“We can’t talk about what’s broken with education and coding education in the bootcamp system without zooming out to look at the larger context of our educational system. Why is it that Trump is like “Oh, I’ve got 2 trillion dollars I’ve just spent on purchasing new weapons that we’re gonna use to kill innocent people and destroy cultural heritage sites” in violation of the Geneva Conventions…but they can’t find a quarter of that to fund all the free pre-K up through higher education that they wold need for everyone would just be able to access whatever education they wanted to have, so they could maximize their potential? That’s bullshit.”
Sasha Costanza-Chock (pronouns: they/them or she/her) is a researcher, activist, designer, and media-maker. They are a Faculty Associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, Faculty Affiliate with the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and creator of the MIT Codesign Studio (codesign.mit.edu). Their work focuses on social movements, transformative media organizing, and design justice. Sasha’s first book, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press in 2014. Their new book, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need will be published by the MIT Press in early 2020. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects (alliedmedia.org) and a Steering Committee member of the Design Justice Network (designjusticenetwork.org).
Kim Crayton: Hello everyone, and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene Podcast. My guest today is Sasha Costanza-Chock, and pronouns are: and she/her, they/them. Would you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I am a fan. My name’s Sasha Costanza-Chock. I’m currently an Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. But I’m also on the steering committee of the Design Justice Network. So, I hope we get to talk about that a little bit today. And I’m a board member of Allied Media Projects, which is best known for producing the annual Allied Media Conference. And I am a scholar and an activist; I work in the tech space, and I’m working on trying to figure out how we can build a technology ecosystem that is more radically just and inclusive and that will challenge rather than continually reproduce oppression and help us build a world that will be ecologically survivable as well.
KC: Alright, you said mouthful of that, Sasha! [Laughs] So, we’re gonna start as we always start. Why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you causing a scene?
SCC: Well, we need to cause a scene; there are so many reasons we need to cause a scene right now. Today. I mean, we’re having this conversation at a really dangerous moment. I mean, all moments are dangerous for the last 400 or 500 years, though. But the Banana in Chief right now is trying to ramp up to a new war. Hopefully so that—for him—I think this is about remaining in power. But it’s important to cause a scene because we live in a deeply fucked up world where racism, anti-Blackness, misogyny, trans-misogyny, misogynoir, ableism, Islamophobia, settler colonialism, and other axes of historical and ongoing oppression just continue to structure so many—well, all of our lives, really—in different kinds of ways.
And we need to figure out, how do we break that? How do we break those systems? How do we challenge the “matrix of domination”, as Patricia Hill Collins calls it? And how do we build a more liberatory world? And frankly, we need to figure out how do we survive? How do we build a world that we can survive in instead of act as if there’s unlimited ecological and human resources that can just be continually exploited? Because at this rate, you know, we’re not gonna have too many more generations of humans allowed to survive on this planet.
KC: And so how are you causing a scene specifically?
SCC: How am I causing a scene? Hmm, wow. I try to cause a scene wherever I go, but at the moment, I have a new book coming out which is called “Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need”. And that book is about challenging a lot of the received wisdom about technology and what it is and how it gets developed. Who gets to be part of the development of technology. What the way is that inequality is constantly being reproduced through system affordances as we build them. But that book is really not just sort of my thoughts, that book is me trying to synthesize and talk about work that’s coming from this whole community of people that I’m part of, the Design Justice Network. I hope we get into that a little bit more later.
But, so I got this book coming out that I hope will have an impact and will cause a scene and it will be something that will make people in certain circles be forced to confront some of the harmful practices that are rampant in the way that we’re designing and developing technologies. So I do that in my scholarly work, and I also try and do it in my day-to-day practice, and in the communities that I’m part of.
I try and do that as an educator as well. So, you know, I’m inside MIT, which is a very powerful institution. It’s a white-serving institution. It’s an institution that’s about, you know, on the one hand, there’s all this brilliance there of a certain kind, right? So there’s so many amazing inventions that have come out of MIT, so much basic science. So much has been developed there, but also MIT is a place that produces a certain kind of class of technocrat that helps build and maintain the current global order of white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal capitalism and empire. And it’s a key node in that whole global network. So I try and do what I can within that institution to expose my students to ideas about power and how it operates and how it needs to be challenged and do what I can to—I guess, yeah—connect my students to other ways of thinking about what they might do with their lives and their skills.
KC: All right, OK, so I wrote down a question—we’re definitely going to get into the Design Justice Network that you were talking about—but I wrote this question because, again, this episode will air in February. But [now] it’s right after the New Year. And so I want—everybody will understand the context of why I’m asking this—because I bring so many… Yes, I stay in the tech space. Yes, I talk a lot about bias and exclusion and harm and oppression and all—you know, inclusion and diversity—all these words. And when you were talking, I just—and you kinda answered it—which was interesting.
So I wrote down the question because I always bring these… Okay, maybe this—I’m still working it out in my head—and you know, people in the audience, that’s what I do. So I’ll figure it out by the end of this hour. But the question I wrote down is, “Why do these -isms…”—because you mentioned all the -isms—like not all of them, but you talked about all these different things misogynoir, transphobia; all these things keep coming back to tech. And I just… and I loved how you—without me thinking about it—you wrapped MIT in there.
So talk about—because we in tech have done a great job of selling how perfect technology is and how the average person does not need to concern themselves because we have it taken care of. We have your best interests at heart, and we know what’s best for you. And the average person believes this, and if they don’t believe it, they don’t—because it’s not happening in many of our communities—have not made a connection and don’t understand that they can play a role in producing better tech. ‘Cause we’re just pitched as consumers of tech. And so that goes… so again, I’m processing—I learn every time I have one of these podcasts, but I’m processing—something about what you said just made me write the question: “Why do these -isms, axes of oppression keep coming back to tech?”
SCC: That is such a good question. I kind of have two answers in my mind, but I mean, one of them is just that… I think where we come from, this space—and so we’re working in this space—so we’re just focused on the intersections between these different structures of oppression and domination and the way that they show up in technology and who gets to design technology and the values that are built that are encoded in technological systems, and then in the way that technologies get used to distribute benefits and harms. So, we’re in the space, we’re focused on it. So we maybe see it everywhere. And I wonder, if I worked in—I don’t know—if I worked in health care or something, I think I would probably… maybe I would be like, “It all comes back to the way that oppression is being reproduced through the health system,” you know what I mean? But I also think that there is something special about technology as a sector. It’s a…
KC: Good point. That’s a good point.
SCC: You know, there’s so much cultural discourse about technology and about its power and its importance. We’ve organized so much of our society around trying to rapidly develop and deploy new technologies. We imagine it as sort of the most productive career to be in, like every—the whole idea that everybody must learn to code. You know, there’s a cultural narrative that technology is the most important thing. And maybe it’s an era that goes back even for a long time, but it comes from modernity. And it’s about progress. And, you know, in some ways, maybe that cultural narrative about technology being the most important thing, it’s deeply bound up with white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism. Like the idea that we can dominate the universe or the world through our power over it because through our technologies, we can become like “god”, right? So I don’t know. Those are some of my thoughts. What do you think? [laughs]
KC: You know, some of the things… just you talking has— ’cause one of the things, the reasons I stay in tech, well, first of all, I’m a Black female. So I am not gonna just engage with white supremacists just willy-nilly, that is just not safe for me. So, for me to have these conversations I’ve found because of the business mandate that is, that requires an information economy, a knowledge economy, tech is the place to be in to have these conversations. Because I’ve never… I’ve been in education, I’ve been in non-profits, I’ve been in different spaces. I’ve never come across this… eclectic is not the best word, but this is the word I’m gonna use; eclectic group of individuals in a space.
I knew about trans individuals; actually, I was a receptionist for a doctor who—in Chicago at the time, and I didn’t even know it when I first started—that provided, his practice provided counseling and medications and everything for people transitioning. So I knew about Trans. I watched “Paris is Burning”. I’ve never been in the—and I was still thinking binary then—I never knew anything about non-binary and different… Trans being an umbrella for all these other things. This I’m learning in this space.
And so just, we’re in tech. We buy, I don’t know if it’s… in the past the narrative was: the “nerds” came into the space because they got to be by themselves and they got to, you know, put their heads down and they have they don’t have to have people skills. But what has opened up is a total pendulum of that, which is the space that needs everybody to make informed choices. So everybody is here. Everybody is not welcome. Some people are actively harmed. How do we do that? Because we’re here to help great products and services on a global scale in every industry.
That’s one reason I like being here because tech—although you know there’s medicine and there’s education—tech is in… it is the only thing I know that touches, intersects all of these things. And so not only do we have this unique intersection, but we have this unique opportunity to have these very unique, at-scale perspectives. I mean, the number of people who follow me, who are not like me [laughs] is just amazing to me. The number of people I follow who are not like me is amazing to me. And for us to be able to learn from that and bring those unique lived experiences together to inform products and services, is—but, so it’s really, it’s… I get that. And it’s just like this axis of… tech is this thing, and that’s what I liked when you were like, “The white supremacy we want to dominate…” in what’s… you know, to not even manage, not even own, we want to… it’s not even manipulate. We think we’re puppeteers or something here, [laughs] you know? And there’s so much megalomania in this space…
SCC: There is, there is.
KC: And it’s caught, it’s like you…
SCC: There’s no other place where so many people with so little knowledge about a thing that they’re working on get to have so much power.
KC: Power? Exactly. Oh, my word. So this speaks to—so there’s an ongoing conversation I’m having right now with bootcamps. So I’m an educator, so I totally agree with you. Everybody does not need to learn to code. The only thing I say, I would say is technology—coding—is this generation’s second language instead of French or whatever. But I don’t think everybody needs to learn to code. I think people need to be technologically literate.
KC: And so, that is a difference from learning to code. But the question from the conversations we keep coming up with is these shitty-ass bootcamps that’re out here. And now everybody’s talking about this funding model of ISAs—Income Sharing Agreement—and people who are now saying, “Oh, shit. What did we got ourselves into?” Because they saw only—they were only looking at one part of what’s fucked up about education, why education is failing. I come from public schools. The reason I left is too many people are profiting off a failing system. There is no incentive to fix education.
So when you look… when I come from this, I don’t look at it from the venture capitalist perspective. I don’t look at it from, “Oh, college is too expensive, we need an alternative solution.” Yes, we do need that. But when I look at what I’m seeing with bootcamp curriculums, there is none. When I’m looking at support for all adult learners, there is none. When I’m looking at something that’s calling itself an education model, I don’t see anything about it that falls in line with education or effective educational strategies. What I see is something that they slapped onto a funding model—which they can sell—that is happening over and over again.
And that speaks to your point about somebody has some—one perspective of knowledge about something—and they think that they are gods in this. And the fact that white men are considered great just by having an idea and being white is a problem. So you—I’m finding that there are people who are, who are from even marginalized communities are saying, “Oh, shit. What do… I thought this ISA thing was great until now.” I was like, “Yeah, ’cause you didn’t have a perspective of an educator.” I’m—since I’ve gotten into this space—I’ve been questioning how these bootcamps… I didn’t even think about the funding model. That’s a whole other shit show. [laughs]
SCC: I mean, to be honest with you, I can’t say that much specifically to the ISAs because, like, I really learned about it from listening to you and looking at the conversation that you’re having.
KC: Oh, I’m just learning about ‘em now, so. [laughs]
SCC: I don’t know that much about them. But what I can say, I do have a chapter in the new book—chapter four—which is called “Design Sites”. And it’s about hacker spaces, fab labs, hackathons, and discotechs—which are discovering technology fairs—and it’s a critical read on some of the spaces that get privileged as sites of technology design; and bootcamps could certainly be in there. I didn’t do a thing on bootcamps because I don’t focus on it.
But I am looking at these… sort of the ideology of these spaces that are like, “Oh, we’ll have a room with a bunch of computers and we’ll throw some children in there and then they’ll all just magically learn how to create and hack everything.” And then, you know, there’s plenty of good research around how that then plays out. How does that work out? Well, it works out great if you’re an already privileged child who comes from—you know—you’re a middle class background; you’ve got the “right” gender, which matches the sex you were assigned at birth; and you’ve probably got white skin privilege—not exclusively, but probably—and so on and so forth.
KC: You got Internet that works and all these… [laughs]
SCC: At home, always on. If a whole bunch of other things line up, then great! Have a play space, and you can use that to hack and make and learn. But if those things don’t all line up, then it’s not gonna work out that well as far as being a learning space for you because there’s not gonna be the proper type of scaffolding. There’s not gonna be…
KC: Ah! Thank you. I can tell you’re a educator, you used the word “scaffolding.” It’s like, yes! [both laugh]
SCC: So I’m very critical of that whole space. And I think with the bootcamps, I see a lot of snake oil with them as well. People being asked to—whether it’s by taking a loan, or personally funding it, or through the ISAs, or what have you—basically being asked to invest in a model that’s mostly unproven. That is probably not going to work for them. That may or may not land them a position. And if they do, I’m sorry, but it’s probably gonna land them a position that’s gonna be automated out within the next decade kind of thing.
SCC: And so I’m not saying that I think that they’re useless. I’m saying I think that there is so much trash out there, and there are probably some that are doing it really, really well. But in general, the whole space is really a mess. And I’ll say one more thing about it, which is that, in terms of what’s broken, we can’t talk about what’s broken in terms of education and coding education in the bootcamp system without zooming out to look at the larger context of our educational system.
SCC: Why is it that Trump is like, “Oh, I’ve got $2 trillion I have just spent on purchasing new weapons that we’re gonna use to kill innocent people and destroy cultural heritage sites in violation of the Geneva Conventions.” But they can’t find 1/4 of that to just like fund all the free kindergarten, pre-K, up through higher education that they would need for everyone to just be able to access whatever education that they wanted to have, so that they could maximize their potential. That’s bullshit.
SCC: …they wanted to have so that they could maximize their potential. That’s bullshit.
KC: And it’s the same thing—well, you know—just like allocating, just moving funds to build a wall that doesn’t work.
SCC: Exactly! From Puerto Rico from disaster relief.
KC: Yes, yes!
SCC: And he’s like, “Oh, I don’t… let’s let these brown people die over here while we built the wall over here so that more brown people will die in this location.”
KC: Yes, yes, yes.
SCC: My partner is Afro-Puerto Rican and we were just there for several weeks and just like, being with friends and family and mostly just relaxing but also meeting with some people and learning a little bit more about what the fuck has been going on.
KC: Yeah, ’cause they are nowhere near recovered from any of that. And there’s… and that’s the thing. ‘Cause people say, “Why?”—again, why do I harp, why am I staying in tech, why am I staying in tech? And I used the bootcamps as just an illustration of the problem. While you’re focusing—because your perspective allows you to only focus on, “Oh, we need an alternative because college is so expensive.” That’s not the whole fucking story. That is just not the whole—because, yeah—you can say you need an alternative, that many people aren’t working with their same degrees. I didn’t go to college just to get… I went to college for socialization. College is great for exploration, college is great for a lot of things besides just getting a degree and working in the job field.
And also, with my student loans, if I’m not able to pay, there’s somebody that I can negotiate that with. There’s a lot of things. Yes, I hate that I have the student loans that I have, but it is what it is. What I don’t feel from my student loans is that I was got, that I was scammed, that I—and that’s the system of student loans. Now I’m sure people go to schools that they may feel that way, but I have not attended any of those schools. And one of the reasons my student loans was so high is ‘cause I chose private schools. That was a choice. I had that privilege.
So there’s a lot of people—there’s a lot of grey in there—that calculate to where I am on my student loan issue. And when you take—again, it’s like we have this issue with—we want to say they’re no non-binary issues in one category, but we cannot extend that to anything else. Everything else seems to be binary. No, that’s not how that works. If there are no binary issues over here, then there are no binary issues over there. [laughs]
SCC: Definitely being a trans person and being a non-binary person does influence the way that I think about everything.
KC: Yes, I’m sure! Because… and so, for me being a Black woman who’s always been—if not explicitly told—implicitly told and taught that I have no value, finding value or—not even finding that—creating value and demanding that the value that I create for myself be respected by others; that was one reason I spoke at 19 conferences in 2017 because I was like, “Yeah, I’m in this space.” At the time I didn’t have the language to know what it was. But I was like, “I refuse to let these people determine my value,” ‘cause I’m seeing what they’re doing to people who look like me who have way more experience in what people consider technology than I have, and they’re still scrapin’ and scrappin’. I’m not gonna be doing that. I need to create my own value.
And so that… and, oh you just hit on something. And this is where I want to pause for a second and I wanna breathe, because I want to say that when we use the word “marginalized”, I’m talking about how groups are being treated. These individuals: us, you, me; we come with a unique perspective. We have so much value. And this is what I wanna—before we move on—I want people to understand what you just said about being a trans, non binary individual, what I said about being a Black woman is: we have a unique perspective that is valuable. No, we don’t need anybody to tell us we’re valuable, we are valuable. And we are valuable to tech and tech needs us. It’s tech’s fault that it can’t figure out what the fuck to do. It’s not ours, and that’s the problem. It’s, we’re leaving because tech keeps saying, “Oh no, it’s you.” No no no, it’s not us. It’s not us, it’s tech. [laughs] And we’re here in enough numbers now, going back to what I said before, to force change.
SCC: I hope so.
KC: No, I definitely know. I believe so. There enough people—like I said—let’s go back to what I said before. I worked for a doctor who had a practice with trans individuals. I had no idea anything about pronouns at that point. Now I’m asking people about their pronouns. Now I’m starting the show with telling people’s pronouns. I never even thought about, I’ve filled out my financial aid papers to go back to school this semester and on the financial aid document, it immediately hit me that they only have male and female. Those things, I would not have been…
SCC: So many drop-downs, I mean, that’s where the…
KC: They didn’t even have a drop down, they just had the radio button: male, female. That’s it.
SCC: Oh no, right.
KC: And that was, that’s the federal government’s financial aid. Now think about all the non-binary and trans individuals in this millennium because they’re identifying in all kinds of ways.
SCC: Exactly. I mean…
KC: What we’re forcing them to say about themselves.
SCC: I think this goes back to something that you were talking about earlier, which is: why is tech so important? Why is it a space that’s worth staying in and intervening in? And to me, it’s partly about that. It’s about the way that these ways of seeing the world, reductive ways of seeing the world, reductive and limited and harmful ways of seeing the world and treating others in the world who are not within that privileged axis of, “I’m a white, cis-, male,” et cetera, et cetera.
Those who’re building technological systems get to set them up and encode their ideas and their vision and their way of seeing the world. And that shows up in everything as small as a radio button. It’s gonna let somebody select or not select their actual identity. And I talk about that in the new book. I talk about that as a dysaffordance. It’s kind of like dysphoria, “dys-“. So, like people have gender dysphoria if they feel like the gender that, the sex that they were assigned is not related to the gender that they identify with. And so in technological systems, a dysaffordance is when you’re forced to tell the system you are something that you are not…
KC: Oh fuck!
SCC: …so that you can proceed into the next level.
KC: To the next thing. Oh my god! Oh my fucking god.
SCC: Yeah, so you have this…
KC: That’s exactly what it is because you can’t get past these fucking two radio buttons to fill out the application.
SCC: Exactly. And so that’s a small example of this much larger way that structural and historical inequality is getting re-encoded and re-inscribed through technological systems. And you know that a much larger version of that would be the pretrial risk assessment systems or…
KC: Mmm, mhmm.
SCC: …something. These automatic decision support systems that we know are racist and over-predict Black males’ likelihood of recidivism and under-predict white people’s likelihood of recidivism. And so then this is something that has an impact on how long somebody’s gonna be locked up in a cage.
KC: Mhm. Mhm.
SCC: Or whether they’re locked—not that we should be locking people up in cages at all, because I would say I’m an abolitionist, so I believe that our goal should be: how do we eliminate locking people up the cages at all? But, I’m just saying that socio-technical systems reinscribe existing power inequalities like race, class, and gender, and everything as small as a radio button on an application form all the way up to…
KC: How long somebody gets to stay in prison or even go to prison. And it’s so interesting because people act like this, that what’s informing these systems is this unbiased, clean, objective, whatever. But it’s coming from somebody’s historical perspective, and everybody’s historical perspective is biased in some way, has some kind of bias in it.
SCC: Yeah. And it’s, especially as we’re starting to talk about automated decision support systems that are becoming important in so many areas of life. Like AI, machine learning, decision-making systems that support people in different positions of power. These are being trained with data sets, and how are the data sets gathered? They were gathered at a particular moment in time, they’re historical, they come with their own biases. So anything do with policing—we know about why were police even created in the first place?
KC: Exactly. To catch slaves.
SCC: For control. [Kim laughs] So where police are deployed then is gonna produce the data set of crimes and crime likelihood and all of that is gonna be used to train a system…
SCC: …that’s gonna make…
KC: And you’re gonna be able to justify it. Because you have all this historical data that no one has challenged throughout the years because no one in that space had the perspective to challenge it. No, everybody in that space had the same beliefs. And now we’re coming in masses saying, “Hey, no!” And that’s the push back I get a lot is like, “Well so what? If we’ve been doing it, what’s been…” Because we weren’t, that’s the, it goes back to again—oh my, this is a great conversation—it goes back again to the bootcamp and the ISA. If you only look at the ISAs, you’re not looking at the whole picture. The reason that data has been used over and over again is because the individuals with the perspective to talk about how harmful it is have never been in the space and that data also informs, supports, and props up white supremacy in the first… so who’s gonna… if you’re benefiting from it, you’re not going to challenge that.
SCC: You’re not even gonna to see it, probably.
KC: Oh, definitely not gonna see it. And what’s—I wanna go back to a point you made—you were saying about, it’s the fact that… like the radio buttons. If I wasn’t—I’m having conversations with, I’ll call them laypeople, people outside of tech, that’s what I’ll call them right now, ’cause I don’t want to call them non-technical. So laypeople, when I’m having conversations about this stuff and their minds are blown and I find myself having to be really, really patient, particularly—like one of the conversations I’m having over and over and over and over again is pronouns. It’s because, and I have to understand that I’m in a space that, like I said before, is very unique. There are a conglomerate of people here, and pronouns are becoming a standard here. It’s how we’re able to communicate respectfully with other individuals. Other industries, other places in people’s lives don’t have this.
This is how I’m running—I am the founder of and leader of a #CauseAScene Community that is all about improving inclusion and diversity and safety—and the most important guiding principle is: prioritize the most vulnerable. So it is imperative that I use this language. I have to be—when I’m having conversations with my friends—have to be mindful that that’s not their lives. So when I’m saying this, this is all freakin’ new to them. They’re like, “What the hell are you talking about? I heard this pronoun thing. I don’t get it, ‘cause ‘they’ is da-da-da-da-da based on the dictionary.” Then I have to go and say, “You know what? A lot of things in the dictionary change.”
So that [laughs], you know, so it’s a whole class of understanding that I am privy to, you are privy to, that many people aren’t. And one of the things that I could tell you about technology, when we just talk about Twitter: whiteness can, if they are honest, Twitter is the first time in most of your lives that you’ve ever had the experience of hearing from brown people, Black people, indigenous people, people with different abilities, honestly telling you their lived experience. Not your one Black friend who’s not going to say anything ’cause if he says anything he’s gonna be put out the group. But you honestly seeing for the first time, for many of you—’cause I don’t know how many people… 2016 was just like the, “Oh shit, there’s such thing as racism.”
So you’ve had only, not even four years of antiracist education or just an education on what the hell white supremacy is, to take all this in. So, I recognize that. I recognize, I take this on as an educator. I’m like, “Okay, I get it.” This is why I am very much sympathetic. I don’t care. I’m not gonna make myself, I’m no longer making myself uncomfortable so that whiteness can be comfortable in learning. No, no, no, no, no, no. You need to get this hard, like everybody else has been doing, getting, for years.
SCC: Heck yeah!
KC: And yet I can see—and this is why I do the work that I do—I can see, I’m good at taking the education, that classroom management thing and and saying, “Okay, all right, here’s where we’re gonna start.” [laughs] And here’s—now, if you haven’t done the basic Google, I’m not the one. You need to talk to one of your white friends about that ’cause I’m not doing the kindergarten stuff anymore. I’m sick of talking about what these things [mean], I have it, I’ve written it down, I’ve created videos. Go learn that first.
KC: I’m on a doctoral level at this point about what this—’cause we need to move this, this needle. We can’t keep having the same conversation.
SCC: Yes, I experienced something similar or parallel in terms of people asking me kind of like Trans 101 questions. And I’m like, “You know that site Let Me Google That For You?” [Kim laughs] I’ll send them to that sometimes. Sometimes I’ll just talk to them about it. But it kinda depends…
KC: But it’s, to me…
SCC: …you know, who they are and how I’m feeling and…
KC: Exactly. Exactly. It depends on who…
SCC: It’s not like you couldn’t just, you know, there aren’t 1,000 videos on YouTube and resources and zines and…
KC: And it’s so funny because you get the, “I’m your ally, why won’t you teach me?”
KC: That whole sentence is just, is just dripping with privilege and disgust. So I don’t owe you shit.
SCC: I think for me, one of the things that I’ve been trying to push on recently, including within the trans community is, first of all, that it’s too… Unfortunately, you know, white supremacy is such a powerful system that even within the trans community, of course, you will constantly see the contributions of Black trans women in particular just being erased. Even though, of course it’s Black and Latinx trans women and femmes who led so much of this whole movement and have fought so hard and have suffered so much of the brunt of the violence of cis-, hetero patriarchy, because of the way that it is so deeply imbricated with and linked to white supremacy and capitalist control. And I think, one is to ensure that the contributions of Black and brown trans women aren’t constantly erased even in queer spaces and trans spaces. And the other is in particular to ensure that people don’t somehow get—there’s this narrative that “Oh, this is some new shit.” Like, “This was just invented.” Like, “Oh, where did all these new genders come from?”
KC: Yeah, “Oh this is all political correctness. That’s all this is.”
SCC: Listen, for most of human history…
KC: Yes, trans people have been around.
SCC: …human beings had—not even trans—people had different words for different types of genders.
SCC: And different native peoples…
KC: Did not have just two genders.
SCC: …many did not have—not all because we can’t generalize, we’re not gonna universalize, because peoples are peoples and they’re all different—but many native peoples always had other genders. Some had three genders, some had four or five genders. And all of that was violently attacked and systematically erased, and people were brutally killed.
SCC: When they were not conforming into one of these two binary oppositions that the European colonizers believed in at the time that they arrived.
KC: And based on Christianity.
SCC: [unintelligible] Africa and so. Exactly! So I’m like, “This isn’t new.” This is a return to the previous gender-diverse system that we had of complexity.
KC: I’ve always been kind of icky about missionary work, but now I see the violence of the history of missionary work in a way that I never saw it before. Because it’s never been taught us in that way. It is ripping the soul out of individuals by saying, “What you are is, doesn’t conform to…” First of all, this book that—the Catholic Church decided what books were going to be in the Bible. All these other things that, but we’re making as this absolute and because you don’t fit this thing, as you said, then you need to be decimated. Then what you have is not of value. And not only not of value, but it’s harmful to, it’s animalistic. It’s tribal. It’s all these things that we need to tame you. And how do you tame people? Or how do you… ’cause you tame them like you tame animals. You treat them as horrifically as possible to get them to align so that they are too fearful to do anything else.
And that’s—and I want to get into your book and the Network in just a second—but what I wanna end that part on… and this is why we’re having the clashes now because we’re in so many numbers that your violence takes some of us down and we mourn them. But there are more of us coming. There are more of us, and it’s making us more emboldened. Because you’re making martyrs out of people that we loved, that we cared about, that we respected. And in the past, that would have, you know, like, okay, let me go high. It’s not anymore. Because I did not know before this technology that other Black and brown women were having the same issues with white women at work with the tears and… I didn’t know this was a universal thing. I didn’t know that that was a—you know—that that is a strategy…
SCC: [laughs] Right.
KC: …that white women use globally to get what the fuck they want. Did not know that! You know? So you’re sitting back, gaslit, thinking like, “What the hell did I do wrong?” And now you like, “Oh, hell no! I know what this is now.” [laughs] We’re not doing this. So all the—and what I can tell you—and I know people are pissed off that he’s the president. But I can tell you I’m happy he’s the president because he has highlighted some shit that has been hidden for so—he has offended them. All the rules and shit that they’ve been hiding behind, he has—I don’t know if they knew he was gonna rip the cover off that—but he has exposed so much that now everybody’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s what that is. That’s what I… all right.” So you can’t take this shit back. You cannot go back. We see it now. We’ve “known” it but—we felt it—but now we know it. We see it.
KC: We felt it—but now we know it. We see it. And so it’s unfortunate, and I tell people I’m not trying to be a martyr for this work. ‘Cause I don’t think we have to be. I don’t think we’re at a place now—and this is another reason why I stay in tech—because this is a business imperative. If you’re creating products and services that harm because of your lack of perspective, that’s a risk management issue. And very soon, folx gonna start getting sued for this shit. [laughs]
SCC: Yeah, no, I really agree with that, and I think that you’re right, that we’re at a moment when like there are so many people now, just like coming out of the woodwork, to share these experiences and build communities and call out these problems and critique them. And also to think about how to build alternative systems that are sustainable and that are more just and inclusive. I mean, I’m just thinking about the last year and all of these amazing scholars—because I am in the academy as well—who came out with these books last year; like, Ruha Benjamin came out with “Race After Technology”; we have Meredith Broussard with “Artificial Unintelligence”; Safiya Noble’s book came out the year before that, “Algorithms of Oppression.” It’s like there’s this whole new…
KC: Tsunami, a tsunami.
SCC: Right. Yes, a tsunami.
KC: And I’m loving that it’s coming from…
SCC: Black feminist scholarship.
KC: Yes! [claps]
SCC: About technology.
KC: And this is the thing, I’ve been saying this and you—see, now this goes back to why I asked that first question, and I did not know why I asked the first question—because I continue to say, “Black women are the moral compass of this country.” So what you just said wrapped that into me, totally clicked, was a bing-bing-bing in my head with that. It’s this Black feminist scholarship that is now informing tech. We’re coming, it’s like we come, the bubbles are here. We’re at that tipping point. And I want to say one thing, and then I want you to get into the Network.
One of the things that I’ve noticed in the community—I fucked up on it, and I did it strategically because no one was having the conversation, and I need to have this conversation—is, and it goes back to what you were talking about, when white trans women, they are causing harm in Black and brown trans, lesbian, non-binary spaces. Because when they come in and center whiteness, all their other marginalization gets ignored. And when you tell Black, brown, non-gender conforming, whatever, individuals that only thing we can talk about in this space that they’ve created for their own safety is, are the things we have the same. And then when they don’t, when they push back on that, you call them TERFs, which is basically, that is a, to call someone a TERF… it’s worse than a swear word. You’re putting a horrible label on someone just because they’re protecting themselves from your whiteness as you come in.
And I have this conversation every time I have a white trans individual on the show, because I need this message to get out. I need white trans women to understand we are in solidarity with you. But what we will not do is, it’s not just ’cause, like you said, erasure, it’s beyond erasure. You’re actively causing harm when you come into these spaces and say that women can’t talk about their cycles, their childbirth, having—when they can’t have that conversation because you can’t relate to that conversation.
SCC: Do people really do that?
KC: I’ve had so many brown and Black lesbian women come and talk to me about this. That’s why I keep bringing it up.
SCC: Yeah. No, I I believe you. I haven’t, I haven’t seen that. But I hear you. And I’m gonna look for that more and talk with people in my community. So thank you for bringing that up.
SCC: I think… it’s complicated in part because there are these really active networks…
SCC: …of actual TERFs who—most of them are white women.
SCC: Who are attacking trans women. And one of things that they do is that they make all these fake accounts that pretend to be trans women and they say that kind of thing, they like… do you know what I’m talking about?
KC: Oh, oh trust me, ’cause they’re they’re doing it to us Black women. I mean… [laughs]
SCC: When I see that stuff I’m always like—I see this reaction from non-trans white women—usually who are like saying like, “I can’t believe that trans women are saying that I’m not allowed to talk about my womb,” or whatever. And then I’m like, “Wait, I don’t know any trans women who have actually said that.” So, are you just responding to these trolls and these bot accounts? But I mean, I believe that it is happening. So…
KC: No, it’s happening in the spaces I know, I’ve had…
SCC: But also is getting used.
SCC: As a strategy. Yeah.
KC: Well, see, that’s the same thing with these fake accounts who are pretending to be Black women. They’re trying to match the vernacular of Black women and use our lived experiences to attack other Black women and other Black…
SCC: And drive wedges.
KC: Exactly. And so this is… so yes, they’re using the tactic effectively. But there is—outside of that—that’s one thing. And yes, those are TERFs. What I’m talking about are white trans women who are invited into Black and brown spaces and it’s like you shit all over the floor and then you’re pissed off because people are like, “Why are you shitting on the floor?” So I’m not talking about these white women. Yeah, they’re going to do what they’re… they’re gonna uphold white supremacy any way they can. I’m talking about when you come into spaces with other marginalized individuals. And I’ve been doing a lot of talks on this, when whiteness enters marginalized spaces it needs to suppress whiteness because it’s gonna cause harm to everybody. And so your trans-ness gets ignored. No one cares about that at this point, because now it’s about survival mode. And so you lose, they lose, everybody loses.
KC: So I’m trying to really create something. So, and that’s the same thing with white-passing Jews, that’s the same thing with, if you have white privilege and you are also marginalized by disabilities seen or unseen or whatever. When you come into a space and you center that, it messes up everything, it…
KC: Yeah, and it requires you to understand the harm that whiteness does. ‘Cause this’s one reason I don’t use the word, I don’t like “white fragility” anymore. Because they’ve taken Robin D’Angelo’s academic terminology and have made it into this, “Well, I’m just, we’re just, you have to excuse us, this is just, I’m fragile.” No. On the other…
SCC: Wait, what?
KC: Oh they’re, oh my, it’s, ok so [Sasha laughs] there’s this whole…
SCC: You’re using white fragility as a defense?
SCC: Um, ok.
KC: Yes, yes, of taking responsibility for stuff. So when something happens, you’ll see somebody come into… they’ll say something off the fucking… just out, and then somebody’ll come and say, “Oh, that’s just white fragility.” No, fuck that isn’t. That is abuse. That is not white fragility. ‘Cause people need to understand how she used it was to explain the fact that white people were not used to this kind of stress.
KC: Because they’ve never had it. But on the—put a period on that. And on the other side of that, with white fragility, even if you understand it, what you need to understand—and this is where she failed, in my opinion—and a lot of people in white studies fail, they don’t move to the other side of it. Your white fragility has a cause and effect. When you become—when you get in that space—you actively cause harm to other people. It’s not, you don’t, it just doesn’t stay with you. It doesn’t stay with whiteness. When whiteness gets in that space, it causes harm. There’s a ripple effect. There’s a cause and effect to it, and I wanna deal with the impact not the intention.
SCC: Right, right. That’s actually, you know, that brings us directly to the Design Justice Principles, because we have our…
KC: I planned it that way. [laughs]
SCC: …our Third Principle, Principle Three is: we prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer. Because the tech space is so full of people who just say, “Well, I was designing this thing to solve a problem for this community,” and then actually end up causing unintentional harm. It happens over and over again.
KC: So let’s go talk about that. Let’s go; so you can give all the principles, you can do whatever you want to. Let’s talk about the Design Justice Network.
SCC: Yeah, well, let me give a little, very brief background before this, and then I’ll go to the principles. There’s not… won’t take that long. So Design Justice Network is a community of practitioners, of people who are doing different types of design work. So there are graphic designers and some architects, some coders and technologists, some people who don’t even really identify as designers. They’re more like, “Oh, I’m a community organizer, but I see how design and tech are important to my community.”
And we came out of the Allied Media Conference, which—if you don’t know about Allied Media Conference, it’s alliedmedia.org—it’s a conference that happens in Detroit every other year, and it’s been going for 20 years, and it’s a space for people who are using media to help build social movements of different kinds. It’s a space that really centers Black and brown, queer and trans PoC. And it’s a pretty amazing space. Alliedmedia.org, it’s gonna happening this summer in Detroit, in June.
But so, coming out of Allied Media back in 2015, a group of people started getting together saying, “Well, what would it mean to rethink the way that we’re doing design, through an explicit racial and gender justice lens?” And out of that initial convening and work, the Design Justice Network was born. We now are a network with about 800 people who have signed onto our principles. We have local nodes that are like meetups that are happening in different cities. We have a node in Toronto, in Philly, New York City. In different… there’s just one that started in Singapore, and there’s a Mediterranean region node that just popped up in Barcelona. So there’s people in different spaces around the world who are trying to think about how to use design for justice, and we have a set of principles that organize us and unite us. And I’m just gonna read them if that’s ok?
KC: Yes, please! Mhm!
SCC: You can find them all at Designjustice.org. But so principle one is that we use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems. Principle two is, we center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of design processes. Three, we prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer. Four, we view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process rather than just a point at the end of the process. So that’s an attack back against solution-ism, right?
SCC: Principle five, we see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert. Now it’s—I would actually say we’ve been debating this one because we wanna value different kinds of expertise.
SCC: But actually, principal six gets at that. So principle six, we believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process. And I think that you talk about this one a lot in your podcast and in your work. Principal seven, we share design knowledge and tools with our communities. So rather than trying to always just be like an intermediary or like I’m the unicorn, I’m the rock star. I’m the ninja.
SCC: I’m gonna solve your problems. [Kim laughs] It’s like, no, we’re gonna share this knowledge and build a thing together. Principle eight, we work toward sustainable, community-led, and controlled outcomes. Principle nine, we work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the Earth and to each other. And the last principle, principle ten, is that before seeking new design solutions, we look for what’s already working at the community level.
KC: Oh, good. Goodness.
SCC: We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, diasporic, and local knowledge and practices.
SCC: And those are the principles we use to try and organize our activities. And then based on that, we’re doing everything from convenings and gathering. So we’re going to be meeting at the Allied Media Conference again this year in June. We have these local networks that are meeting. We put out a series of zines that—one is about organizing spaces according to these principles. One is about, one lifts up examples of different design projects and how they tried to follow these principles and where that worked and how they failed or how they could have been done better.
And then, yeah, we’re just, we’re trying to develop a whole community of practitioners who are like, “We’re just sick and tired of these technology design processes that are extractive; that don’t respect local knowledge; that are solution-ist; that ignore what’s already working; that—if you do include people from a community in your design process—it’s just to take something from them, package it up and then sell it back to them without any benefit.” And instead, do things differently.
KC: That’s—I’m gonna ask you what’s your final words after this—but this makes me think of… I watched “Poverty, Inc.” And it’s about NGOs. And it reminded… that what you just said, that pulls out…. And it talks so much about how people think these organizations are doing great work, just like TOMS shoes. Everybody was so excited about TOMS shoes; you know, you get a pair, they give a pair. Well, it has decimated the shoe-making, the shoe cobbler businesses in whole countries, because why would you pay for shoes when these people gon’ give you free shoes?
And so it goes back to the whole what’s happened, what’s already working there? Like the—it talks about, Kenya had one of the most diverse cotton crops, just different varieties. But we decimated the Kenyan crop, and made it not profitable at all for them to grow cotton. So now they have absolutely nothing and it gets imported. So now we’re profiting off them. It’s always about us getting rid of whatever they have or stealing, taking whatever they have and then selling it back to them. And it’s supposed to be of value.
SCC: This is like… yeah, and in Puerto Rico, we’re—like I said—we just came back the other day with my partner, and we were in this spot and looking at all of these crops, like these plantains and guanabana and soursop and mango and all, just like popping up out of this person’s lawn. And it was just like you could just throw any seed down here and it will just grow, right? [Kim laughs] It’ll grow. It is like an abundant place and yet Puerto Rico is importing almost all of its food at this point. That’s because of US trade policy and where taxes and tariffs and the destruction of local agriculture and its replacement by Monsanto and…
SCC: …you know, a monoculture. And they use Puerto Rico as a site for experimentation, like with tech experimentation on future agricultural, monocultural crops that they’re going to grow in these giant fields, completely destroying like the local biodiversity richness…
KC: And, and you just…
SCC: …and people have to import everything.
KC: And you just mentioned it, and destroying the soil, that kind of soil that makes any seed grow. You know? [laughs]
SCC: Yeah, exactly.
KC: Well this has been…
SCC: But tech is like that, whether it’s agricultural tech…
SCC: …or it’s the shoe business. Ah, you know, in this innovation that actually is harmful to people it claims to be…
KC: Because we don’t think about—we will go and see—we’ll take a little mission trip or, you know, do a gap year. Go see some problem and then wanna come back to the US and solve it without sitting back and understanding, is it really a problem? And if it is a problem, are whatever community, wherever that is, are they developing solutions to solve that problem? And can you do something instead of you coming back and being all creative, can you use your privilege to amplify and support what they’re already doing?
SCC: Thank you, exactly. And in my new book, which you check out, it’s gonna drop in February from…
KC: I already put it on the #CauseAScene wish list.
SCC: Thank you. So Chapter Two in there is about design and accountability. And it’s about nothing about us without us, which of course, is a slogan that was popularized by the disability justice movement. But I think it applies in any marginalized or minoritized community. You know, we need to talk about, well, if you say that you’re trying to support or help, what’s already happening, what’s already working and can you amplify or even just hand over resources?
KC: Thank you. Get the hell out the way.
SCC: Right. So that people can develop their own solutions.
KC: Yes. This has been a great conversation, Sasha. What would you like to say in closing?
SCC: Just thank you so much for having me on the show. Cause a scene, #CauseAScene. And you know, keep doing what you’re doing. And hopefully that community of people like you said, it’s just going to keep growing so that they can’t shut us up.
KC: Yeah, I just love that I find people like you in the community because the more—I believe again as an educator—I’m gonna show you better than I can tell you. So the diversity of this, of the #CauseAScene community, it just blows my mind, and I just love it. And how we, and I’m just thinking of the just different ways that we can, I can galvanize that connectivity, that community to start moving something really quickly, you know, really impactful. Instead of these one-offs, how can we come together and really get some things going? So thank you. Yeah, you’re in that group of researchers that I’ve just had on this show one right after the other. We’re just knocking it dead. So thank you so much.
SCC: Thanks Kim.
KC: Have a wonderful day.