Black History Month is not only a reminder to learn and celebrate the rich history of the Black community, it’s also a reminder that if we don’t intentionally practice inclusion and allyship every day, history is bound to repeat itself.

Many of us have witnessed painful evidence of this through institutionalized discrimination, deliberate exclusion, and violence against vulnerable communities.

It can feel overwhelming to find ways to practice everyday inclusion and drive meaningful change — in our homes, our communities, and at work.

What are we empowered to do and what are we equipped to do? 

Cisco’s purpose is to power an inclusive future for all, and we practice a culture of inclusive language as part of our Social Justice Actions. It’s as simple as avoiding the use of harmful language. Or as complex as breaking down the nuances of diverse cultural experiences and perspectives.

Ultimately, we show our allyship with the words we use and our intention behind them. Check out Cisco’s approach to inclusive language.

I’m so proud to lead a team of advocates driving this important work. Two of them play key roles in our Innovation and Emerging Technology organizations: Brianna Gilchrist and Jerome Sanders.

In addition to being advocates for inclusive language at Cisco and beyond, they share their personal stories around language and belonging.

Bridging the gap

A photo of a young woman smiling at the camera
Brianna is a Software Engineer in Innovation Labs based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Brianna Gilchrist, grew up in a small town surrounded by family and friends who looked and sounded like her. It wasn’t until she started attending college at Kennesaw State University near Marietta, Georgia, that she became aware of others acting differently or choosing language that sometimes made her uncomfortable.

As one of only a handful of black women studying software engineering, she says, “I think there was a lack of awareness by other students about language, and that sometimes led to a disconnect and my feelings of not belonging.”

“While completing a group project for one of my classes, I found that I was one of two Black people on my team, and the only woman. Throughout the semester, we’d meet outside of class weekly to work on our project,” Brianna adds. As this project progressed, I started to grow uncomfortable with some members of my team referring to the only Black people in the group as a collective: ‘you people.’”

She recalls, “There was also this strange expectation that my only role on the team was documentation, and the coding was to be left to the men on the team. When we tried to speak up about the language use and expectations, it soured the group dynamic, as they felt that we were being overly sensitive.”

Brianna is happy that through her work she can help bridge those gaps by having important conversations with other professionals about word choice and making a difference in how language is used.

“My hope is that we will continue to be a catalyst for change throughout our work and projects, and we will remain persistent as leaders for inclusivity and diversity within Cisco and our community.”

Inviting bold conversations

A photo of a smiling man wearing glasses and a bold print shirt
Jerome is a Product Marketing Manager in Cisco’s Emerging Technologies and Incubation team based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Jerome J. Sanders, who identifies as Afro-Latino, shares a similar story. He grew up in California in a diverse community. He attended school in San Diego, whose students were predominately Black, Latino, and Asian. As a first-generation college student, he studied at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, a private Jesuit university in Silicon Valley when he first became aware of non-inclusive language, how it occasionally was used freely, and how it needed to change.

When Jerome joined Cisco in 2013 as an intern, he was pleased to find that the company had affinity groups, such as Connected Black Professionals and Conexión. He could connect with others who shared similar experiences or with allies who wanted to help everyone thrive in the work environment.

Jerome now works with Cisco’s Emerging Technologies and Incubation function, where the charter is to build start-ups within the company to find that next “big idea” in some of the most exciting areas such as application security, edge native, web3, quantum computing and generative AI.

“We prioritize modern applications and nascent technologies that will fundamentally change our world. Naturally, as part of the innovation process, we think about inclusive practices in ideation, product development, product naming, and more.

One of his priorities in his current role is being mindful of words we use in technology. “In coding, harmful language is being used that affects our developers, our engineers, and our communities,” he explains.

“I’ve become passionate about advancing the inclusive language initiative and replacing old ways of speaking with harm free terms.”

As examples, Cisco’s policy should be enforced to eliminate use of “master,” “slave,” “whitelist,” and “blacklist”. As replacements, we urge Cisco employees to use better words such as “primary”, “secondary”, “approve”, and “do not approve”.

Jerome points to Cisco’s Social Justice Actions as a road map to mitigating embedded microaggressions and unlocking purposeful engagement. He focuses on thought leadership and getting people “engaged, excited, and involved,” encouraging them to ask questions and understand why this body of work is essential. Of the Social Justice Actions, Action 12 focuses on human rights and technology solutions. Building employee awareness about how inclusive language plays a significant role in establishing inclusive environments.

He focuses on thought leadership and getting people “engaged, excited, and involved,” encouraging conversations and asking questions to understand why this body of work is essential.

Time to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Brianna and Jerome are encouraged by the progress made to advance inclusive language and feel inspired by signs of increasing awareness and acceptance.

Jerome encourages others to get comfortable being uncomfortable and start those conversations that seem difficult at first. “Be curious about learning all you can about others and tap into your own humanity to find shared experiences.”

What can you do to be an advocate?

Here are five first steps you can take right now:

  • Review Cisco’s Inclusive Language Policy to learn more.
  • Learn about UC Berkeley’s approach to Inclusive Language.
  • Observe how you and those around you communicate — what do you notice?
  • Practice your allyship with inclusive language — it’s easier than you think!
  • Give feedback if someone you know is using harmful language — be sure to suggest a more inclusive word or phrase.


Maulie Dass

Global Lead

Cisco Innovation Labs