This week the nation's attention was focused on the nefarious ways technology is deployed, as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about how his company has violated the privacy of its customers and allowed the vast amount of data it collects from them to be used for ethically and legally questionable political propaganda efforts.
But technology also has tremendous potential to serve as a tool for political liberation, says Alice Aguilar. As a woman of color in the white male-dominated tech industry, Aguilar knows firsthand what it is like to face discrimination. In her position as executive director of the Texas-based Progressive Technology Project, she works alongside communities of color to find ways to use technology as a tool to build power.
We recently spoke with Aguilar by phone about her work for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern changemakers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at rebekah [at] southernstudies.org.
Can you tell me about your background and how you became involved in movement work?
I have been doing this work for a while. I graduated from college in 1984, when corporations were recruiting a lot of women and women of color in the tech sector. I was working my first and only corporate job at IBM and I was really impacted by racism, classism, and serious sexism.
At the time, even though I came in with a big recruitment, I was the only woman of color doing development work at the company. I was being paid less than folks that came in with me. I was being asked to get coffee. I was being asked to do sexual favors. Though I had experienced discrimination before, this personal experience of being treated differently because I was a woman of color really hit home.
And so I walked out. After leaving IBM, I began teaching college in New York. While working with predominantly Black students, I realized that even the institution of education was problematic and the whole system was broken.
So I left everything and moved to Alaska, which has a deep history in terms of indigenous people's rights and environmental justice issues. I wanted to learn more about community organizing, so I became engaged with the Alaska Center for the Environment.
Through this work, I was learning about voter engagement campaigns. Back then (in the early '90s) we were still doing things by paper, so I was able to really put my tech skills to use. I would work with another organization that was trying to do this thing called ebase, which was one of the first organizing advocacy databases created. While we were using this database, I really started to see the value of how technology can launch organizing work.
Shortly after, I began to do work in the Southwest. By working with groups one on one, I learned more about the issues that front-line groups of color were facing because technology was so out of reach. Back then, first of all, a lot of groups couldn't afford the technology. And secondly, groups did not know what to do with the technology.
Many groups still face these same issues, so at the Progressive Technology Project (PTP), we really work on building capacity in organizations and communities. But even more than that, we work to help communities build power, so they can control the technology the way they see fit.
Oftentimes rural communities — especially in the South — don't have access to the latest technology. How do you break through this barrier to help them build power?
Right. In the South, we know that funding hasn't been great. In terms of resourcing technology, the South has always been lacking. It's not that folks don't want the latest technology tools. If they could have it, we would see a huge impact on organizing and power shifts. Because there has been no access, there has also been no skill-building and application to organizing.
And we know that technology has a two-sided face. On one hand, it can be seen as a detriment. But also, when we talk about our work, we know that technology helps elevate our voices. It puts us in places where we're able to put our stories out there — our own stories without it being mediated by mainstream media.
"Technology can be used to self-determine as long as we can control it. If it continues to belong to the privileged and powerful, we will always be struggling with it."
That's why the Progressive Technology Project has always been about ongoing engagement and ongoing capacity building. We want to be there to support groups on the ground because we know that groups in the South and community organizations overall often do not have a technology department or a communications department, so it's important for groups like PTP to be that support when they need us.
And it's important that we don't do the leading. It's important that groups on the ground do the leading and we technologists give insight on how technology can best support their work.
Additionally, at PTP we believe deeply in doing mentorships, so we can build leaders within the organizations we work with. For us, it's about a transfer of knowledge.
Last year, there was a convening of movement technologists at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. Can you tell me about that gathering and the lessons learned from it?
The moment was ripe for this type of convening. I have been to several convenings around residual community response, which is totally important. But it is also important to look far into the future, and I think the folks who came to Highlander understood that.
There is a political moment that is happening right now. It's not that surveillance and security issues have not been around — they are just more blatant now. And I think because they are so blatant, people think they have a right to do it.
We need to deal with this now because we are losing ground. People are dying. Black people are dying on the streets, people are being deported and pulled away from their children.
So for us, the gathering was a great way to be in a room with other folks that look like you and have the same experience as you — and finding that you are not alone.
As far as what to do next, we don't know yet, but we have ideas, which is why the Movement Technologist Statement came out. I think for us, we know we must raise awareness that movement technology has to be part of the discussions around movement building. Movement technologists need to be in conversation with organizers.
Currently there are only three major corporations that are running the internet: Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. So when we take a look at our servers and we take a look at what our folks are using for email, for example, two-thirds of the movement folks are using corporate email.
It's daunting also because there isn't anything else. There isn't anything designed by community folks. These corporations are telling us, "This is how you should communicate; this is how you should organize." They have a lockdown on everything and they can censor us if they want. And yet most of our movement is using those tools.
If we want something better for our movements, technology needs to be part of the strategic discussions. And funders need to start resourcing the movement and not these large corporations.
We can start doing our own mentorships within our communities so that folks have the power, skills, and knowledge to make tech decisions. They don't need to be a techie, but they need to be able to make decisions for their organization or communities about how to best use technology.
So the meeting at Highlander was about coming to an understanding about the political situation we are in because not everyone shares the same political analysis — especially about technology. And that's OK, but we can't come to an understanding without talking about it.
What do you think is the biggest threat to the progressive technology movement?
The privatization of technology is definitely a big threat because corporations do not care about the wellness of the community. Their bottom line is money, so they are going to change things the way they see fit and tell us what to do.
Also, the monopolization of the internet is a big threat. In some cities, that's going to seriously debilitate our movement's ability to speak, tell our stories, and communicate quickly. Yes, face-to-face and on-the-ground organizing is so important, but we also use technology to get things out quickly, so privatization that gives corporations the right to do whatever they want to do is a serious threat to the movement.
In addition to issues related to access, a big threat to the progressive technology movement — and communities in general — is the fact that technology is being used to create algorithms for racial profiling and for identifying communities that are perceived to have the highest rates of crime.
These algorithms will always target Black and Brown communities because they are designed by people who are influenced by racial bias.
It's frightening to me that social media tools are using facial recognition to identify people in photos and communities participate in it because it's "fun." This data is feeding a racially biased system. Without oversight and input over the ethical design and use of these types of tools by people of color communities, these technologies will be used to decimate communities — as we are already seeing.
Often when we think of movement work, we think of defensive work and fighting back against attacks. How do you think communities can use technology to self-determine?
Technology can be used to self-determine as long as we can control it. If it continues to belong to the privileged and powerful, we will always be struggling with it.
I'm really excited about what I’m seeing in communities in Detroit and Tennessee that are trying to build their own broadbands. That's power! That's how you can take technology and own it without somebody else mandating how you can access something — because it is about access.
That's why at PTP, we believe in open-source technologies, which are community-driven and community-built technologies, which do not always get funded. Corporations don't understand that it's not about making money.
As a woman of color, how do you think you have been able to use your position to break barriers for other women of color in the tech industry?
For me, I think that sticking around for the long haul is the best thing you do for other women of color and people of color. If I had decided to give up, and if my sisters had decided to give up in the '80s, I think we would be even further behind.
We are still not considered equal, it's clear. But I think all we can do is speak out and call people out for discrimination.
And I love seeing so many more women of color coming into movement technology and doing some amazing work. It makes the next generation stronger because there's more of us sticking through. And it's not about sucking it up — it's about realizing that we deserve to be here.