Dr. Fallon Wilson is, like civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, sick and tired of being sick and tired. Hamer and Wilson were both talking about a lack of progress on civil rights, but Wilson is talking specifically about data, AI, and tech from companies that have for years failed to make meaningful progress on diversity and inclusion initiatives. In a speech at the Kapor Center in Oakland, California, she said people cannot rely on companies like Facebook or Google to bring about meaningful change.
“The truth is that the business of diversity and inclusion in tech companies will never eradicate structural racism, and I think we have to be clear about that,” she said. “They cannot be the weathervane, nor should they, of what equitable progress looks like for Black people in this country as it relates to tech. Just because they’re not moving doesn’t mean we aren’t.”
Wilson was not referencing recent events like boycotts over Facebook’s willingness to profit from hate or renewed diversity promises from Google and Microsoft. She made the comment while speaking about the need for a Black tech movement “aligned in a vision of freedom” at the Afrotech conference last fall.
In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans and ongoing efforts to dismantle racist systems, Wilson said in an interview with VentureBeat that she believes conditions are optimal for the emergence of a Black tech movement.
That’s why, Wilson told VentureBeat, she is launching the National Black Tech Ecosystem Association. The group’s initial community gathering will focus on bringing together people in tech and the Black faith community.
Wilson’s analysis of the Black tech ecosystem while research director at Black Tech Mecca and continued work at Columbia University’s SAFE Lab highlight a general lack of access, leadership, and financing. Wilson says the Black tech ecosystem includes churches and educators, as well as a range of historic groups like the NAACP and new organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League and Data for Black Lives. She believes the ecosystem can be split into five categories: K-12, data and activism, Black faith communities, post-secondary education, and Black tech startup support organizations.
She said each part of the ecosystem is doing meaningful work, but it’s largely siloed. “They’re so busy trying to work day to day that it’s hard to look up or to the side and across verticals to support everybody’s work,” she said. To address this divide, the association will work to bring together allies and key players across the ecosystem.
It’s an idea Wilson has focused on for some time now. In a June 2019 Tedx Talk in her native Nashville, she talked about the impact of the digital divide, automation, and AI and argued that we need to pay more attention to the work of people like Allison Scott at Kapor Capital, Sherrell Dorsey of The Plug, Joy Buolamwini from the Algorithmic Justice League, and Black in AI cofounder and Google ethics colead Timnit Gebru.
Wilson envisions a movement reminiscent of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street or past civil rights or feminist movements, one that would bring together Black tech ecosystem leaders, people hungry for change, and dreamers envisioning a better world.
“My ultimate vision is to build an association that allows for all of those entities to share information, to collectively organize, develop policy, and if needed protest moments around this new tech world that’s being built,” she told VentureBeat.
Wilson sees open letters like the one released by Blackincomputing.org and groups like BlackComputeHER as signs of a growing urgency among members of the Black tech ecosystem. The letter has attracted hundreds of signatories so far, including prominent Black AI practitioners and roboticists in academia, tech community organizations, and companies like Amazon and IBM. While acknowledging fears of AI that reinforces inequality in areas like housing, lending, and hiring, the letter offers a series of action items for organizations that have released statements supporting Black Lives Matter protests. These range from internal policy and startup funding practices to ways to support Black students and academics. The letter also urges investment in roughly a dozen organizations in the Black tech ecosystem, like Black Girls Code, HBCU.vc, and Backstage Capital.
Wilson said statements tech giants shared in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests remind her of tech companies’ pronouncements six years ago, following meetings with Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders who urged Silicon Valley executives to address inequalities. But when you look at the numbers, there’s been little change.
“What I don’t want to happen is what happened six years ago, when we pushed the companies to be transparent about the diversity and inclusion numbers and yet … now you still have no change,” she said. “And so I don’t want the same thing now, that we give money and open letters and Amazon has a lot of banners and Google has their banner and it’s all physical displays of support but they go back into the same routine of not hiring diverse folks or not retaining them or not really seeking to dismantle digital access problems.”
Perhaps no tech company has attracted more criticism in recent weeks than Facebook. As nearly 1,000 companies continue an advertising boycott against the social media giant, last week civil rights leaders concluded that Facebook still isn’t doing enough to fight hate speech and misinformation. A two-year civil rights audit at Facebook, carried out by attorneys Laura Murphy and Megan Cacace, urged Facebook to make AI bias detection assessments mandatory.
In recent weeks, Facebook AI leaders, including CTO Mike Schroepfer and chief AI scientist Yann LeCun, have tried to reduce bias in AI to a lack of balanced data. Following exchanges between Gebru and LeCun on Twitter, Facebook VP of AI Jerome Pesenti and LeCun eventually apologized for challenging Gebru’s assertion that the problem goes much deeper. Meanwhile, analysis last year by Mutale Nkonde, a coauthor of the Algorithmic Accountability Act, found that Facebook AI Research has no Black employees.
Ultimately, Wilson calls the lack of progress on diversity within tech organizations a people problem.
“They do not value us,” she said. “This is fundamentally about how tech companies, governments, and universities see Black intelligence in this space, Black expertise, Black organizing. They do not value it, so they’ll easily throw money at it in order to not have to deal with people like me every day. They do not want to deal with that.”