A lot of what I highlight when I examine bias and community organizing/building/social impact/whatever is just applied sociology and research justice thinking. Humans have developed hundreds of practices across cultures and time to do the hard work of keeping each other human and keeping the impact of our internalized biases and hidden prejudices tame. This isn’t new. (Nothing is.) And yet I still do not find this introspection in the civic tech space — or in civic innovation or “civic renewal” or social impact investing or open government (in the US) or…
In a recent Medium post replying to a piece about Silicon Valley’s comfortable distance from the realities of racial bias, organizer Bridget Todd pushed for a more meaningful critique of race and power in tech. Todd outlined the difference between the now-popular “vocal invest[ment] in diversity and inclusion” and the actual work that individual tech companies need to take on to acknowledge how difference, power inequity, and systematic exclusion (specifically antiblackness) impact and are perpetuated through their own work.
One of your responses said something about it not being Silicon Valley’s job to “fix” our policing system and I don’t agree at all. Black and brown young people have been the lifeblood of digital since its inception. Where would Twitter be without its black users? Or Vine? Or Instagram? We use those technologies more than our white counterparts and it’s our creativity that make them at all interesting to use in the first place. Tech companies are happy to commodify black ideas, black creativity, and black talent yet stay silent when it comes to the slaughter of black bodies.
Having been schooled in North Carolina, I was proud to watch major companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google refuse to do business in the state over the discriminatory HB2 legislation. What would it look like, I wonder, if the companies that made so much money off of black folks stood up for black lives? What would it look like if they rode for us the way we ride for them?
If the banner flag of tech and its sundry do-gooder offspring is something along the lines of “bottom-up innovation” and “community leadership“, then we have to be in better touch with questions of WHO — not just “who are our users”, but WHO are we and WHO are we really trying to serve — and we have to be in better touch with questions of HARM.
What good does it do if your work to improve government targets only those for whom government already works or those whom our government already recognizes as “legitimate”? What good does it do if, as Todd notes, you address a “hiring pipeline” without acknowledging the sociopolitical structures that create and perpetuate the racial, gender, and other disparities that make that pipeline necessary? How can you aim for any form of “social impact” without taking a public stand for the fundamentally basic affirmation that, yes, dear god, Black Lives Matter?
All work happens in the context of real human lives and real human relationships — real struggles and real power inequities that predate all of us and yet shape all that we do. Start here. Acknowledging these realities, these power struggles is not an undue burden on your work as a lowly policy wonk, dev, designer, public servant, social-good-what-have-you. This is part of the work. This IS the work.