started the computer science program at Oakland Unified School District, one of the nation’s most diverse school districts; Monica Ann Arrambide, founder of Maven Youth, which creates tech career pathways for LGBTQ youth; and Idalin Bobé of TechActivist.Org, which provides tech education to working class youth.
Genius, the Kapors are fond of saying, is evenly distributed across zip codes but opportunity is not. They’re determined to break that pattern in their lifetime, and Williams shares their ambition.
“Black folks like to play games, too. We gather at the house, it ain’t no crime. We’re just trying to eat and have a good time.”.
He stops and smiles. “That wasn’t intentionally rhyming,” Williams laughs. “That’s not another job I am going to take on.”.
Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn on Twitter @jguynn.