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Aliya Rahman: Former Code for Progress Director. Tech and social justice activist. Martial artist.

Aliya Rahman talked to TechRepublic about finding the intersection of tech and social justice.

Image: Aliya Rahman

There's very little that technology doesn't touch these days.

In the social justice realm, Aliya Rahman can attest to this. In some ways, her relationship with tech started while she was a astronautical engineering major at Purdue University. Her focus was propulsion, and there was a comment that people kept making:

"'You know they light these things with computers, not matches now,'" she said.

The former director for non-profit Code for Progress has seen this sentiment carried out consistently ever since.

Rahman was born in rural Wisconsin, but grew up in Bangladesh, where she said it was normal to see people engaging in protests and various efforts around rights, with much of it led by women garment workers.

In Wisconsin, the struggle for economic justice is different, and people deal with poverty in other ways. Either way, for Rahman these issues were real, and they were close.

She was the first in her family to go to college. For the first three years of school, she studied astronautical engineering, focusing on propulsion, with the idea that she'd work on solid rocket boosters. It was actually here that she got her first exposure to coding, partly because of that recurring comment.

She learned to code, loved it, and ended up teaching it her second semester.

As time went on, Rahman's feelings about her major changed. September 11 happened, and dramatically altered the aerospace industry.

"A lot of people that I knew who were graduating and had really just been Star Trek nerds, who had thought of themselves as inventors, were now making missiles... and I really didn't want to do that," she said.

At the same time, while in college she was involved with labor and LGBT rights stuff and racial justice work.

"Living in rural Indiana as a queer person, there are stark rights issues in your face all the time, especially as a queer person of color, so all of those things were super real," she said. Rockets were cool, but weren't going to allow her to continue to do the kind of social impact work she'd been involved in.

So, she switched her major to chemistry education because Purdue, at the time, didn't have an engineering education program. After graduating, she became a high school teacher in rural Arizona, at an underfunded school with a mostly Navajo student population. It was a big lesson in how structural factors can impact people's access opportunities.

The poverty she encountered was worse than what she'd seen in Bangladesh, a country often used as a metric for poverty, she said.

Rahman's thought was to go back to school for curriculum studies, which was a combination of learning how to design educational programs, but also studying the structural factors that impact people's informal learning.

While she was working on her Ph.D, she continued to teach, and she continued to work on social justice campaigns, like trying to help service workers and bus drivers get healthcare, up until a year before she would have gotten her doctorate.

She'd been heavily involved in labor campaign, and when it came time for her school to renew her assistantship, they didn't, which effectively meant she couldn't finish her degree.

What could be seen as a set back, really was a push toward working on social justice issues full time, and in doing that, she saw tech play an increasingly important role in what she and the organizations she was working for were trying to accomplish.

At first, she was a field organizer for the Center for Community Change in Ohio. The organization works with "returning citizens," their word for ex-felons, Rahman said. On a broad level, they were trying to get legislation passed dealing with hiring practices around those with criminal records. On a smaller lever, she was teaching people how to use Excel.

"There are people who just missed the internet because they were in prison for 12 years. When they came out, they were like, 'I'm not losing any more time in my life, teach me everything,'" she said.

Later, as field director of Equality Ohio, a non-profit advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, she came to realization that if they didn't get on their tech game, they couldn't deal with things from volunteer lists, to data from paper documents and spreadsheets, and they weren't going to be able to accomplish much.

At Equality Ohio, she built her first Django app to help them in their efforts to pass a certain bill, it was a database she called the Gaytabase.

Toward the end of that effort, Rahman spent some time in DC with the non-profit New Organizing Institute, doing their first Python training for community organizers. Then, she was approached about helping create Code for Progress, a non-profit that aims to bring women and people of color into the tech workforce and support them for several months afterward, via one-year fellowships.

"They basically were like, 'Hey we need someone who has curriculum background and some programming background, and some community organizing background, which is kind of a weird mix, but it happened to be my skillset," she said.

She found herself teaching coding 9-to-5, and then taking these fellows to different community events. The program originally intended to have an 80% hiring rate, and ended up with 100%.

Rahman said that when it comes to diversity in tech, she increasingly has to explain why it makes sense from a business perspective. If you're making things that are not solving the problems of people different from you, those people won't be your customers. What it boils down to is making a better product by better understanding users.

She cited Patricia Hill Collins and feminist standpoint theory:

If you're not in the dominant group, you have to understand not only how your own culture operates, but how the dominant culture works in order to survive.

"It's not true that if you're in the dominant group, you have to understand the culture of a minoritized group. You don't have to understand that in order to get by in your life. The world is built for you," she said.

If you are in a minoritized group, you have to be "multi-lingual" and know how to code switch.

That skill comes in handy in coders. They're used to switching between languages all the time, she said. Who better to work on UX?

"I find that when we lift that up in people and when I say to our new fellows, 'Yo, you ran a campaign for Walmart workers and got arrested and then the NLRB ruled in your favor, you're 57, you're a black woman, you've done that and you've done a lot of shit. You know how to talk to different groups of people, that is very valuable when we do user experience stuff," she said.

At Code for Progress, they also found that when they added questions into interviews for fellows and staff that had to do with people's cultural knowledge, women and people of color outperformed others. An example would be asking someone to explain the difference between the statements "black lives matter" and "all lives matter." Regardless of what they they believe, can they explain the perspectives?

"We can say that better tech is faster and cheaper, but we could also say that better tech is making something fundamentally different that performs a function, that no one's made before," she said.

Apart from the business case, Rahman also explains the need for diversity in tech in terms of "what do we believe is right for this country."

Sure, there are no laws that say women must earn less money than men, or that people of a certain color can't work at a certain company, or that they can only occupy administrative roles, but she said when there are well-documented gaps in these areas, there's no doubt there's a serious problem that needs to be fixed.

Rahman frames it as "desegregating tech."

"The reason I think it's important to use that term is because one, it's accurate. Two, it forces you to attack and think about structural barriers, and ultimately I'd like to fix this problem. And as Megan Smith says at the White House, 'if we can see this problem, then we can debug it.'" she said.

Closing these gaps means so much more than just getting a particular group interested in coding -- that is important, but there are plenty of other bugs relating to things like policy and legislation, things beyond individual behavior that require attention.

For example, early exposure to computers has a lot to do with the resources a school has, and the school a child goes to depends on where they live or were born, and the way communities tend to be laid out has a lot to do with race and class, she said.

"If it's the case where we have a city where kids just, in general, are not going to get computer science if they go to a public school, that's a problem," she said.

For the past few months, she's been working as an independent contractor for organizations like Trans Tech Chicago, a group that works with trans people of color, the Black Youth Project, and the National Wildlife Federation, all groups, she said, looking to "upgrade their activism."

She spends chunks of her day coding, helping people find jobs, helping organizations develop tech they can fit into their organizing framework, and working with and mentoring an apprentice.

This summer she'll be moving onto to a new gig that's not public info just yet.

As hard as she works and as active as she is, she still looks at how young the country is -- there have been fewer years after slavery than of slavery, she'll remind people, even if it is 2015.

Still, there is plenty that can be corrected now -- like companies retaining women.

"We keep seeing this Harvard Business Review research saying that 50% of women are leaving tech because of hostile work environments. That's ridiculous," she said. "That's the stuff you should be able to fix."

In her own words...

How do you unplug?

"I unplug by plugging in either my guitar or my turntable. I worked as a musician through college. I'm not a songwriter or anything like that, but I DJed a lot of parties and was the backup rhythm guitarist, so I still like to do that with friends. I had a surprise birthday party where that's what we did -- a surprise jam session. I also do martial arts."

What's your favorite book?

Right now I'm reading Toni Morrison's new book, God Help the Child. I saw her speak here in DC about a week ago. Toni Morrison is my girlfriend's favorite author, but I've also had a long relationship with that author. I actually think reading fiction is really important for techies, for the sake of imagination, but also for the cultural analysis you get in really good fiction.

Is there a favorite topic you like to teach?

I like to teach software design in community organizing. It's a really beautiful space in which coders and non-coders can interact really well there. We have a really great Hackathon in Cleaveland about handling some of the police violence stuff that's happened there and I'm going to be teaching that there, where we've got folks who really know the community and how power systems work, and people who really know a computer and how mechanical systems work in the same place, ideating on an app, and thinking about user experience and software design.

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