Antwone Roberts is a photographer and a music producer.
…And that’s just in his free time. He’s also the full time Deputy Director of PR and Community Engagement at Liberty Hill, a public foundation fighting for social justice across LA County. Whether through Liberty Hill’s new Podcast; Conversations From the Frontlines Real Talk, Real Change with Shane Murphy Goldsmith, or at the largest social justice event in Los Angeles, the Upton Sinclair Homecoming Celebration, Antwone enjoys leveraging his creativity to inspire others to join the fight for social justice.
You might think that balancing all of those hats would be difficult, but for Antwone, pursuing his passions both in his personal life and in his career is crucial to living a fulfilling life. “I love my job, and I love photography, and I love music,” he explains. “I’ve been spending the past few years finding ways to further my career, without neglecting my creative interests.”
Building community is at the heart of all of Antwone’s pursuits and for more than 40 years, Liberty Hill Foundation has cultivated a progressive community in Los Angeles. They leverage the power of community organizers and donor activists to advance social justice across Los Angeles County, funding grassroots organizing that focuses on systemic change.
We sat down with him to learn more about his work at the intersection of communications, community engagement, philanthropy, and social justice. Keep reading for his story— and for tips on how you can make a bigger impact, no matter what your career looks like!
Connection and Community
“Growing up, I had a front row seat to injustice and inequality, and all the things that didn’t work in society,” explains Antwone, so he chose to focus his energy on ways to make a difference in his community. As a student, he volunteered at a local community garden where he engaged with residents, learned how to grow produce, and connected with local farmers markets. He also benefited from the support of grassroots organizations that provided mentorship and a safe haven. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I can see the role that all these different non-profits played on me when I was growing up.”
When it came time to choose a career, Antwone wasn’t sure which direction to go. With so many interests and skills, he took some time to determine which path would allow him to make the most impact. After shuffling through a few different majors, he ultimately chose business marketing and public service, in the hopes of becoming a lawyer.
The coursework helped expose Antwone to different best practices applied to marketing and non-profit work— it’s also what exposed him to the possibility of pursuing a career outside of law.
“During business school, in my small business practicum, where I consulted with different small businesses around the city, I learned that a lot of community organizations were struggling with their marketing,” he explains. So he worked to create social media campaigns to boost engagement and entice people to get involved in not-for-profit initiatives.
After graduating, Antwone decided to take a gap year with AmeriCorps. At the end of his program, he attended a networking event that connected him to his first job at the New York City mayor’s office as an assistant to the former New York City Chief Service Officer, Paula Gavin. Antwone embraced the new challenge and was quickly promoted to Communications and Marketing Manager. “That’s where I found my niche in terms of working with the intersection of communications and community engagement,” he explains. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to marry what I love doing creatively in terms of producing content and storytelling, but for the end goal of getting people civically engaged and inspired to join the fight for social justice.”
The Journey to Liberty Hill
After five years in New York City, Antwone was itching for a change of scenery, so he boxed his record collection, packed his bags and moved across the country to Los Angeles, where he supported himself as a freelance photographer. “I found myself busy with opportunities, but I didn’t feel as impactful as I wanted to be,” says Antwone. That’s why he started volunteering with various local organizations and expanding his network. One organization was Community Coalition, a Liberty Hill grantee founded by Congressmember Karen Bass, which led him to his first full-time job in LA as Deputy Communications Director for LA Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
Antwone’s run in social justice didn’t stop there. “The social justice landscape in Los Angeles is very small,” he explains. “A Power to Fly recruiter reached out. I I asked around my network and heard nothing but great things about Liberty Hill, so I took the opportunity to join the team.”
Now, three months in as the Deputy Director of Communications and PR, Antwone’s able to leverage his personal and professional interests for the greater good of his community. Although he’s new to the organization, he’s already started working with the team to make a bigger impact in LA County.
“This is the first time in my career that I am working with a full communications team, with systems, camaraderie and partnerships where we can support each other and not feel like we’re each working on an island,” he says. Currently, he and the communications team are focusing on highlighting stories from Liberty Hill’s grantee organizations and partners for the Upton Sinclair Homecoming Celebration. “Our work is really about making sure that every win really feels like a win, and that the people who are on the frontlines doing this work feel celebrated, because they so rarely are.”
One of the initiatives at Liberty Hill that Antwone enjoys working on includes transformative justice, focusing on prison reform and ending youth incarceration. Antwone strongly believes in the power of mentorship and highlighting Liberty Hill’s partnerships with Los Angeles-based sports teams and grassroots organizations to support boys and men of color. He’s also working closely with a coalition called Stand LA who, “after years of putting pressure on LA City Council, was able to get oil and gas drilling banned in residential areas– which mainly happen where Black and Latino residents live,” he explains. “So, we organized a press conference to commemorate it and let people know that there are people fighting for your health and well-being”
Making a bigger impact
Antwone loves working in social justice, but he’s also a big believer that you don’t have to have a non-profit career to make a positive impact in your community. “There are lots of ways to fight for social justice, if that’s important to you. Every organization needs volunteers and donations.” He also shared two tips to make the most of your career, no matter what role or industry you’re in:
Be intentional about your yes. “If you're becoming the type of person you want to be, people will always see the value that you bring, whether it's a job opportunity, a friendship, a relationship, or a professional networking situation,” explains Antwone. “But if you're intentional about the impact that you want to make, you have to be very selective about those relationships and opportunities. If it doesn't align with you and the person that you're trying to be, you really have to say no.”
Two out of three isn’t bad. It can be hard to weigh the pros and cons of each new opportunity, so Antwone suggests considering three things: “[When you consider an opportunity and you think about] learning new things, making more money, or gaining new experiences, if you can get two out of three, that’s probably a good opportunity.”
Karen Penn credits her career evolution with her lack of patience.
The former government lawyer found herself appreciative of the chance to shape DEI policy at a Department of Defense component agency. But it was slow going.
“My analogy is trying to turn an aircraft carrier around on a lake. Or now I can say, trying to get the container ship that got stuck in the Suez canal out,” she says, smiling. “It’s hard for me to wait years and years to see change. Particularly when, in the tech industry, there’s opportunity with the right leadership support to make meaningful, quick changes that set the framework for longer-term impact.”
Now, as the Head of DEI at Elastic, a distributed company that powers search solutions, Karen is able to make lasting changes supported by an internal culture of openness, growth, and a commitment to inclusion. With employees in 40 countries and with 100-plus different nationalities, building a DEI approach that scales globally has been an exciting challenge.
We sat down with Karen to hear more about her career path and about how she’s helping to support and evolve organic DEI efforts to serve Elasticians around the world.
A “Recovering Lawyer”
Like many kids, Karen used to love sitting around the dinner table and listening to her dad’s stories from work. Especially since her dad was a judge.
“I was so enthralled by not only his lived experiences as a Black man, but from what he saw happening in the courtroom every day,” she says. “I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to be just like my dad.”
That passion took Karen to law school, where she enjoyed honing her skills in logical analysis, but realized she didn’t want to be taking cases to court as a criminal or corporate lawyer. So after serving as a judicial law clerk, she took a job working for the Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Justice, where she was responsible for ensuring that grant recipients had equal opportunity plans in place and weren’t being discriminatory.
“That really opened my perspective to what happens to folks who face inequality,” she reflects.
After 4 years, she was ready for something with a faster pace. She applied for an in-house role that grew into becoming the Head of HR for a small company.
“I quickly realized that this thing called HR is what I was supposed to be doing,” she says. “HR is really the cultural heartbeat of an organization, where you’re able to create and implement policy and processes that have influence.”
Volunteering during the 2008 election inspired Karen to get back into government work, though, so that’s when she joined the Department of Defense to stand up their DEI recruitment function in the Defense Contract Management Agency.
When her bureaucracy meter had tapped out again, she started working as an HR consultant, embedding in companies that needed short-term help. Her last placement was with Endgame, a cybersecurity firm acquired by Elastic two years ago.
Because of Elastic’s fast-paced growth, says Karen, there was a need for HR talent that understood the tech space and how to support an inclusive culture in a distributed company. She stepped up and joined the company’s senior HR leadership team, where she currently runs the company’s DEI efforts and their CSR program, Elastic Cares.
“My experiences growing up as a Black woman, hearing stories about inequality and discrimination and experiencing my own, learning about it in undergrad and law school studies, and seeing it at the justice department, it fueled everything I do,” says Karen of her path. “It’s all about equality.”
Solidifying Organic Efforts
Shortly after Karen became part of the Elastic team, George Floyd’s murder sent shockwaves across the U.S. and also across the globe.
At that point in time, Karen describes Elastic’s DEI efforts as “good folks being good, but no cohesive approach.” Organic communities had formed on Slack, bringing together Black employees, LGBTQIA+ employees, and women who worked at Elastic to talk about their shared experiences.
Karen’s first step was to reshape the conversation around DEI as a company. She launched a newsletter that explored the nuance of representation at work, leaning on her lawyer background to explain the difference between quotas (illegal!) and good-faith hiring targets, for instance.She also helped expand Elastic Cares, Elastic’s approach to CSR, to include direct links to DEI efforts. For example, Elastic Cares hosts quarterly sessions featuring nonprofits (NPOs), sourced in collaboration with 7 employee resource groups (ERGs), that have explored intersectional anti-discrimination, underrepresentation in tech, among others. Employees are encouraged to use 40 hours of volunteer time off to support NPOs of their choosing (Karen herself works with a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees); they are also encouraged to utilize a $1,500 (or the equivalent in local currency) gift matching budget to causes they care about, and/or nominate charities for free Elastic cloud clusters through the NPO Granting Program.
“Rolling Elastic Cares under the broader DEI effort gave us a vehicle for when folks say, ‘What can I do to help be part of the solution?’” says Karen.
A Global, Distributed Approach to DEI
The Elastic community responded well to Karen’s early DEI efforts. But Karen realized that what resonated with the U.S. team might not translate perfectly to employees in other countries.
“When you have a global organization, it’s really important that you’re not talking only about representation of African Americans, because that’s not going to translate to someone in Poland or Israel,” she says.
To help with that, Karen has focused on a broad definition of what diversity means. “It’s cognitive, it’s language, it’s learning style; it’s limitless,” she says.
As Elastic’s DEI efforts scale globally, Karen leans on the company’s Source Code, or a set of shared ideas that all employees are building towards. Part of the Source Code reads as follows:
Our products are distributed by design, our company is distributed by intention. With many languages, perspectives, and cultures, it’s easy to lose something in translation. Over email and chat, doubly so. Until we get a perpetual empathy machine, don’t assume malice.
A distributed Elastic makes for a diverse Elastic, which makes for a better Elastic.
That idea, says Karen, is manifested in a new practice called “Respect the Pause, and Pause and Explain.” It describes an approach to dealing with awkward interactions around the topic of DEI that can be partially attributed to cultural differences, and gives employees a procedure for exploring those topics while still assuming positive intent.
Karen is also leveraging ERGs to better support employees around the globe, including efforts to offer more expansive options for self-identification and ensuring that every ERG has cross-regional representation and diverse executive sponsorship.
Commitment to Evolution
Elastic hosts an annual global conference called Elasticon. At the last two events, Karen was pleased to see managers around the globe talking about managing within a DEI framework, unprompted.
“Before it was always HR talking about it, and now I’ve seen more leadership and senior management incorporating this into their day-to-day,” she says. “Employees are asking more, and the asks are more complex and they’re more frequent, which is great.”
Karen and her HR peers know that Elastic isn’t done addressing DEI—they’re just getting started.
But she’s excited to keep building.
“We’ve got a long way to go. We have some managers who are already doing this, and others that aren’t yet, that say, ‘Oh, I don’t have time for that,’” she says. “But it’s our position that you have to make time, because we cannot achieve the performance that we desire without incorporating this into everything we say and do.”