“I come to this work understanding that justice is a long game.”
In 2016, Airbnb found itself at the center of multiple news reports surrounding claims of discrimination on the peer-to-peer home sharing platform. After a group of Harvard University researchers found that it is more difficult for some Black people to rent rooms through the site and many people of color publicly accused hosts of discriminating against them because of their race, with one even filing a federal law suit, the company, whose motto is “Belong Anywhere” faced a serious and very public dilemma—now what?
Airbnb responded with promises to address this very serious issue with haste and care and took action. The company hired a team of experts to address their users’ concerns and asked influential national civil liberties and civil rights activist Laura Murphy to serve at the helm of their efforts. Courting Murphy for the job made sense. Murphy is now president of Laura Murphy & Associates, but she served as the Director of the ACLU legislative office for 17 years, where she worked tirelessly to advance criminal justice reform and free speech legislation. Her work with the ACLU saw her on the front lines of fights for LGBT rights, women’s reproductive rights and Internet privacy, which brought her to testify before Congress and the White house more than a dozen times. Murphy has also been honored for her significant contributions to legislation that directly addressed the needs of minorities in the United States.
As the senior advisor to Airbnb, Murphy was tasked with helping the company to update its anti-discrimination policies and tackle race relations on their popular international platform. Before agreeing to join the team, she looked carefully into the company’s background and the issues they faced. “I wanted to make sure that we could go deep and that it wasn't just a superficial method of treating a very serious problem,” Murphy tells ESSENCE. After signing on to the project, she led a 90-day review process, which culminated in the release of a 32-page report released in September 2016 titled Airbnb’s Work To Fight Discrimination and Build Inclusion. The report broke down, in detail, the steps the company planned to take to confront discrimination on their platform, which included updating their policies to reflect better ways to allow users to report and escalate incidences of discrimination and a new anti-discrimination contract it now makes all hosts and guests sign. Airbnb hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in July to help craft the new policy.
While there has been a lot of talk surrounding Airbnb’s efforts to resolve the issues users have with discrimination on the platform, and the reactions (both positive and negative) from people of color to the company’s progress thus far, the spotlight has yet to turn to the detailed and passionate work Murphy is doing to help the company and to support users of color in ways that will have long-term effects. ESSENCE sat down with Murphy to discuss Airbnb’s efforts, the fight for civil rights in a digital world, and the pace and hurdles surrounding social change today.
How did you decide to work with Airbnb on combatting discrimination on their platform?
Well, I care about what's going on in the digital world. I think this is the new frontier of activism, and I think it's important that we understand that a lot of the laws that we pass, civil rights laws, didn't really conceive of the shared economy. I thought it was an opportunity to be creative, but let me back up a little bit — I had to first establish that the folks at Airbnb were serious because I spent my whole life in civil rights and civil liberties. I have a reputation and I did not want to be a part of an effort that was disingenuous. I didn't have a need to do this work. I was asked to do this work.
What happened once you agreed to sign on and lead their efforts?
I met with the company executives and Brian Chesky, the CEO, and I remember that he looked at me intently and said, “We cannot be true to our mission of ‘belong anywhere’ if we have a discrimination problem.” It was clear to me that he really wanted to get into this and figure out how to address it. He was the first one to admit that three young white guys from Silicon Valley, when they created Airbnb, weren't steeped in the world of race relations or discrimination and they were out of their league here. They tried to handle it in their own way but they didn't succeed at first, and so, they understood that they had to bring in somebody with some expertise. I was given wide latitude to look at all aspects of the company.
What was that process like?
I encountered a lot of enthusiasm from the executives and from the Black employees at Airbnb and I thought it was important that they be brought in. I thought it was important that the civil rights leaders talk directly to the company's leadership and that they weren't talking past each other; they were talking to each other. It was really an amazing process.
How do you feel about the progress you’ve made together thus far and what are you looking forward to in the future?
I think tremendous progress has been made. Not only has the new anti-discrimination policy been made into a core provision of the platform, but the company has also asked people to make an anti-discrimination commitment. That's being rolled out too. Pretty soon there will be experiments on the platform in reducing the prominence of discrimination—within a year, everybody at Airbnb will have received anti-bias and implicit bias training. There is a whole new protocol on the customer service desk where people who are much more deeply trained in anti-discrimination will receive the complaints instead of them going into a large bowl of customer service agents. There is an Open Doors policy that assures the people who have complaints of discrimination get heightened level of treatment in terms of helping them find a place.
You’ve accomplished quite a bit in a short amount of time. How do you feel about the pace of progress?
It was pretty amazing. We met every single day. This was really a kind of shoulder to the wheel effort that I've only encountered a couple of times in my life, like in political campaigns, and after the World Trade Center bombing when we were working 24/7. It was a very serious effort. I think we were very practical about what was doable and what wasn't. I feel good about the implementation effort.
What’s new and what’s next?
Some of the things we agreed to haven't been tried before. Airbnb has created this team of technologists who will constantly run experiments on the platform to see whether the programs are working and reducing discrimination. That to me is like what John Kennedy did in calling together lawyers in the middle of the 20th century to deal with the civil rights issues. We're here in the middle of the 21st century, the scientists and the engineers and the data people are the ones being called in to help deal with the civil rights crisis of the technological era and I just think that that's really groundbreaking.
A lot of critics of the platform’s efforts thus far still believe there should be more done and the changes announced so far are not enough. What would you say to those critics?
I think if it were easy to solve discrimination, somebody would have solved it by now. That's my first reaction. I think in a movement for justice and equality, it's very useful to have impatient people out there raising hell, saying “hurry up”, “more”, “do better”….”sooner.” The thing is, you have to have people in the middle, like me, who say okay, let's do this but let's see what's effective, what's practical, who we can help short term and who we can help in the long term. There's a role for everybody across the political spectrum who cares about justice to do something. I'm not mad at those people who want to keep Airbnb’s feet to the fire. People are critical. They have a right to be. In fact, I would defend their first amendment right all of their lives. But, let's get it done. Let's implement it. Let's test it. These things take time.
Do you believe Airbnb’s launch of Experiences will help with race relations on the platform?
Yes. Even though we have these technologies like Facebook, Twitter and Uber, and all these things bringing us together, they don't necessarily put us in human contact. I’m excited because I think that human beings hunger for face to face social contact and this kind of gets to the challenges we've had with all of these unit based innovations. The people may be more connected, but they don't necessary feel closer. When you are in somebody's space and you break bread together or you travel around and spend time together that is a totally different connecting experience. It's deeper. I think this really is going to help connect humanity and kind of bridge some gaps.
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
I was raised in a political family and can-do family in Baltimore. There were 14 runs for public office in my immediate family. Only two were successful. My parents were activists and engaged in the community. They always had this sunny optimism about them even when things were bad because they just believed in people and they believed in themselves. That kind of optimism has fueled my career. My father's side of the family owns the African American newspaper that is going into it's 125th year. It's one of the two continuously running Black newspapers in the US. The beauty coming from that family is that we were very connected to our history.
How has that upbringing shaped your perspective on social justice?
I come to this work understanding that justice is a long game. Some things happen in your lifetime, some things don't happen in your lifetime, and you've got to be committed for the long term in order to see change materialize. If you want instant satisfaction, this is not the field for you.
How do you practice self-care in such a heavy line of work?
After the election, I watched the news and then I cut off the phone and the newspaper and the television for a couple of days and did art because that strengthens me. It’s also important to be around loving, caring people. Plus, I meditate. I'm also an artist.