Hello my friends. Especially if you're in the United States, it's a pretty scary time right now. Protests against police brutality and lack of accountability have led to a violent escalation by the police across the country. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless, especially if police brutality isn't an issue that's been on your radar. I've written this guide for my fellow non-Black folks in tech to help you figure out for yourself what specific actions you can take to help, now and into the future.
It's hard to stay focused and take action when your body is busy freaking out. When you have time in the future, I really recommend the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle for a deeper discussion into handling short and long term stress, but for now that can wait.
- Set aside a specific time to catch up on the news and social media and when that time's up, turn it off and take action instead. Staying informed is great! Causing yourself needless anxiety by seeking out images of violence is not.
- Spend at least 5-10 minutes doing a physical activity that gets your heart rate up. I personally really like jumping rope, but even something like vacuuming or a quick (spatially distant) walk will help you handle your physical stress response.
I'm a big believer in starting where you are right now. "Fighting racism" is a great idea but it's not exactly a concrete action plan. What can you do right now, right where you are? To avoid feeling overloaded, I would recommend picking a specific topic for your advocacy that you are both interested in and knowledgeable about. For me, that's racial bias in machine learning.
Especially if you're new to the specific issue you're interested in, seek out organizations that are already working on it and read through their materials. You don't want to repeat work that's already been done and you also want to avoid unintentionally hindering existing efforts or speaking over folks that have been doing this work for a while.
Here are some relevant, more specific organizations that I'm familiar with and the causes they support. Feel free to comment with others.
- If you want to help support Black researchers in AI: Black in AI
- If you want to assist with data collection and analysis (on a large number of topics): Data4BlackLives
- If you want to support legislation to ensure equitable and accountable AI: Algorithmic Justice League
- If you want to support research into inequality and bias in machine learning and AI: AI Now Institute or Data & Society
- If you want to support a data driven approach to police reform: Campaign Zero
The reason I say educate yourself here is that I'd recommend against reaching out to specific individuals for information right now. Your Black friends or colleagues in particular are dealing with a lot right now. It's not fair to ask them to do unpaid labor to educate you in general and worse than usual right now.
Now that you've educated yourself about specific changes you want to see, how can you go about making sure they happen? For example, I want Seattle to institute a ban on the use of facial recognition by police or city agencies. How can I work towards this, not just today and next week but until it happens?
Your biggest enemy here is fatigue. There's a lot going on in the world and
it's important to set up a future plan for yourself right now, while you have the time and energy, to ensure you have the biggest impact. Some ideas for specific action items:
- Advocate within your company. Commit to contributing to an existing internal organization or creating one if none exists. As tech workers we have the ability to stop unethical products from coming on the market at all rather than just mitigate the harm they do once they're launched. This guide has some tips on how to organize securely.
- Donate on a schedule. A lot of relevant charities are flooded with donations right now. Which is great... but what about six months from now? What about next year? Set up scheduled donations so that they have consistent income for sustained action. Make sure to take advantage of matching if your employer offers it. (And if they don't, ask if they will.)
- Advocate for legislation. Once you've identified specific pieces of legislation you want to advocate for, reach out to your representatives directly. It's important to make sure you consider every level of representation here. Federal measures are important, but so are state and municipal ones.
- Volunteer. Many of the organizations I linked above are actively looking for volunteers. If you're an AI researcher, you can review papers for Black in AI. If you're a data scientist, you can sign up to volunteer for Data 4 Black Lives. Setting time aside to lend your time and skills to existing efforts can be an excellent way to have an impact.
- Set aside time to learn. You will mess up. You will be ignorant. Set aside designated time to learn more, to read relevant research and writing. Follow Black technologists already working on the problems you're interested in. Make space to listen to them. We have all been raised in a society built on a foundation of white supremacy; it will take time to understand all the ways that's affected both you and the world around you.
- Prioritize spending with Black-owned businesses. In the United States, racial inequality is inexorably linked to wealth inequality. (If this is news to you, this piece in Forbes is a good overview.) Make it a personal priority to support Black-owned businesses where possible.
For my current specific item--a city-level facial recognition ban--I've taken the following actions:
- contacted my city council representatives by phone and email (and set myself a calendar reminder to check back in every two weeks)
- started the process to schedule an in-person (well, in-video-chat) meeting with my district's city council representative
- set up recurring donations to Algorithmic Justice League and Fight for the Future, two organizations working towards the goal
If you're interested in supporting this particular cause, Fight for the Future has a handy checklist of things you can do here.
Working to create sustainable, systematic change will take a lot of us working on lots of different aspects of the problem. The best time for you to start your piece of the work is right now. 🖤