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Breaking the Code on Racial Justice x Tech Policy

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.

By Maria Madison, IERE Director

We stand now at the precipice of a technological revolution that is changing the very way that society operates.

It feels like much longer than one year ago that we announced that we changed our name from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy to the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity. 2021 was a big year for our Institute. We welcomed new team members–Janelle Ridley and Sakshi Jain—started exciting new projects, and released a number of reports on our research. Rather than writing a retrospective, though, I wanted to write you all about what’s coming for IERE. Last Tuesday, we announced our new Racial Justice x Tech Equity Initiative with the Kapor Center which we are launching with the goal of closing the digital divide and creating a pipeline to create more scholars who act at the intersection of technology and policy.

Today, I want to write to you about why this initiative is so necessary. We stand now at the precipice of a technological revolution that is changing the very way that society operates. In work and in life, algorithms behind opaque systems work to serve us the content they think will lead to the most engagement without regard to whether that’s positive or negative for our society, our communities, or ourselves. When applying for jobs, people must now navigate a barrage of personality tests and pruning systems before they ever get the opportunity to speak to a person. From the very moment that families enroll their children in school, a zip code can determine whether kids have access to the tools that will build skills that are vital to thrive in modern life. Even in the justice system, pretrial algorithms influence whether people are incarcerated before a jury even hears the case. What’s more, these systems are often built using data that are both insufficient and inappropriate to their application and that replicate and recreate the systems of economic and racial inequities that have existed in this country since its founding.

We need to support interdisciplinary multicultural scholars, policymakers, and tech experts to build a racially and economically just society.

To ensure a just and equitable society, we must disrupt the ways that we think about the fields of technology and social policy. That requires exposing tech to social policy and social policy to tech. We need to support interdisciplinary multicultural scholars, policymakers, and tech experts to build a racially and economically just society. We need to adapt both what we’re teaching and the way we’re teaching it, ensuring that we stay abreast of developing challenges while, at the same time, ensuring that the voices of those most affected are heard and that we teach in a way that is life-giving.

We created the Racial Justice x Tech Equity Initiative to directly confront these issues through a three-pronged approach:

  • Creating a pipeline of Racial Justice x Tech Equity Scholars: We know that fostering scholarship requires more than just admitting students to a program. Scholars need mentorship, support, opportunities, and exposure both to other thinkers in their fields and from other fields who are approaching challenges from different perspectives. So, we will be hiring new scholars and IERE team members from diverse and interdisciplinary backgrounds in a cluster hire to act as mentors and guides to the students in our program. Their grants, research, and the courses that they teach at Heller will provide opportunities for the initiative’s grad students, undergrads, and others to grow their knowledge and develop the teaching and research skills. We want people to leave with more than just a degree, though, so we are partnering with the Rabb School of continuing studies to create opportunities for microcredentialing, so those who attend Racial Justice x Tech Equity classes and proseminars will be able to walk away with something they can carry with them into their careers.
  • Fostering innovation in research and policymaking: This initiative means that IERE will form a new research pillar that focuses on the intersection between technology and racial equity, but we have a firm belief that research is not the only way that knowledge and innovation can be created. Students in the RJxTP pipeline will come together as interdisciplinary teams to compete in the Hidden Bias Research Prize Challenge. Teams will collaborate to solve tech equity issues in fields such as the education, criminal justice, employment, and health. They will then present their projects at a convening that will bring together scholars and experts all working to advance racial justice and tech policy. The most compelling project will receive a prize and opportunities to present their project at other venues.
  • Developing new opportunities for learning and pathways into careers: Finally, we are creating new courses at Heller and partnering with schools at Brandeis and beyond to offer new courses. Starting this spring, we will offer two proseminars titled Algorithms, Bias, and Justice that are open to students, professionals, and the community through the Rabb School at Brandeis. We will also be partnering with other institutes and schools at Heller and beyond to offer relevant and poignant coursework that furthers the cause of racial justice and equity in tech policy. Furthermore, we will be bringing together scholars and thinkers in policy and tech to the Heller school to speak and share their work with students and the greater Brandeis/Heller community.

We stand at the beginning of another new year both excited about the possibilities and promise of the future and humbled by the support of our students, funders, staff, partners and everyone in the IERE community. Thank you for joining us in our mission to advance economic equity and opportunities for individuals and families, particularly households of color and those kept out of the economic mainstream.

Maria Madison, Director of The Institute for Economic and Racial Equity