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Facebook’s Associate General Counsel For Civil Rights, Julie Wenah, Reveals The Journey Of Healing That Led To Her New Position

As recently as 2017, 1 in 4 Black Americans reported having experienced some form of online harassment as a result of their race or ethnicity. Since this Pew Research Center survey, many social media platforms have been called out for their lack of oversight and action on behalf of certain online communities, leading to widespread safety concerns, low trust, and tarnished brand identity. Coming from Airbnb where similar issues were presented, civil rights and tech lawyer Julie Wenah, has taken the responsibility of addressing comparable pain points at Facebook. 

Accepting the role as Associate General Counsel for Civil Rights, Wenah uses her impressive background and personal expertise to lead a wide-range of teams focusing on the development and impact of the social media giant’s myriad products. Providing guidance on how to responsibly build systems meant to protect the rights of historically marginalized communities, Wenah plays a key role in supporting Facebook’s ongoing efforts to thoughtfully innovate both their platform and industry.

“My primary goal is to help product teams anticipate potential civil rights harms in products and help effectively mitigate those risks,” Wenah noted. I had the pleasure of speaking with the global civil rights, privacy, and product inclusion lawyer shortly before announcing her move to Facebook. Mentioning the role with much enthusiasm, Wenah recognizes the impact of the work she’ll be doing and is enthusiastic about its implications. “I left my former company where we were serving millions, and now at Facebook, I get to serve billions,” she explained of the exponential increase of her reach. After previously working as a legal fellow at NASA, counseling teams studying microbial molecular changes in microgravity, and later with the Obama Administration leading the former President’s manufacturing communities’ agenda, Wenah remains dedicated to connecting people and building community no matter where her career takes her.   

On A Mission To Heal The World

Helping to instill civil rights best practices within the company under the leadership of Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Civil Rights, Roy Austin, the proactive and reactive work Wenah does to identify and address civil rights issues at Facebook mirrors that of her past contributions as Community Senior Counsel and Acting Africa Regional Counsel at Airbnb. It was there that Wenah happily worked for nearly 4 years, counseling product teams across continents on understanding varied experiences to realistically create equity, and pushing for an increase in transparency on how the brand handled discriminatory claims. These targeted efforts contributed to the incorporation of some of the the app’s most notable innovations, including its ‘Profile Photo Removal’ feature and Project Lighthouse – a first of its kind privacy-centric method shared with, recognized and revered by the tech industry, helping to eliminate disparities in how BIPOC experience Airbnb’s products.

 “My job [is] to make sure that organizations and companies that are building what the future will look like, are as inclusive as possible,” Wenah started. From constructing self-driving cars with inclusive signals meant to keep darker-skinned people safe from fatal accidents due to inherent bias, to making sure people with disabilities in need of screen reader capabilities are considered during the design stage, Wenah has never shied away from her moral obligation to advocate and create for those typically pushed to the margins. As one of few product inclusion lawyers (aka civil-rights-in-tech or in-product lawyer) with a broad industry to engage with, Wenah says her personal mission is centered around healing, a journey she’s been on for decades. 

A Way Around A Devastating Disturbance

In her career and personal passions, building with protected classes in mind has always been an ingrained ideal for Wenah. The daughter of Nigerian-American parents, her father was a student and worked at a newspaper company to earn a livable wage in order to support his wife and unborn child. However, as Wenah recounted, this good faith measure would land her father in hot water and her family in limbo.

“This is the job that he did to take care of my mom when she was pregnant with me,” she said. “And because it was a violation of his student visa, [ICE] deported him.” For years, Wenah watched her mother, even when she herself had difficulty dealing with the trauma of the incident, painstakingly manage a stable upbringing for her and her sister while her father helped from afar. Having been discovered in a sweep sent to their house for a different person entirely, her father’s deportation and its devastating effects on her family later helped guide Wenah’s academic choices. 

Attending Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, Wenah found herself inspired to hold the school’s first ever Women’s Empowerment Conference. “I’m one of those people who feels like, if I’m in a city for school or work, I have a responsibility to [the] community,” she explained. Upon receiving moving feedback from multiple attendees off the event’s diverse guest list, Wenah knew she’d been transformed into the change agent she is today. “It was at that moment I realized, ‘Wow, you can create something and bring people together and [they] can be healed.’” 

When Coloring Inside The Lines No Longer Creates The Perfect Picture

Later enrolling at Texas Southern University to earn her JD and Masters in Public Administration, Wenah was already on the path to fixing what she saw as a flawed system when the petition for her father’s return was granted. “As a child, I was taught to do the right thing,” she began. “If you do the right thing, if you keep your head down, if you work hard, read more, you will advance. I was taught that there was a formulaic way to success and to escape poverty,” Wenah concluded. After two decades of separation and finally reunited, Wenah found that coloring in the lines had worked, taking up a role at the White House with Former First Lady Michelle Obama, hoping to make her father proud. But within months of his arrival, her plans drastically changed.

“While I was working for [Mrs. Obama], I got the call that he was sick,” said Wenah. “I came back home, slept in the hospital with him for a week, and he was diagnosed with stage four cancer.” A self-described mathematician, Wenah says her mind went straight into problem-solving mode. “Graduation is in a month,” she recalled. “I’m going to graduate. I’m going to take the bar exam and I’m going to get a job and I’ll pay for chemo, and he’ll be healed,” said Wenah of her initial thought process. However, after both graduating and taking the bar, on day one of a new role for Mrs. Obama, Wenah received the grave news that her father had lost his battle with cancer.

“My father died before I could even get a paycheck to pay for chemo,” she shared. It was in this moment Wenah learned how going against the status quo could oftentimes lead to better outcomes. “Coloring outside of the lines in that situation would have been not taking a bar, spending time with him, recording him, learning more about my history, speaking more of my native tongue with him,” explained Wenah of what she could’ve done differently in the wake of her father’s diagnosis. 

A New Body Of Work

Still grieving her father’s loss, Wenah found herself comforted and inspired by Preparing My Daughter For Rain, author Key Ballah’s collection of poetry. Wenah states the book quickly changed her outlook on purpose and healing, ultimately influencing the work she currently does outside of the executive suite. 

“I recognize that all of us are moving in this world with different experiences that make us who we are,” declared Wenah. These experiences, she says, are paramount to figuring out our purpose and leading fulfilled lives that leave the world in a properly functioning state. Founding the creative collective, The Album & The Mixtape, Wenah’s helped thousands tap into their creativity to define their purpose and design their lives according to what they discover. Through community and comprehensive content, Wenah is helping a new generation of dreamers, doers, storytellers, and music lovers transform their lives and the world around them.

Leaving Airbnb for more challenging work after feeling in her gut it was time to go, Wenah credits both her faith and femininity as the greatest guides to her life and career. With the sharing of her story and all she does to support women in tech, the Women In Product Board member asserts that leaders can find power in their vulnerability and hopes to see more women with similar ideals serving in leadership roles in the near future. “Building products that shape our world is not a spectator sport” she asserted. “Frankly, things are better when women are at the table driving, leading, and being part of the development process.”

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