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Is Amazon's diversity problem a Seattle neighborhood problem?

It’s lunch time in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. Employees pour out of Amazon’s headquarters. Ruchika Tulshyan sits on a bench, watching who comes and goes.

Tulshyan is a Seattle author and journalist who covers diversity in the tech industry. “Who do you see, coming out of this building?” I asked her.

“Currently, I’ve seen a group of about, I’d say six – all men – almost everyone in the group is white and probably around the age of 30. So 30, male, white,” said Tulshyan.

A couple groups of white 30-something men later, Tulshyan points out some men of apparent Southeast Asian descent, but warned me not to be fooled into thinking that lets Amazon off the hook. The leadership at Amazon, she said, is overwhelmingly white.

“We see a lot of people of color as support employees, warehouse employees. But when it comes to decision making power, when it come to those big salaries, it goes to white employees,” she said.

Those big salaried employees compete for houses with other people in Seattle, and they reshape those neighborhoods. That’s what happened in North Beacon Hill, a diverse neighborhood where Amazon used to have its Seattle headquarters, before it moved to South Lake Union.

Austin-Monique Subelbia grew up there. She was part of the neighborhood’s strong Filipino American community.

“Our neighbors were more than just people we lived next to, but more like they were close to family. " she said, "I would call some of my neighbors 'auntie' and 'uncle' even if we weren’t related.”

But Subelbia doesn’t work in tech – she works in the restaurant industry. When it came time for her to get a place of her own, she couldn’t afford Beacon Hill. So she had to move out of the city.

“The uprising of white men on Beacon Hill – white men and their families – is changing the dynamic of the hill," said Subelbia. "I think it’s great to have for Seattle to have growth in that way. I’m not sure how I feel about how they are kind of taking over.”

Understanding what’s really happening is complicated. On the one hand, Seattle has grown more diverse recently. But it’s diversifying at a fraction of the rate that King County as a whole is diversifying. Many people of color are sorting themselves into the suburbs.

You can hear more about Amazon on KUOW’s podcast: Primed: What happens when Amazon comes to your town.

Amazon is trying to change things. It’s invested $60 million in programs nationally to develop diverse coding talent. And inside the company, small groups work to represent minority interests.

For example, there's the Black Employee Network at Amazon. We spoke with Mark Hatcher, a member of the group. He described the group as a place where black employees and their allies focus on recruitment and retention of qualified African American candidates. There are other "affinity groups," too.

Even if Amazon’s headquarters isn’t very diverse yet, its warehouses are. Amazon has a program to help pay the college tuition of people who work in fulfillment centers. That could help improve their income potential.

Then there's the nonprofits the company has funded or offered space to, nonprofits from Rainier Scholars to An Amazon spokesperson sent us an extensive list of investments the company has made in a more diverse pipeline, including $10 million for the University of Washington's new Computer Science and Engineering building.

Still, critics say there's much more work the company could do. An informal survey of local nonprofits by email drew faint applause at best for Amazon's philanthropy.

Deena Pierott, founder of iUrban Teen, a group that prepares minority teens for the tech industry, said Amazon can engage grassroots nonprofits much more deeply, as Microsoft has done in recent years. "C'mon Amazon," she said, "you can do better."

“You know, I think that’s kind of an absurd criticism,” said Michael Schutzler. He's with the Washington Technology Industry Association, a trade organization financed by companies including Amazon.

Schutzler acknowledged the tech industry has a diversity problem. But he said it’s not fair to expect Amazon to resolve the problem alone. “This company is just now kind of getting its feet under it,” he said. Schutzler said Amazon needs time to address its diversity issues. “At least they’re making progress,” he said.

Schutzler said the real reason Amazon’s headquarters is so white is that Washington state’s tech pipeline is white. “The reason ours looks the way it does is that our state has been de-funding higher education for 25 straight years.”

Now Amazon is looking to bring 50,000 employees to its second headquarters. Schutzler said cities that want to retain their diversity, even if they win that prize, need to take a good look at their state education system.

Because Amazon can’t fix that.

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