CHI 2022, ECEP 2022, equity oh my
Back when I was a senior undergraduate in 2001, I was sure I wanted to go to graduate school to get a Ph.D. My wonderful mentor Margaret Burnett made a simple pitch — a life of following my curiosity and telling people about everything I learn—and I was sold. But I still remember being torn about exactly what I wanted to study. I was captivated by HCI questions about how people program and how to make it easier, but I also had a deep curiosity about human bodies, motor planning, and the mysterious possibilities in AI of enabling machines to walk and move. In the end, the choice was obvious: in HCI, I had mentorship, community, and opportunity, and in AI, I had disinterested, dismissive professors who saw nothing particularly interesting in what the basal ganglia had to teach us about how to make computers move. I pursued a Ph.D. in HCI and didn’t look back.
My first conference as a graduate student was there for CHI, or spelled out, the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. It was Fort Lauderdale in 2003 and there were a few more than 500 attendees. There were three parallel tracks and I wanted to attend every one. I have so many fond memories of that first conference, strolling the beach with new colleagues, having a fascinating consulting meeting with my advisor and several Microsoft engineers who were trying to define the future of user interface frameworks (this became XAML), and a sense that I’d found my community. I left with the sense that these are people I wanted to talk to and to learn from.
Since that first conference, a lot has changed, for me and the community. I’ve attended (nearly) every CHI since, attending for almost 20 years. The conference now has more than two dozen parallel tracks. The research now focuses on far more than user interface technologies; it now reaches broadly into design, social sciences, and even policy. Instead of being an awkward closeted trans girl with dreams of inventing the future of programming, I’m an awkward and out trans woman, a senior professor, with unclassifiable interests that span multiple areas of computer science and education. This year, I even have the honor of being inducted into the CHI Academy, a group of researchers honored by the community for their lasting and impactful contributions to the field of HCI. That dream I had as a naive 21 year old with a passion for people and code actually happened.
And so heading to CHI 2022 this year, after two years of lockdown, is in a way a celebration. It’s a time for me reconnect with old friends, to welcome newcomers to the community, to support my own PhD students, and to be recognized. And after a canceled Sunday flight turned into an earlier Saturday flight, I even had an extra day to do it. But I also had a complex week planned with entirely different trip to Washington, D.C. planned to do K-12 CS Education policy planning with a nationwide community of advocates, which we call the ECEP Alliance. And so while I looked forward to reconnecting, I also needed to split my time between HCI friends in New Orleans, policy friends in D.C., and airplanes and airports full of infectious strangers.
Saturday: Traveling and Reconnecting
I arrived in New Orleans early Saturday evening, and after getting settled, met up with friends and colleagues for a stroll on Canal Street. I always hear that NOLA is LGBTQ+ friendly, but as one of the capitals for trans murders in the U.S., I also walked the streets with trepidation. In fact, the last time I was in New Orleans was just before COVID lockdowns, and on the way to the airport, my Uber driver slung transphobic slur after slur, making me wonder if I’d been clocked and whether I’d get to the airport alive. I tried to tell myself that I was mostly safe, but couldn’t put out of my mind where the urban boundaries around that safety might lie.
When I landed, I was lucky to meet up with Sarita Schoenebeck and Sean Munson for at taxi ride to the warehouse district hotels and then headed out for a walk with them and others to see Canal St. and Bourbon street. We had a wonderful walk and
Sunday: Resting and Reconnecting
My Sunday started off quietly. I slept in, got ready slowly, and then headed out into a thunderous downpour for some coffee and a sandwich. I had my rain coat with me, which helped a bit, but my flats were soaked. So I hold up in the corner of my coffee shop and worked a bit on a non-work side project and then walked to the conference center to get my badge. After walking a mile in wet flats, I also had formed some blisters on my heels, so I went buy some sandals off Bourbon St. and then a catfish po’ boy. I then for a beautiful walk along the river and walk back to my hotel, for some more quiet work on my side project.
Later, I went to dinner at Annunciation with the wonderful Kristy Boyer to catch up on academic life and CS education, and then walked to Mardi Gras World for the end of the CHI Volunteer Appreciation Party, where I reconnect with several old colleagues and met new ones working on all kinds of things, from field experiments, typography, ethical tech, and more. I found a lovely group of folks (mostly faculty at Michigan and CU Boulde) rto get late night bites and drinks.
Monday: Keynotes and Community
In the morning, I got some great coffee at Relevator and serendipitously ran into a group of CMU HCII doctoral students who were studying a range of topics around design, data science, AI, and community. We then made the long walk to (and through) the convention center and to the opening plenary and keynote.
The plenary had a lot of people to thank; after all, as a hybrid first, there were basically two conferences to plan. And there were many people to recognize, including many new inductees to the CHI academy (including myself). More than 600+were accepted this year, making CHI still one of the largest computing conferences in the world. All of this work is astounding given the incredibly exhausting past year of the pandemic; you could hear it in the organizer’s voices.
The keynote speaker was Kishonna Gray, a digital studies and Africana studies professor from the University of Kentucky. She’s written many books, including Woke Gaming, Intersectional Tech, Feminism in Play, and Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live, many about gaming. She opened the talk by acknowledging the nuances of our community, as both a representative of tech, but also its critic, and one that has often engaged gaming obliquely. She started with a story about the first time she learned about Microsoft’s Project Natal (which became the Kinect). She realized early on that it simply wasn’t scanning darker faces or bigger bodies. At the time, tech wasn’t being canceled, but there were articles raising the problems. But there was a rebuttal article, arguing that it was not a race problem, but an individual problem. This was just the beginning of sentiments, sentiments, and strategies that eventually led to gamer gate and other social media attacks on progressive ideals. She talked about how this small group of people were so loud, that many marginalized people left, but pleaded for tech to save them. But tech said, predictably, “You’re on your own.”
She framed a lot of these conflicts as the convergence of people, culture, space, technologies, and media in ways that had not converged before. She particularly emphasized “space” as a a confluence of power, culture, and difference, not just a “platform” or “backdrop”. She talked about the diversity of very specific social media spaces pre-Facebook and how they powerfully connected culture and media, and how Facebook replaced it with something monolithic. She also talked about Hurricane Katrina and how it only just barely leveraged social media and its limited capacity for organizing. And then she talked about BCFX, a Black college football game, which had a profound effect on a sense of representation, which catalyzed her interests in games as a cultural space.
She started looking at other games with Black leading characters. And what she learned was that most portrayals weren’t particularly enlightened. For example, Telltale’s Walking Dead focused on a Black man’s interactions with the police instead of his role as a professor; game designers talked about the “difficulty” of animating the female form as an excuse to not having women lead; Battlefield 1 portrayed Black violence in the opening scene; Pokemon Go’s only default location in one neighborhood in Chicago was a confederate statue. The predominant narrative in games was one of Black death.
She ended by posing questions and answers. What about folks about without computers and broadband? Many rely on mobile devices, public wifi, and publi spaces. What about representation? Make sure “authenticity” accounts not just for white narratives and colonization, but aesthetics, accessibility, and culture. What about accessibility? Reimagine what games might be to achieve universal access. In Q&A, she talked about how academia is not a magical space for overcoming marginalization; it still requires a community of support. She talked about the indie seen being a source of brilliance, but not so much from an inclusion perspective. She talked about how little attention is given to culture and community across the gaming industry, especially as gaming grows and expands to include new platforms such as AR/VR.
After the keynote, I caught up with a few friends (and my students) over a short break, then went to a curiously titled “social justice manifesto” session, which didn’t have much context. It ended up being a space mostly to voice different community perspectives on what role our community might play social justice efforts. This led to a wide ranging discussion, from academic institutions and how they often end up excluding perspective and voices through poorly designed incentives and inequitable compensation, to many highly informed critiques of the discussion itself, as many of the people our community might hope to serve were not in the room. Complicating the discussion were the wide variety of people online coming from across the globe, raising issues of global inclusion and language. In the end, it was a fine context to make visible some of the many priorities we might have, but I wish it had been designed more to create community around these conversations, so that we could use community to organize. After all, there’s no shortage of passion for social justice in HCI, just a lack of organization.
After the session, I made the long march through the mile-long convention center to meet up with my former advisor Brad Myers and his current and former PhD students. We talked about entrepreneurship, systems building, university policies about vacation, sunshine, industry R&D at Google and Apple, and the many ongoing challenges of thriving during a pandemic. We also ate lots of fried things :)
After lunch, I headed to the airport to fly to D.C. for my ECEP Alliance meeting meeting, sad to leave my HCI community, but excited to reconnect with my K-12 CS education advocacy community. It felt incredibly strange to leave midway through the first day of a conference and community I love, but I felt secure heading to another community of people fighting for CS equity and justice in schools and beyond.
Tuesday: Collective Impact
The ultimately goal of the ECEP Alliance is to help catalyze and support state level efforts around U.S. states and territories to broaden participation in computing in K-12 schools. Of course, even that is an oversimplification: it’s really about equitable computing education, which is far more than just creating access to CS learning: it’s about creating universal access, about creating classrooms that promote a multiplicity of kinds of computing literacy, and about doing so in ways that create a more equitable world, not just in CS classrooms, but in every aspect of society that intersects with computing — in other words, nearly every aspect of society.
We started the day with a panel of ECEP’s executive board (on which I serve). The group is an incredibly diverse one, including Black women in the mid-West, Asian and Pacific Islander women in the south and pacific islands, Latinx men in Puerto Rico, and gender non-conforming folks like myself. We talked about a range of perspectives on the challenges of centering equity, often talking about how just how profoundly it can change what education looks like. Some communities, for example, see computing as something destructive in their communities, taking their children and jobs. Others see it as a form of social or economic justice. And others yet might see it as an opportunity for creative confidence. We talked about the many ways that politicians, industry, and schools often don’t center equity in ways that are specific to a community, creating barriers for teachers and students to come together to learn and grow around computing concepts.
We then spent some time in our state teams, reorienting ourselves to our team work. Each state is radically different, some composed of state employees in departments of education, others grassroots advocacy teams with representative across their state. Washington state is more the latter, with many voices from schools, districts, state institutions, colleges, universities, and community groups. Our team talked about the many critical challenges we face in achieving equity, including a lack of funding (even for our team), eroding support in the state for staff positions to lead work, a relentless focus on industry and workforce priorities over literacy, and the difficulty of even building community around K-12 CS education in a hyperlocal system of public education. One of our team members repeated a phrase from our earlier panel, describing herself as depleted, defeated, and deleted.
The keynote immediately following our state sync helped us see a way forward. It was given by Junious Williams, a lawyer who has worked in social justice for decades. He came to talk about strategies for centering equity in collective change. He started by arguing that equity is an existential imperative: it is not optional, it is not peripheral. It is the only that people in our country will manage to survive and thrive. Anything less will converge toward a distribution of power that ultimately destabilizes our democracy. He described collective impact as requiring 1) a common agenda beyond institutional goals, 2) shared measurements, 3) mutually reinforcing activities, 4) continuous communication, 5) and “backbone” support (paid staff that can provide continuity). He presented several key strategies for centering equity in collective impact, including 1) grounding the work in shared language, data and context, 2) targeted solutions; 3) focusing on systems change; 4) shifting and sharing power, 5) and working with community to create accountable leadership. He shared many tools for executing on these strategies, including a community toolbox maintained by the University of Kentucky.
After lunch, I stayed for an extended session with Junious, where he further elaborated on strategies. For example, he talked about four levels of sequenced impact to consider:
- Interventions (pre-service, PD, classrooms, after school programs)
- Partner organizations (e.g., for-profits, colleges, universities, CSTA chapters)
- Backbone organizations (e.g., state offices)
- Collective impact collaboratives (e.g., not for profit advocacy groups like CS for All Washington, which I help direct)
He also provided a powerful lens through which to manifest equity at different levels:
- An equity lens can be a way of thinking about everything through equity
- Defining principles and values may be a way to work on equity. These can be key to helping decide between complex alternatives.
- Defining equitable strategies is another layer of work, helping to scaffold how people work together to make progress.
- Policies can start defining ways of working that center equity, embedding equity in ways that govern behavior.
- Outcomes can define the goals that close the equity gaps
- “North stars” are the mission, the source of hope and inspiration that keep people motivated.
In the discussion, it became clear that the foundation for all of this work is building trusting relationships, often one at a time, between individuals and groups, to ultimately create organized, equity-focused communities — and ultimately new cultures—that can systematically move towards change. Junious also made it clear that collective impact isn’t always the most effective approach to equity: it might be that advocacy or a lawsuit might be more effective, depending on the context.
In the rest of the day, I attended an informal session on sustaining these partnership and realized — far to late — that the advocates in our state are stretched far too thin. We also had a group level discussion of many strategies for capacity, access, participation, and experience in K-12 CS, generating more than one hundred ideas for policy, practices, and pathways. The night ended with a reception (at which I made several crucial connections with potential for state fundraising). I went out to a late Ethiopian dinner with nearly a dozen other folks, continuing our conversations into the late evening, and hearing of the many challenging advocacy contexts across our country.
Wednesday: Politics, Planning, and Recognition
We started the morning with a panel between one Lien Diaz, one of our ECEP Executive Board members, Carol Fletcher, the ECEP PI, and Junious faciliating. They talked about the assault on equity by the political right in the U.S. and the many different strategies for how to respond. Some felt that finding common ground was necessary, even in the face of profound disagreements in principles; others felt that there were some lines that had to be drawn, especially around the right’s proactive efforts to dehumanize and oppress. Clearly, different states need different strategizes for making progress.
Most of the rest of the morning and lunch focused on state work to plan and strategize for next steps. We began by accounting for our constraints. For example: 1) many of our most passionate advocates have full-time jobs that do not give them time to do advocacy work, 2) many of our “backbone” staff are state employees muzzled by lobbying laws, limiting their impact, 3) many of our state agencies do not center equity and even obstruct equitable decisions, 4) our many local not-for-profits — Code.org, TEALS, Washington STEM — have not taken a leadership position on K-12 CS education, and 5) our advocacy team has no money. We then turned to thinking about operating principles, such as 1) ensuring we do our work with the perspectives of all voices across the state, 2) work while accounting for the reality of our state, not how we wish things were, 3) view trusting relationships as our primary asset.
Within these constraints and principles, we then brainstormed several strategies that made sense within them, largely focused on building a stronger network of trust across the state, building channels of communication, creating space to be honest about our capacity to contribute, and a long-term goal of building community support for our equity-centered advocacy goals.
My last session of the day was a wonderful sync with a community of states investing in pre-service efforts. I heard from Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, Utah, Oregon, Hawaii, and Minnesota, but was surprised to find that most had focused almost exclusively on requiring CS content knowledge courses. Not surprisingly, this led to both recruitment and retention issues. It made me excited about the success we’ve had focusing more on pedagogy, assessment, equity, and justice instead of CS content knowledge, but concerned about the long-term health of pre-service across the country.
After a quick boxed lunch, I caught a ride to DCA to fly back to New Orleans for the SIGCHI Award Reception. On the flight back, I struggled with many thoughts: did I really deserve this? Am I really as honorable as people say? Maybe this is just tokenism. But I heard my therapist and wife and friends in my head too: You are awesome, you are a role model to so many, you have changed the field. But as soon as I arrived at the reception, I knew I had nothing to worry about. Everyone was welcoming, affirming, and so congratulatory, it was hard to feel anything but belonging and respect.
On Thursday I went for a solo breakfast but ran into some colleagues at Microsoft Research and Facebook labs and had a lively discussion about the shifting priorities of industry labs, the need for equity in schools, and the many complexities of algorithmic safety. After breakfast, I met up with a few doctoral students for some quick mentoring sessions, then headed to the closing keynote.
Payal Arora spoke, titling her talk “FemWork: Critical Pivot towards Design for Inclusive Labor Futures”. She started off talking about her sense of being an imposter, formerly working in art, and now working in the global south. She talked about how data is the new oil in the broader world, bias be damned, and how designing for the global south is a way of ensuring that design works for everyone in the world. She talked about the somewhat cynical efforts at “inclusive capitalism” and how those efforts, even though they are largely branding, have led to some surprising emergent entrepreneurial efforts across India and Africa. She talked about the savior complex of AI4Good and tech philanthrophy efforts. And she talked about all of the political tensions in technology regulation. After setting this stage, she focused on three myths of inclusive design:
- Myth #1: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is garbage. It’s simply not the case that people’s needs are sequential in this way; evidence shows that people who are hungry are most driven by self-actualization and autonomy.
- Myth #2: Technology privacy is a core value. Many people live in families and communities where interpersonal privacy from family members and the limits of categorization are far more important than surveillance capitalism.
- Myth #3: I missed the third myth; I’m not sure she listed one. But she did talk a lot about other things, like tech pessimism being a privilege.
Although the talk was fairly unfocused, I did take away one clear insight: Western assumptions and scholarly ideas mostly ignore the immense diversity of other perspectives, needs, and trends in the rest of the world. And both academia and industry ignore it at our peril.
After engaging in two radically different computing communities, one captivated by people and computing and the other by literacy and empowerment, I came away feeling a bit pulled apart. HCI, as much as I love it as a community and topic, felt so infectiously capitalist in contrast to my equity-focused conversations amongst educators and education reformers. The relentless focus on making is a great source of joy in HCI, but it’s so clear that the voices in HCI trying to make space for equity are struggling to be heard (with the exception of the two keynote speakers). And at the same time, my CS education reform community has the opposite problem, with great passion to discuss what it means for everyone to have what they need, but great struggle to find resources to achieve it, from government or industry.
Attending both of these events was also a reminder of how little HCI thinks about the world through a learning lens. Most of HCI focuses on envisioning and studying new interactions with computing, but rarely does it view those interactions as a form of learning, or ask questions about what people learn through these interactions. And while my K-12 CS education community absolutely centers learning, it also does so in ways that ignore the captivating power of new media in youths’ lives.
Because of these differences, I’ll continue to have a foot firmly planted in each community. And if I’m lucky, in the future they’ll schedule key gatherings on different weeks in the spring!