What made me want to fight for fair AI
My life has always involved centering the voices of those historically marginalized in order to foster equitable communities. Growing up, I lived in a small suburb just outside of Cleveland, Ohio and I was fortunate enough to attend Laurel School, an all-girls school focused on encouraging young women to think critically and solve difficult world problems. But my lived experience at school was so different from kids who lived even on my same street. I was grappling with watching families around me contend with an economic recession, losing any financial security that they had and I wanted to do everything I could to change that. Even though my favorite courses at the time were engineering and African American literature, I was encouraged to pursue economics.
I was fortunate enough to continue my education at Princeton University, first starting in the economics department. Unfortunately, I struggled to find the connections between what I was learning and the challenges I saw my community and people of color in the United States facing through the economic crisis. Interestingly enough, it was through an art and social justice movements class in the School of Architecture that I found my fit. Everyday, I focused on building creative solutions to difficult community problems through qualitative research, received feedback and iterated. The deeper I went into my studies, the more I realized that my passion was working with locally-based researchers and organizations to center their voices in designing solutions to complex and large-scale problems. It wasn’t until I came to Google, that I realized this work directly translated to human-centered design and community-based participatory research. My undergraduate studies culminated in the creation of a social good startup focused on providing fresh produce to food deserts in central New Jersey, where our team interviewed over 100 community members and leaders, secured a $16,000 grant, and provided pounds of free fresh produce to local residents.
Already committed to a Ph.D. program in Social Policy at Brandeis University, I channeled my passion for social enterprise and solving complex problems into developing research skills. Knowing that I ultimately did not want to go into academia, I joked with my friends that the job I was searching for didn't exist yet, but hopefully it would by the time I graduated. I knew that my heart was equal parts in understanding technology and in closing equity gaps, but I did not know how I would be able to do both.
Through Brandeis, I found language to the experiences of family and friends who had lost financial stability during the Great Recession and methodologies for how to research systematic inequalities across human identity. It was in this work that I witnessed Angela Glover-Blackwell, founder of PolicyLink speak for the first time. From her discussion on highlighting community-based equitable practices, I knew I had to support her work. Through their graduate internship program in Oakland, I was able to bridge the gap between research and application - I even found a research topic for my dissertation! And then Mike Brown was shot.
Mike was from the midwest, just like me. He reminded me of my cousins, friends from my block growing up. The experience of watching what happened to Mike Brown so publically, gave weight to the research and policies that I advocated for in my Ph.D. program and at work - it somehow made it more personal than my experience with the Great Recession. At Brandeis, I led a town hall interviewing the late Civil Rights activist and politician Julian Bond, where I still remember his admonishment to shift from talk to action, and to have clear and centralized values and priorities from which to guide equity. In the background of advocating for social justice, I used my work grading papers and teaching courses as a graduate teaching assistant to supplement my doctoral grant - including graduate courses on “Ethics, Rights, and Development” and “Critical Race Theory.”
The next summer I had the privilege of working at a think tank now known as Prosperity Now, supporting local practitioners and highlighting their findings at the national level. This amazing experience was coupled with meeting my now husband, who attended my aunt and uncle’s church. By the end of the summer, my work and personal experiences in DC had become so important that I decided to stay. Finished with my coursework at Brandeis, I wrote my dissertation in the evenings as I shifted to a more permanent position at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, led by Dr. Maya Rockeymoore. I managed national research projects and then brought the findings to the hill for policymakers to make a case for equitable policies like closing the racial wealth gap. Knocking on doors in Capitol buildings taught me the importance of finding shared language and translating research into measurable change.
By the end of 2016, I was a bit burned out by my work on the hill and welcomed the transition of marriage and moving to Los Angeles. The change of scenery allowed me to finally hone my technical skills as a Program Manager for the LA-based ed tech non profit, 9 Dots. I spent my days partnering with school districts, principals, teaching fellows and software developers to provide CS education to historically underserved students. The ability to be a part of a group that created a hybrid working space for new parents was icing on the cake. Soon after, I got a call from a recruiter at Google.
It had been almost a year since Google’s AI Principles had been publicly released and they were searching for candidates that had a deep understanding of socio-technical research and program management to operationalize the Principles. Every role and research pursuit that I’d followed led to my dream role - Senior Strategist focused on centering the voices of historically underrepresented and marginalized communities in machine learning through research and collaboration.
During my time at Google, I’ve had the opportunity to develop an internal workshop focused on equitable and inclusive language practices, which led to a collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership; launch the Equitable AI Research Roundtable along with Jamila Smith-Loud and external experts focused on equitable cross-disciplinary research practices (including PolicyLink!); and present on Google’s work in Responsible AI at industry-wide conferences like MozFest. With all that I’ve learned, I’m still determined to bring more voices to the table. My work in Responsible AI has led me to building out globally-focused resources for machine learning engineers, analysts, and product decision makers. When we center the experiences of our users - the communities who faced the economic recession with grit and resilience, those who searched for insights from Civil Rights leaders, and developed shared language to inspire inclusion - all else will follow. I’m honored to be one of many at Google driving the future of responsible and equitable AI for all.