Last fall, the Ford Foundation did something unique—it hired technologists and embedded them in its grant-making teams. It was part of a foundation-wide effort to better understand the growing influence of data and technology on social justice issues. As a member of the first cohort of Ford technology fellows, I’m excited to be working with others to find ways to bring a technology and data lens to the foundation’s work.
Ford is now looking to expand its Technology Fellows program with three new positions—applications are open until March 10.
We are hoping to attract some top tech talent to join Ford in its work to create a more fair and just world. So here are my answers to a few questions that should help you better understand what being a technologist working on social justice at the Ford Foundation is all about.
What is a technologist?
Everyone seems to have a different definition of who or what a technologist is. The word has been used in so many ways that it has just about lost all meaning. But here’s the thing: I think that’s positive.
Simply put, we need all the help we can get. If technology is going to work for what Silicon Valley sees as “edge cases”—high-risk users like activists and citizen journalists, but also users who aren't white, don't speak English, have limited literacy skills, have a disability, or are low income—then we need people who understand what it is to live and work within those realities. That means we need as inclusive a definition as possible for who we turn to as experts in building, adapting, and deploying technology, in terms of both demographics and skills. No matter your expertise, if you apply it through the lens of digital tools, I’d encourage you to think of yourself as a technologist, and that’s especially true if you don’t fit the Mark Zuckerberg archetype.
To offer myself as an example, my path to Ford started with organizing and advocacy, led to studies in public policy, then continued into working in the field of human rights. No tech degree, no jobs in Silicon Valley, but a constant thread of technology and data as central parts of how I’ve tried to make an impact.
How do technologists contribute to social justice?
Advocates, organizers, and researchers who are focused on advancing equality are working parallel to governments and companies to shape how the datafication of our lives will affect all of us, especially those most vulnerable to being exploited. From fighting to ensure that our basic rights are carried over into our online lives, to testing new tools for humanitarian response, to shaping how courts deploy algorithms, technologists are combining their technical skills with deep understanding of how online tools can change lives, systems, and communities. The roles can vary: There are technologists building important tools, as well as trainers, advocates, subject matter experts, facilitators, translators, organizers, and evaluators who make those tools work in the service of justice and shared progress.
Here at Ford, for example, we’re working to bolster the digital security capacity of our grantees and partners around the world. That effort has been led in large part by a tech fellow colleague, drawing on her expertise in digital security research, training, and organizing to advise foundation colleagues and set priorities.
What does the role of a technologist at the Ford Foundation look like?
As my colleague Michael Brennan wrote when announcing the Technology Fellows program last year:
“As technology transforms the landscape of philanthropy and social justice, the traditional tools of policy, research, regulation, community engagement, and communications simply aren’t enough. We also need to develop a deep understanding of how different technologies and their applications either advance or undermine inequality.
"Our new fellows, we hope, will help us better navigate these issues. This might mean making sure an organization can manage its growing stockpile of data in a secure and ethical way, supporting grantees in their efforts to navigate issues of algorithmic bias, or protecting sensitive collaborators from the threat of surveillance.”
For example, current tech fellow Wilneida Negrón, who works in Ford’s Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice program, has been helping the foundation identify potential issues at the intersection of technology and social justice. She recently laid out a handful of the most pressing issues in a blog post.
While I can’t tell you what a typical day will look like for the new batch of tech fellows, I can tell you what kind of environment they will be stepping into. They’ll have champions within the foundation who want to see them make a real impact. They’ll have space to define their roles in a way that fits the goals of their team and the field they’re passionate about. They’ll be asked to wrestle with big challenges alongside the most impactful leaders and thinkers in that field. And they’ll learn a lot about how social justice groups think about strategy, capacity, and building power, because they’ll be trying to find ways to help these groups deploy data and technology in service of those goals.
On his final day in office, President Barack Obama took a moment to sign one last bill into law, one that was introduced by a Republican and passed with bipartisan support. The TALENT Act ensures the continuation of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which pairs technologists with federal agencies for one year. Just as the federal government is looking for ways to keep pace as data and technology continue to rapidly reshape our world, the ecosystem of organizations, advocates, companies, and funders who care deeply about inequality need to embrace that same goal with a sense of urgency. The new tech fellows will be stepping into that arena, pushing and preparing the foundation and the organizations we support to use technology and data to fight inequality and advance social justice.