A photograph of the cherry blossoms in the University of Washington quad.
“University of Washington Cherry Blossoms by Michael Matti” by Michael Matti is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I led an anti-racist CS education reading group this summer

Amy J. Ko
Bits and Behavior
Published in
10 min readAug 27, 2020

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Most people know the story by now. George Floyd was at a convenience store and allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill. The store owner, following store policy, called the police. The police came, interrogated Floyd, and then police officer Derek Chauvin wrestled Floyd to the ground and knelt on his neck for 8 minutes while Floyd repeatedly expressed that he could not breathe. Floyd called for his mother, got quiet, and then died. The other officers did nothing, local protests ensued, and what is likely the largest protest against police violence in U.S. history erupted across the United States and the world.

Police violence against Black people is part of America’s founding—it has always happened, it continues to happen, and it is tragic and unjust every time. What was different this time was the scope and scale of attention on the Black Lives Matter movement. At the end of our Spring quarter in June, the pain amongst our Black students, and our broader community’s solidarity with our Black students, let to class cancelations, conflicts about grading, interpersonal conflicts between students, listening by leadership, countless calls to reform the our university’s relationship with the police, mass participation by students in daily protests, and growing calls for reforming, defunding, and abolishing the police.

My role in this global protest was an evolving one. At first, it was as an administrator, helping our faculty to navigate the conflicts in their classes (I wasn’t teaching in Spring). Then, it was as a community member, trying to decide if I felt I could safely protest outside, and if not, how I would use my platform to protest in other ways. I read a lot about police violence in U.S. history, and our failed history of reform. I read extensively about mass incarceration. I eventually concluded after weeks of reading, talking, and reflecting that police reform was definitely not enough, defunding was a half measure, and that it’s time to finally wholly re-envision law enforcement in the United States (otherwise described as abolishing the police), centering social justice and systems of care over institutions of violence. I didn’t know how to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement in a meaningful way, other than to make my views known.

Eventually, at the risk of taking attention off police violence explicitly, I was inspired to start talking about race more openly, and anti-Black racism in particular. I wrote about the racism underlying the undergraduate program I oversee. I gave a talk on CS education in higher education, giving a frank history of the racism and sexism that explicitly excluded Black Americans from higher education CS up until the 1970’s, and implicitly after. And I organized my summer of administrative work for my undergraduate program Informatics around anti-racist activities, in preparation for the coming academic year.

While all of this was happening, the world—well, mostly wealthy white people, if we’re being honest—became enamored with a particular kind of anti-racist action: the anti-racist reading group. The New York Times published reading lists. My university posted readings and resources, and encouraged the organizing of reading groups.The Washington Post published an op-ed mocking the white response to violence being reading instead of action. Others defended anti-racist reading groups, arguing that even though they can be insular echo chambers, when done right, they can develop white empathy for Black pain, which can be a useful foundation for action. Around this time, my iSchool colleague Anna Lauren Hoffman offered to organize a race and technology reading group for our faculty and staff, not to help our faculty process white guilt, but to deepen our literacy around scholarship on race and technology, so that we might deepen our curriculum and be more informed in faculty hiring. (We read Race After Technology, Dark Matters, and Black Software.)

It was in this context that I thought of organizing my own reading group. Inspired by Anna’s leadership, I had long wanted a way to bring together our growing community of CS educators and CS education researchers to talk about race, and organize for action. Education isn’t explicitly about police violence, but it is closely linked to poverty and is a site of police surveillance. I reached out to my colleagues to see if anyone would be interested in joining for a weekly summer reading group. I was excited to find that dozens wanted to join, and so I put together a summer reading list of eight articles, crowdsourced from recommendations from my Ph.D. students, from some in my community, and some from the work by signers on the Black in Computing website. My goal was threefold: 1) develop our literacy about Black experiences in computing, 2) develop our awareness of Black CS education scholars, and 3) build a community that was positioned to act towards dismantling the racist structures in our institution and region, as part of a broader effort at furthering racial justice.

I kept the format simple. We had one reading a week, usually a conference or journal article, sometimes a book chapter. I didn’t want to overwhelm attendees with hard readings—many attendees had little background in social sciences, theories or methods, and life was hard enough with the pandemic—so I mostly selected readings that were accessible but informative. We met for 50 minutes each Friday on Zoom. I gave a brief 5 minute introduction to the lead author, discussed why I chose it, and tried to give the group a prompt for focusing their small group discussions. I reminded everyone that we were there not to criticize the work, but to learn from it, and connect it to our knowledge and experiences. We then broke out into random groups of 3 to 5 people, to ensure we had a chance to all meet each other. I joined the smallest group, then we chatted for 25 minutes, and came back as a group. Individuals summarized their discussions, I tried to connect themes, and then I’d segue to the next week’s reading. I posted a few reminders in our community’s Slack, right after the group for the next reading and the day before our next.

Attendance was strong. We started off with about 20 participants, including many teaching-track faculty, many Ph.D. students (including many of mine), and occasionally some undergraduates with a passionate for CS education. Each week attracted at least 16 people, allowing us to have four groups each week. The group did an amazing job setting aside our power structures in discussions, giving just as much space for the students in the group as for the faculty. And, of course, everyone came with a different level of knowledge. For some, it was the first time they were really thinking about race, and struggled to even say the word “Black.” Others had a long history of reading about and enaging in social justice activism, but just hasn’t read about Black experiences in CS education. Everyone worked together to respect each others’ positions and journeys.

Here’s what we read:

  1. Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness (kihana miraya ross). I chose this short piece published on the NY Times to get people comfortable not just talking about racism, but anti-Black racism and its disdain, disregard and disgust for Black people in America. This wasn’t about CS or CS education, but rather, a way to prime the group for the topic, a way to get everyone used to the dynamics of the group, and a way to help everyone meet each other. No one found this particularly challenging, but it did give everyone a chance to reflect on their relationship to race (which many described as color blindness).
  2. Black in Computing’s Open Letter. I chose this open letter and call to action to connect the group with voice of the people in our community asking for change. This warmed us up to the reality of the abundant racist structures in our institutions, and hopefully motivated everyone to read more anti-racist scholarly work on CS education.
  3. When Twice as Good Isn’t Enough: The Case for Cultural Competence in Computing (Nicki Washington). I chose this article to bring us even closer to home, as it critically examines the lack of cultural competency in CS departments, particularly amongst faculty, but also staff and students. That meant it was a chance to critically examine ourselves and our failures. It also introduced the idea of cultural competency, which was new to most, and prompted everyone to self-assess where they and their departments were in relation to the continuum of competency Nicki reviews in the work.
  4. Stuck in the Shallow End, Introduction (Jane Margolis, et al.). After examining our academic units, I wanted to examine the systems that are responsible for shaping youth interests in CS. This introduction summarized the book’s discoveries about how students of color, and particularly Black students, are systematically excluded from CS education in high school. This built a bridge between K-12 and the higher education that the participants’ lived in.
  5. ‘Losing an Arm’: Schooling as a Site of Black Suffering (Michael Dumas). After considering CS in schools, I wanted to step back even further, and situate Black students experiences in school. This article was particularly relevant to our group, since it gave voice to Black students and parents experiences in Seattle Public Schools in 1970’s, which set the stage for the public school system in which our university is situated. This connected the racist structures we had read about in higher education and high school to the specific emotional experiences of malaise and suffering in school by Black students in Seattle.
  6. Workifying Games: Successfully Engaging African American Gamers with Computer Science (Betsy DiSalvo). I selected this work as an example of the CS education research community’s efforts to broaden participation in computing by Black youth. This was just one of a series of publications by Betsy, but it best described the design of the intervention and surfaced the many challenges and community-based elements that were essential to its modest success—the many other racist structures beyond the intervention that muted its impact. This wasn’t meant as an exemplar for how to “fix” racist structures, but rather as a cautionary tale of how even carefully considered and long-term efforts to engage Black youth cannot make sustainable change without other, larger structural changes.
  7. The Intersection of Being Black and Being a Woman: Examining the Effect of Social Computing Relationships on Computer Science Career Choice (Monique Ross et al.). I chose this work partly for its engagement with intersectional views of race and partly for its unique application of quantitative methods on a topic typically approached qualitatively. It complicates work on race in CS education in such important ways, illustrating the limitations of quantitative methods, revealing the rich diversity of experiences along intersections of race and gender, and isolating the potentially negative impact of engaging in CS education classes in high school. It even surfaced the possible tensions of Monique being Black faculty in a CS department, with its its chronic disregard of qualitative methods, suggesting the authors’ secondary motives for their choice of methods.
  8. Ethics, Identity, and Political Vision: Toward a Justice-Centered Approach to Equity in Computer Science Education (Sepehr Vakil). I saved this article for last, as it was the most radical, arguing that the myriad efforts in CS education to broaden participation are missing a more critical dimension of racial exclusion: political identity. It argues that for CS education to be truly anti-racist, CS curriculum needs to engage sociopolitical questions; learning environments need to be places that cultivate not only skills but also identity, in ways that acknowledge students’ multiple social identities and political realities—including police violence, and how computing supports it—and that students should be encouraged to pursue CS not just to advance capitalist systems of power, but also larger struggles for justice and liberation. This was the hardest reading, challenging the group to entirely reimagine what they do in political terms.

For the ninth and last session, we brainstormed plans for action, and committed to them for the 2020–21 academic year. I made a document with a few ground rules for brainstormings (no critiques, don’t filter by feasibility, and include all voices). I included the list of actions from the Black in Computing website. I gave a caveat that many of the actions we might brainstorm might not be appropriate to do without more learning, but that we could save that critical assessment for later. We broke into groups of four and brainstormed possible actions; the 16 people in the call generated more than 50 ideas in 20 minutes, many highly situated in the specific contexts and roles in which attendees were positioned. Afterwards, I had us silently read the list for 10 minutes, with a task: find at least one thing they would be willing to commit to and write their name down with the commitment and the bottom of the document. After we wrote our commitments, I called on each participant, one by one, and asked them to read their commitment to the group. I ended with a prompt to copy and paste their commitments to their to do lists.

It was an inspiring list! I talked about my ongoing work to reimagine high school CS education as Vakil had advocated, my efforts to weave anti-racist ideas into the Informatics curriculum, and my community-based efforts to create pathways for Black students in Seattle to higher education. Others committed to more meaningfully engage and build upon scholarship by Black authors; to participate in advocacy; to examine and reconsider racist admissions policies; to develop more cultural competency; to proactively recruit Black TAs; to reframe how CS is discussed in our intro courses; to advocate for mandatory faculty, staff, and student professional development; and to ensure at least one assignment in each class directly linked CS to sociocultural and sociopolitical issues. I ended our meeting, pondering what the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and the Information School might look like in a year if we met our commitments.

Will we? As I’ve written about before (2019, 2020), organizational change is hard. But that community I hoped to build is there now, listening, learning, and acting. I’ll send a few nudges every few weeks, reminding everyone of their commitments, both as a way to ensure action, but also as a way to hold myself accountable, ensuring that my focus throughout my work remains on anti-racist Black advocacy.

#BlackLivesMatter

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Amy J. Ko
Bits and Behavior

Professor, University of Washington iSchool (she/her). Code, learning, design, justice. Trans, queer, parent, and lover of learning.