The Public Interest Technology Field Must Embrace Blackness, Faith & Justice to Build a Liberatory Future for All in the Age of AI

Fallon S. Wilson / Apr 8, 2024

Dr. Fallon S. Wilson is Co-Founder and Lead Principal Investigator for #BlackTechFutures Research Institute and Vice President of Policy at the Multicultural Media, Telecom, and Internet Council.

A meeting of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in an auditorium, 1927. Chicago History Museum.

As technology firms, governments and institutions race to keep up and take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI), much of the conversation is focused on the potential of the technology to transform society. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman claims we “are only a few breakthroughs away from abundance at a scale that is difficult to imagine,” while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) claims innovation must be the “north star” of any effort to regulate AI, since the technology represents “a revolution in science and understanding that will change humanity.”

The reality is that achieving a world that is free of want and that is more just and equitable will require a very different orientation. The real revolution will not be driven by the advancement of technology, but rather by the necessity of a profound exploration of how faith and justice, rooted in the struggles and triumphs of past civil rights movements, that can guide us in creating a technological society that uplifts, empowers, and recognizes the richness of Black communities. Through this lens, we can confront the challenges and opportunities of the AI age, forging a future where technology serves as a beacon of liberation, equity, and communal prosperity for all.

The future is for sale, the past is forsaken

In this moment, the captains of the tech industry occupy the headlines with their promises of the future. NVIDIA, which makes chips necessary to train large language models, is one of the hottest stocks on the market. Silicon Valley’s version of the future is perhaps the most salient on the planet.

But even as this version of the future is sold to us by CEOs and Senators, the past is being erased amidst a retrenchment of racism and bigotry that has been ongoing for years in the US. We may live in the age of AI, but we also live in a time where the erasure of history is the norm, and where in many Southern states book chapters on American slavery are being banned from primary and secondary schools. We live in a time where the US Supreme Court, stocked with conservative judges, has created the conditions for employers and universities to discontinue the work of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we live in a moment where any gains made by protestors and activists advancing the claim that “Black Lives Matter” are being rolled back.

For those of us working at the intersection of technology and social justice- and especially for the subset of us that regard themselves as public interest technologists- it is important to understand this moment, and to have a deep understanding of historical context when thinking about how to organize, mobilize, and advocate in the present environment. Understanding history is necessary to fight back against the phenomenon of oppressive systems becoming enshrined in code and technological infrastructure. And it will be necessary in order to provide an alternative vision of a technological society that is not oppressive. Government officials, philanthropists, and others responsible for deploying resources will need to make different decisions if they wish to make such an alternative vision possible. A mindset grounded in the lessons of two Black freedom movements is necessary to guide those decisions.

A brief history lesson

In 1925, A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) to improve the working conditions of Black porters, who were denied entry into the white Unions. This act of resistance to discriminatory and oppressive working conditions helped improve the financial standing and health of Black porters and helped set into motion seeds of our modern-day Civil Rights Movement. As a critical point in this history lesson, Black men founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) without the scientific knowledge that for a 1920’s “Super Power” locomotive train to work, an “increased size of a firebox . . . [larger than any given boiler size during that time] . . . was needed to achieve a high horsepower and high speed. Philip Randolph and the other porters were not educated as train engineers. However, that did not stop them from organizing against discrimination, because they were experts in justice.

A man named Edgar D. Nixon, a Pullman porter and leader of the local BSCP chapter in Montgomery, Alabama, later created a partnership with the Women’s Political Council, which launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1955, JoAnn Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, under the founding leadership of Mary Fair Burks, launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Often, when we tell the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we lead with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, but the foundation and organization of the boycott came from JoAnn Robinson and other Black women who were members of the Women’s Political Council.

Together, Edgar Nixon and JoAnn Robinson chose Rosa Parks to be the face of the bus boycott. For a year, Black people did not ride the bus in Montgomery because of the discriminatory practices. This yearlong protest, along with the Supreme Court case concerning Montgomery discriminatory bus practices, gave fire to a rising Civil Rights Movement in the US. But to achieve these outcomes, Jo Ann Robinson, Edgar Nixon, and other Black people did not need to know how buses worked, or much about the future of transportation. The Women’s Political Council were not educated as bus engineers. However, that did not stop them from organizing against discrimination, because they were experts in justice.

The locomotive train and the tracks on which it moved, just like the motorized bus and the interstate highways it traveled, were disruptive technologies that revolutionized transportation and drastically changed everyday American life. Black people both fought for fair treatment in the labor associated with building and exploiting these technologies, and they also used these technologies in their fight for civil rights, because they believed in justice. Just two generations from slavery, living in the Jim Crow era, they knew, firsthand, what injustice looked like. It looked like “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” in the words sung by Billie Holiday. It looked like hungry Black families in rural Southern counties during the Great Depression. It looked like 14 year old Emmett Till with a bludgeoned face in a child casket.

Understanding technology is secondary to understanding justice

If we want a better future, expertise in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer science are important, but they alone can not make justice live and breathe for us. The Women Political Council and the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters led with justice. They were drawn to freedom. They used science in the service of freedom, like many other Black freedom fighters before them, such as Harriet Tubman who used the stars in the sky and the pictographics on quilts to navigate Black slaves to freedom. Again, it was science in the service of freedom. If you don’t believe me, let me go a step further and give a contemporary example.

In 2014, it was a son of the Civil Rights Movement and a son of the Black Church, Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., who went to Silicon Valley and demanded that Google, Apple, and other tech companies show him, an anointed son of the Civil Rights Movement, that they are committed to diversity and inclusion in tech fields. Rev. Jackson said, “Show me your diversity numbers!” He did not have a computer science bone in his body, but he knew and understood justice. He knew that the tech companies lacked people of color on their boards. He knew the complexions of their employees weren't reflective of the diversity of our country. A Black man with no science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or computer science degree (yet armed instead with degrees in sociology and divinity) made the tech companies publish, for all to see, their diversity numbers. This one act opened the door to tech companies, who for the last ten years – until the recent anti-affirmative action environment – launched and experimented with all types of diversity, inclusion, and equity programs to improve diversity in their companies and the larger tech field. Rev. Jackson, a son of the Civil Rights Movement, is an example of how to lead with a deep understanding of justice, rather than technology.

What does this mean for the field of Public Interest Technology?

In the past decade, a new class of technologists has taken up the banner of “public interest technology.” While some of the individuals working in this field have primarily focused on public interest technology in their careers, many are also from the tech industry – former executives and engineers in large corporations who want to make a difference. The field of public interest technology has been supported by philanthropic and government programs, and many of its proponents have engaged in work to hold industry accountable for its impact on society and democracy.

But I propose that the field is ultimately too focused on technology, and too bereft of the rich understanding of justice that is necessary to deliver a better future. Consider how the field is defined: “Public interest technology refers to the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest/generate public benefits/promote the public good.” Now, I am a social worker by training and a black feminist scholar by practice. I, like Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., do not have any technical training. Does this definition make room for me? And who else might it exclude? According to Pew, Black students earned 7% of STEM bachelor’s degrees and only make up 9% of the STEM workforce. Are only those with technical skills invited to advance public interest technology?

What if the field of public interest technology put as much emphasis on organizing skills and understanding social justice as technical and engineering expertise? Unless we recognize the value of these forms of expertise, we cannot achieve a more equitable, ‘artificially intelligent’ future. In our discourse and practice of being artificial intelligent regulation experts, practitioners, and scholars, we unconsciously participate in dismissing the work of ending the digital divide in this country. Our endless regulation fight against would be tech oligarchs, leaves us emotionally exhausted, which is the perfect breeding ground for presumptions.

For one, we presume that everyone in this country has high speed internet access. We presume that everyone in this country has a computer in their home, and we presume that everyone has the digital skills required to navigate artificial intelligent software. We presume that every cultural community anchor institution within Black and poor communities such as churches, libraries, and Historically Black College and Universities have high speed internet to support the hundreds and thousands of Black people who live in tech deserts. We presume the bi-partisan funding of $45 billion dollars for broadband (also known as the internet) will magically solve the decades-long digital divide.

The reality is that 42 million Americans don’t have high speed internet, 31% of Black Americans don’t have internet, and 38 percent of Black Americans living in the Black Rural Belt don’t have internet. How do you build an AI world of abundance when Black and brown communities don’t have access to the basic foundation of that world?

With a weary heart and the weight of ancestors like Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, a Black woman educator and activist, on my shoulders, I simply shake my head at the number of funds created by foundations to assist with AI threats and opportunities and the sheer lack of immediate help and pooled funds to support states and municipalities with their digital equity plans. Our government is giving $45 billion to end the digital divide in this country, but to actualize the funding for communities of color who actually need it, funding is needed for match requirements, for letters of credit, for cost-reimbursements, for accountability strategies for Southern states to work with Black leaders in building digital equity futures, and funding to support Sisters 4 Digital Equity consisting of Black women who are now leading municipal government offices to build digital equity plans for cities. But, somehow we presume that all of these “present-day” funding challenges are less important than the future “threat” of artificial intelligence.

I call on the field of public interest technology to develop an integrated and nuanced way of talking both about the digital divide, racial tech inequities, and the building of equitable and liberating technological futures that serve the Black people in this country. We need a public interest technology field that recognizes that there is no ‘artificial intelligence’ future without digital equity, and there is no digital equity without racial equity. If we can not develop a field that realizes these goals, then we, as public interest technologists, are failing justice.

Building the future must start in Black communities, not in Silicon Valley

Oppressive systems now enshrined in computer code – what my beloved Spelman College sister, Dr. Ruha Benjamin calls the “New Jim Code” – are designed to dehumanize us and to completely exhaust us of our collective joy. Dismantling these systems and developing alternative futures must start in Black communities. I started with a history lesson about my ancestors and their fight for freedom not only to demonstrate the everyday power of Black people to change discriminatory practices using the transportation technologies of trains and buses, the new technologies of their times, but also to outline two additional points. First, my Black ancestors proudly did this work within Black institutions such as Black Churches and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), because these were counter-public, analog 2D distributed networks that centered and loved Blackness.

This is an important point. In order to develop a nuanced and intersectional digital equity artificial intelligent policy platform and a larger social movement that propels it, we must fund Black and brown cultural and legacy institutions to do the work, because this is where Black people feel honored, safe, and seen as leaders. But, I get why we overlook these physical institutions of brick and mortar and only focus on “saving” the HBCU students from debt or developing programs aligned with industry. Even these historic institutions are imperfect, complicated, and sticky when it comes to supporting the pristine Black or White agenda of the progressive Left. But, history tells us that it will be these lumbering institutions that spark and sustain a social movement for an inclusive liberated future. Because above all, they know justice.

Building the future requires faith

The second reason why I started with a history lesson was to talk about how my Black ancestors called forth their faith against oppression: “I opened my mouth and I called unto the Lord,” the prophet said. Communal faith and even biblical stories of deliverance – the belief that if faith in God did it for Daniel in the lion’s den, and if faith God delivered the children of Israel, then surely that same God would do this for enslaved Black people, which is why Harriet Tubman is called “the Moses of Her People.” Doing this reparative work of justice in building liberating a future will require a fight, but it will also require faith, and joy.

As the director of Black Churches 4 Digital Equity, I invest my time translating emerging technologies, whether its artificial intelligence or virtual reality, and the details of tech policies and broadband speeds to Black Churches, because they understand the “substance” of justice. Hebrews 11:1 states, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." This is the substance of things not yet here. And, this is what is missing from the present day discourse around artificial intelligence, whether we are speaking of regulation or the fear-mongering comments of tech leaders about existential risk.

The dream of freedom is an example of the substance of things not yet here. It is easier to talk about hope and faith in churches, mosques, and temples because they believe in the unseen. On Saturdays and Sundays in places of worship, people translate concepts of hope, grief, and pain through images, stories, and allegories. These are the skills necessary to translate and transmute issues of digital equity and what it will mean to work alongside artificially intelligent machines in a just and equitable way, by using those same holy and figurative language that is employed during religious services. The Spirit of the Lord asked Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, “Can these dry bones live?” A future iteration of this same sermon might say, “Are robots real? What programming do they need to be real and loving to Black people?” What codes of Black joy do they need to know to form the digital tendons in their arms to uplift Black people?

It is this spiritual “pouring,” or “coding,” that is collective and aggregated within our historical, cultural, and spiritual institutions that breathe life into “the coming robots,” and into us when we are tired of fighting against the would-be tech oligarchs and malign tech geniuses. This is the substance we have. We must, as my 80 year old grandmother would say, “stir up our collective spirit for the work ahead.” The work of public interest technologists and social justice advocates is about dreaming our way to the future, and that will require faith.

What might a Black tech future look like?

I dream of a united national Black tech ecosystem. Reminiscent of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, before it was annihilated by white supremacy, or Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s Black Cabinet during the Great Depression, I imagine a united national black tech ecosystem fraught with the ideological debates of Dr. W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington. Shall we invest time in tech trades like solar paneling and digital fabrication, or dive into machine learning and artificial intelligence? These conversations will abandon digital tropes and focus instead on the wrongs of sexism and homophobia by investing in Black women and Black queer leadership and startups.

I dream of a flesh and blood Wakanda-like united Black tech ecosystem that spans the worlds of Black thought and artificial intelligence, weaving between historical Black diaspora justice movements. Black nationalism, pan-Africanism, integration ideologies, Negritude, liberationist theologies – African political thought harnessed to build code and teach machines to love and honor the melanated hues of Black skin. I want to see Black genius and Black brilliance cascade down the red hills of Georgia and in the wet deltas of the Mississippi, deconstructing years of an ever widening racial wealth gap. I imagine Black unicorn tech companies, developing machines and AI that will rush to greet us as living breathing Black people and not as data deficits in their code. I dream that organizations like Blacks in Technology Foundation, Afrotech, Blacks Innovation Alliance, Black Tech Week, #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, HBCU.vc, Black Girl Ventures, and all the race and tech centers run by Black people can thrive and work together to build multiple and intersecting plans for Black tech futures. I dream that Black faith communities, pastors, imans, and rabbis will organize a social movement to build liberating and loving futures that harness technologies like artificial intelligence for the common good.

As Baby Suggs dreamed in Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glory bound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

The ultimate prophecy has alway been that Black people would be seen as human beings, as people, and not as objects of enslavement. As people, not as objects within code.

How do we get there?

To get there, the field of public interest technology must define itself differently. That will require more than an awakening in the field itself. It will require philanthropists, governments, and even technology companies to Invest in the definitional work necessary to set the course towards social justice. It will require them to make different funding decisions and reassess goals and strategies. And crucially, it will require leaders and institutions to be prepared to stand up to the cultural forces that seek to stop or reverse what if any progress has been made on social and racial justice in this country.

I stand in the tradition of my ancestors and the Black dreamers I have named, these future seeing freedom black people. We are building tech ecosystems that have yet to be seen, or yet to exist. This is prophetic work. It is deeply spiritual work. It is saying that both in the present and in the future that Black lives matter. Computers and the people that build them will know who we are. We will be seen. This is my dream and prophecy, and I hope to connect with others who share it and want to advance it. Only then can we truly build public interest technology.


Fallon S. Wilson
As Co-Founder and Lead Principal Investigator for #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, Dr. Wilson engages in community action that creates change in her community and across the US. Currently. The Institute’s work builds a national network of city-based researchers and practitioners researching sus...