Saving Black Lives: Defining Data as a Tool for Justice

By Sherrell Dorsey and Jenna Chambers

The Data for Black Lives Conference was a visible presence at the MIT Media Lab this weekend. Spearheaded by Yeshimabeit Milner, Lucas Mason-Brown, and Max Clermont aimed to correlate the use of data in factors of criminal justice, health inequity, and science skills-building for empowering and protecting black communities.

Moreover, the conference was a proxy for what it means to leverage data science to promote accountability, encourage protest against institutional racism, and reimagine collective freedom through the use of technology.

Scientists and community organizers came together to explore the role data and technology play in our society and in our fight for justice. By engaging in discussion around the issues impacting our community, the conference centered the use of data as a tool for “protest, accountability, and collective action.”

Moderator: Tuhran Dorsey Panelists: Piper Harron, PhD, Mathematician; Amon Millner, Assistant Professor of Computing and Innovation, Olin College of Engineering; Bob Moses, Founder, The Algebra Project; and Zakiyah Ansari, Advocacy Director, New York State of Alliances.

Where are all the Black scientists?

Some of the best jobs (read: highest paying) in the country are STEM-related. Engineers, software developers, and data scientists continue to be top-earning professionals in their respective fields.

Though more attention has been drawn to the lack of diversity and inclusionary practices in the STEM, black and brown people continue to get left behind when it comes to being at the forefront of innovation. This is not new.

It’s well publicized that black and brown people are grossly underrepresented in STEM including the tech industry, sciences, and engineering despite demonstrating the same level of interest and desire to pursue careers in these fields as their white counterparts.

Educators in STEM fields and scientists convened to discuss this gap in “Where are the black scientists?” and learn more about how we can address this disparity.

“The wealthy who run this country are only concerned about the education of their children. Everyone else in America is getting sharecropper education, ” said Dr. Bob Moses of The Algebra Project.

We must be strategic about closing the representation gap to ensure that we not only have a seat at the table, but also a stake in the decision-making process. When black and brown folks are left out of the conversation, we risk missing the opportunity to develop solutions to the issues we face as a community. Piper Harron, mathematician who earned her PhD at Princeton, explained that different patterns in our brains emerge through different experiences. “People who’ve never had to navigate the inequities experienced by people of color cannot create the solutions to these problems,” she said.

It’s imperative to discuss how we reach populations of students who have taken a different path but have the aptitude and desire to take advantage of the opportunities in STEM including those that have yet to be formed.

“New science is emerging that didn’t exist. There hasn’t been time to set up gatekeepers. Find the new areas where you will be rewarded for thinking and code-switching,” said Amon Millner


Panelists: Blair Evans, President, Incite Detroit Fabrication Lab; Omoju Miller, Data Scientist, GitHub; Geeta Pradhan, President, Cambridge Community Foundation; Teri Williams Cohee, President, OneUnited Bank; and Moderator Damon Cox, Cambridge Community Foundation.

Black Work. Black Wealth. Black Futures.

Wealth inequality in America hits black and brown communities the hardest. We don’t need to overanalyze the data to know this to be true; we walk past the disparity every day.

In the discussion on black wealth and futures addressed the interdependent impacts of harmful policies, poor education, discriminatory housing policies, and lack of financial literacy in the black community. All was not bleak, however.

The fight for economic justice, panelists agreed, relies on a strategic focus on leveraging technology and workforce development initiatives that credential low-income communities in industries related to advanced manufacturing, digital fabrication, and other adjacent technologies.

The next 15 years of advancement in the digital revolution will present a window of opportunity for people of color, resourced via Silicon Valley, public, and private foundation funding, to take advantage of. These opportunities will be dressed in expanded funding streams targeting founders of color, coding camps for inner-city students, and credentialing that may not require a four-year investment of time and resources for a degree.

“The issue is going to be ‘what kind of technology are we going to be inventing?’. It is not going to be ‘let’s get black kids into tech’,” said Omoju Miller, senior data scientist at GitHub.

The assertion that homeownership will no longer be the driver of wealth creation presented alternative pathways millennials of color will find and fund their American dream through entrepreneurship and in-demand jobs that create builders and not borrowers.

“We need to be the captains of industry not necessarily for global domination, but for local self-determination,” said Blair Evans.


The Necessity of Algorithm Accountability

Cathy O’Neal, data scientist and author of Weapons of Math Destruction, is one of the most prominent outspoken voices on harmful algorithms and their impact on inequality. We sat down with her following her presentation in the conference’s opening panel to discuss data bias, algorithm accountability, and why Silicon Valley’s approach to personalization and service is harming America. Listen to our interview below.


Action Items

Following the Data for Black Lives Conference, the need for comprehensive roadmaps for connecting to the researh and work of black scientists and organizers in this space is important. While social media threads from the hashtag can offer connections, the question of where we’ll be come next year’s conference remain.

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