Why We Need To Stop Questioning Women of Color

The most recent attack on Dr. Safiya Noble’s scholarship has led me to write this post. I wish I had written this post much sooner.

Not this, but this recent attack on Safiya’s scholarship over the past week involves yet another male computer science professor who used Twitter to openly attack the claims found in Safiya Noble’s most recent book, Algorithms of Oppression, which he also hadn’t read. The book was just published by NYU Press (go buy it).

For those interested in the details, please head on over to Twitter to read this thread for starters. However, the details of the attack are less important than the overall point I am trying to make here, which is this:

We as men (particularly White cisgender heterosexual able-bodied men in higher education) must stop questioning women of color (WOC) — particularly WOC scholars who continue to be silenced and oppressed by men — for having ideas that require us to think differently about what we know and how we know.

I should know why it’s important for men not to attack WOC scholars for having ideas: I was one of those men. More to the point, I was one of those men who questioned Safiya’s scholarship in the past.

I later learned I was wrong.

A few years back, Safiya and I were doctoral students and Information in Society Fellows together at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During this time, I was one of those men (among others at UIUC) who questioned Safiya’s important work about what search engines say about women.

I know there were reasons why I questioned Safiya’s work, but the reasons did not have anything to do with the quality of her work.

Rather, I questioned her work because of my social location. I am a White cisgender heterosexual man from a privileged background. As such, my social location has allowed me to exist in and navigate the world in such a way where I have not had to experience forms of oppression, where people constantly question what I say and do because of my race and gender. In other words, my social location has assigned to me a significant amount of power and privilege.

In continuing to think back, daily, to why I even questioned Safiya’s scholarship at all, I would add another important factor:

During that time in my doctoral program, I didn’t have any men, particularly male academic role models, in my life that stressed how important it is to learn to listen to women of color and try to understand their everyday experiences.

I first learned to question not only what I know but how I know when I first heard Dr. Virginia Eubanks come speak at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during my time as a doctoral student and teaching assistant. During her talk, about her research for her book, Digital Dead End, Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, she shared three of the most powerful words that I heard during my doctoral program: “I was wrong.”

In her talk at UIUC, Virginia Eubanks admitted that she was wrong in the early days of her work with women at the YWCA in Troy-Cohoes, New York (which you can read about in her book). In response, she learned how to think differently in order to more deeply understand and respond to the everyday technology experiences of the low-income women at the YWCA. Eubanks explained how this approach opened up possibilities to highlight what she referred to as “alternative articulations” of the digital divide, which continues to offer — particularly for those of us who care about digital equity — ways to look at the strengths of women of color as a starting point for digital equity initiatives.

Hearing these three words from an academic, also a female scholar, was incredibly powerful for me at this time. I am still indebted to another woman of color scholar, Dr. Seeta Peña Gangadharan for introducing me Virginia Eubanks’s work.

This was a profound experience for me, particularly as a White cisgender heterosexual male emerging scholar from a privileged background, because it allowed me to question not only what I knew, but how I came to know.

I then began questioning my own past experiences including my failures. I began asking myself many questions about whether the decisions I had made were fully informed, and thus the most correct or even ethical at the time. As a result, I now know more deeply that many of my past decisions were not correct, ethical, or respectful. And, to those who I have hurt in the past as a result, I am sorry.

How to Stop Questioning and Start Listening to Women of Color

After admitting and accepting that I was wrong, I discovered a few ways to move forward.

I began reading the work of Black feminist scholars who Safiya and other women of color were citing and discussing in their scholarship. Through this process, which continues today, I began learning that there are multiple ways of knowing about the world. By understanding the perspectives of women of color, I could begin to see why men continue to question women of color and why it needs to stop.

I also began to recognize that I, as a White cisgender heterosexual man from a privileged background in a position of power in higher education, can use the powerful platform that I have to work toward changing these stereotypes and addressing oppression in academia and beyond.

More recently, I have begun to assign Black feminist scholarship in my classes at Simmons. This is because, as Patricia Hill Collins (2000) explained, “It is more likely for Black women, as members of an oppressed group, to have critical insights into the condition of our oppression than it is for those who live outside this structures” (p. 39). Collins’s writing, as well as the writing of many other Black feminist scholars, can be an incredibly important starting point for library and information science students in learning to develop the tools, skills, and knowledge needed to challenge the oppressive systems and structures that continue to impact our profession and the communities we serve in harmful ways.

My hope in writing this post is that it will ultimately serve as a call to other men, like myself, to begin questioning not only what we know but how we know. More importantly, I hope this post will cause other men to stop questioning women of color and to start asking ourselves critical questions such as, “maybe what I know is wrong.”

In her book, titled Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Collins (2000) calls attention to other powerful Black women, such as Alice Walker and former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who embraced a humanist perspective in working to support Black women’s empowerment. Men can and must join this effort to resist common stereotypes of Black women and embrace “the oneness of all human life” (p. 46).

I also hope this post will inspire other men to share their own stories describing when they realized that their way of thinking, and thus their actions, were wrong, as well as the steps they continue to take everyday to actively challenge the oppression of women of color.

References

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Eubanks, V. (2011). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Thank you to Vanessa Rhinesmith for encouraging me to write this post.

New Article by Sharon Strover on Rural Broadband

Sharon Strover (UT Austin) just published an excellent article over at The Conversation on the broadband challenges facing rural Americans. In the article, she mentions some of what we’ve learned through our research funded through a grant from the US Institute of Museum and Library Services to understand how rural libraries address the challenges of internet connectivity through wifi hotspot lending programs.

Here’s an excerpt:

In our work, we have found a lot of people on tight budgets figuring out how to use local Wi-Fi connections to download content onto their phones, so they use (and pay for) less mobile data. Public libraries, which generally have fast and free Wi-Fi, are popular options in rural areas. Many rural librarians have told us about people in their parking lots after hours simply using the library Wi-Fi. Those connections aren’t always the fastest, but are a testament to the efforts of public libraries over many years to provide their communities’ residents with computer and internet services.

Read the full article here.

Social Informatics Spring 2018

I’m looking forward to teaching Social Informatics again this semester at Simmons SLIS. I’m using my module on Critical Informatics at the beginning of the course as an opportunity to incorporate a few new topics this year, including Feminist Theories of Technology, Black Cyberfeminism, and Design Justice, building on other critical theoretical perspectives in LIS.

Here is the link to the syllabus for this semester.

COURSE SUMMARY
“Social Informatics” refers to the body of research and study that examines social aspects of computerization – including the roles of information technology in social and organizational change and the ways that the social organization of information technologies are influenced by social forces and social practices. This graduate seminar is for students interested in the influence of information technology in the human context, including cultural heritage, professional concerns, and social inequities. The course introduces some of the key concepts of social informatics and situates them into the view of varied perspectives including readers, librarians, computer professionals, authors, educators, publishers, editors, and the institutions that support them.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES
Upon completion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Describe a variety of social, political, and economic contexts that shape information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their impact on society.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of social systems and how they interact with ICTs.
  • Discuss concepts that illuminate the intersections of race, class, gender, identity, ability, and ICTs.
  • Identify a range of ethical, legal, and policy issues that impact the design and use of ICTs.

The course syllabus is available under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Joining Boston’s Digital Equity Fund Council

The City of Boston just announced their new Digital Equity Fund. This initiative will be overseen by the Mayor’s Department of Innovation & Technology. I am honored to be joining the advisory board along with the following people: Alessandra Brown, Director, Roxbury Innovation Center; Turahn Dorsey, Chief of Education, City of Boston: Trinh Nguyen, Director of Workforce Development, City of Boston; and Sasha Costanza-Chock, Associate Professor of Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Here is a snippet from today’s press release:

“Mayor Martin J. Walsh today announced the creation of a $35,000 Digital Equity Fund, which will support the City’s goal of ensuring all residents have equal access to digital services. The Digital Equity Fund will provide support to community-based organizations that help Boston residents fully connect and participate in today’s media and information landscape. ‘A more connected Boston is a more equitable City, a more innovative City and a more prosperous City,’ said Mayor Walsh. ‘This grant program will allow more residents to connect digitally, and will encourage residents to grow their digital skills while increasing access to information.’

The Digital Equity Fund will explore ways to build individual and community capacity to:

  • Use the Internet, digital skills, and digital tools to pursue professional, educational, and civic endeavors;
  • Engage with the Internet safely and securely;
  • Develop needs-responsive, community driven digital skills building opportunities;
  • Increase broadband adoption among the roughly 1 in 5 Bostonians who do not subscribe to this service in the home.

In 2017, Boston will award one grant of $35,000 or up to two grants up to $17,500 each to nonprofit organizations that promote digital equity. By providing seed funding, the City hopes to identify promising strategies that can attract outside funding and further create a City where everyone has the tools and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.”

Read the full press release here.

Co-Edited JoCI Special Issue Published

The new issue of The Journal of Community Informatics was published this past week. I had the opportunity to co-edit the special issue with David Nemer (University of Kentucky) and Christiana Urbano (Simmons). The issue features selections from the 2016 Community Informatics Research Network Conference in Prato, Italy.

Here’s an excerpt from our introduction to the special issue:

The conference theme was “Engaging with Participation, Activism, and Technologies.” The papers in this issue highlight the conference’s overarching theme, which focused on advancing theory and practice in the development of Participatory Action Research (PAR) with a particular focus on helping to ensure that marginalized groups have a strong voice in their communities in the face of structural and cultural challenges. In doing so, the conference sought to help promote “a stronger focus on more meaningful and equal partnerships with community, civil society, and NGO organisations around the world.”

 

TPRC Paper Selected for Capitol Hill Briefing

I am honored and excited to announce that my paper with Dr. Bianca Reisdorf, Assistant Professor in Media and Information and Quello Center Assistant Director at Michigan State University, has been selected as one of four papers to be presented at a special Telecom Policy Congressional Briefing as part of this year’s Telecommunications Policy Research Conference.

Here’s a snippet of the announcement via the Quello Center’s website:

Dr. Reisdorf will present findings from her work with Dr. Colin Rhinesmith, who is an Assistant Professor at Simmons College, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. In their paper, titled Race and Digital Inequality: Policy Implications, they combined quantitative data analyses using Pew data, American Community Survey data, and FCC Form 477 data with qualitative data from a Benton Foundation study on digital inclusion initiatives in several cities across the US. The combination of these rich data sources brought forward deeper insights into what is keeping some of the economically hardest-hit communities offline and how policy can help increase digital equity. For example, quantitative analyses of data on Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS,emphasized existing digital inequalities along factors such as race, income, and education, and showed that fewer fixed broadband providers offer their services in poor urban neighborhoods. The qualitative case study of digital inclusion initiatives across these neighborhoods, however, showed that local, well-designed digital equity programs have a positive impact in mitigating these inequalities. While federal policies can help to provide more infrastructure and service to hard-hit neighborhoods through programs such as Lifeline, local organizations and policymakers can provide context-specific on-the-ground support that builds on the resources and assets already available in the communities to allow meaningful broadband adoption.

Visit the TPRC website to learn more about this year’s conference in Washington, D.C.

 

New Article in D-Lib Magazine

My colleagues and I have a new article that was published this past week in D-Lib Magazine. The article, which is co-authored with Sharon Strover (University of Texas at Austin), Brian Whitacre (Oklahoma State University), and Alexis Schrubbe (University of Texas at Austin) presents early findings from our Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) research grant, titled “At the Edges of the National Digital Platform” (grant #RE-31-16-0014-16) which examines wireless hotspot lending programs in rural libraries in Kansas and Maine.

Here’s the abstract:

Libraries straddle the information needs of the 21st century. The wifi, computers and now mobile hotspots that some libraries provide their patrons are gateways to a broad, important, and sometimes essential information resources. The research summarized here examines how rural libraries negotiate telecommunications environments, and how mobile hotspots might extend libraries’ digital significance in marginalized and often resource-poor regions. The Internet has grown tremendously in terms of its centrality to information and entertainment resources of all sorts, but the ability to access the Internet in rural areas typically lags that experienced in urban areas. Not only are networks less available in rural areas, they also often are of lower quality and somewhat more expensive; even mobile phone-based data plans — assuming there are acceptable signals available — may be economically out of reach for people in these areas. With older, lower income and less digitally skilled populations typically living in rural areas, the role of the library and its freely available resources may be especially useful. This research examines libraries’ experiences with providing free, mobile hotspot-based access to the Internet in rural areas of Maine and Kansas.

Read the full article here.

Digital Inclusion and Outcomes-Based Evaluation

I’m excited to announce the release of a new report co-authored with Angela Siefer, Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and published by the Benton Foundation, which highlights and seeks to address the core outcomes-based evaluation needs of the digital inclusion field. Here is an excerpt from today’s report release available at Benton.org:

In recent years, government agencies, private foundations, and community-based organizations have increasingly sought to understand how programs that promote digital inclusion lead to social and economic outcomes for individuals, programs, and communities. This push to measure outcomes has been driven, in part, by a larger trend to ensure that dollars are being used efficiently to improve lives rather than simply to deliver services. A new report, published by Benton Foundation, describes the challenges facing community-based organizations and other key stakeholders in using outcomes-based evaluation to measure the success of their digital inclusion programs and offers recommendations toward addressing these shared barriers.

Download the full report here.

SLIS Public Lecture: Checking out the Internet

This Wednesday, April 12th at 12:00 PM at Simmons College, Madison Bishop and I will be presenting a talk, titled “Checking Out The Internet” as part of the SLIS Public Lecture Series. Here’s the event info:

How do hotspot lending programs help rural libraries address the unique challenges of Internet connectivity in their communities? This talk will present findings from a research project to explore how mobile wireless hotspot devices—which allow users to access the Internet from any place with a cellular signal—shape internet access and use for the patrons of 24 libraries in rural Kansas and Maine. The research examines the practical requirements for implementing hotspot lending programs; the impact on users’ digital literacy and quality of life; the role of libraries in rural information ecosystems; and the relationship between library hotspot lending programs and other institutions, including schools, local governments, and Internet service providers. This project is being led by researchers at the University of Austin at Texas, Oklahoma State University and Simmons College and funded by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Presenting on this project will be Co-Principal Investigator Colin Rhinesmith, Assistant Professor in the Simmons School of Library and Information Science, and research assistant Madison Bishop, second-year graduate student.