Against the Grain: Reflecting and Acting on Decolonization

By Sara Bajor, Lead Software Developer, Alluma

Last year at a team retreat, One Degree’s founder Rey Faustino challenged us all to think about how we can decolonize the work we do as product managers, community specialists, engineers, and designers. It’s an important question to ask ourselves because One Degree has nearly 25,000 members representing a diversity of backgrounds and lived experiences, and we’ve set out to put technology to work for them. We realize the social and economic climate that makes our work necessary is born from a history of colonization in this country, which causes indigenous peoples, black and Latinx families, and people with disabilities, among other groups, to be disproportionately affected by poverty.

It is with this heavy awareness and humility that we strive to work against the grain of colonization, designing and building technology that is centered in the experiences of our members in all their diversity. While there are many definitions and interpretations of what “decolonization” is, I found this take on it, from Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird, editors of For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook, to be especially compelling:

“Decolonization is the meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands.”

Waziyatawin and Bird go on to state that decolonization begins with questioning the legitimacy of colonization, and that it requires both reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it. Decolonization is distinct from inclusion; to decolonize is not to be satisfied with merely reaching diversity quotas, but rather to uproot systems of oppression thereby making space for the cultures, languages, and values that have been displaced by colonization.

As a software engineer at One Degree, I wanted to think more deeply about what decolonization means for the type of work I do: namely, writing code and building technology that is then distributed far and wide for others to use. The first thing I realized is that I wasn’t entirely sure where to begin.

Decolonizing both product and process in the tech industry

If it’s hard to imagine what a decolonized tech industry would look like, perhaps it’s because it’s only been 6 years since industry leaders Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft first released diversity reports, which revealed workforces comprised overwhelmingly of white men. It’s no secret that white, European (and primarily male) perspectives have shaped the products and processes that make up the tech industry today. If the tech industry is decolonizing, then we are at best at the very beginning of what will be a long process of undoing centuries of colonialism.

Beyond the demographics, to take just one example in technology itself, consider that all of the dominant programming languages were written first in English, and only a few have been translated to other languages. The lack of non-English representation is worse than one might imagine in this era of globalization: a 2019 article from Wired claims the author found only four programming languages widely available in multilingual versions. (For a notable project showcasing an Arabic programming language, check out “قلب” by Ramsey Nasser.)

How is this an example of colonialism? Consider the heightened difficulty individuals experience while trying to learn computer programming if their native language is not English. An action the industry could take as an effort towards decolonization, then, could be the development of tools that assist software collaboration in different languages. One could imagine a tool that automatically translates a programming language’s keywords while allowing the developer to compile the code back to its original format.

The issue of English-dominated programming languages reveals the colonial underpinnings in the products we use to build technology, but the processes that surround tech’s distribution are in just as much need of decolonization. In 2015, Facebook came under fierce criticism for their “Free Basics” program in India, which attempted to enforce Facebook’s values regarding web access under the guise of philanthropy. Net neutrality activists in India labeled the program “Poor Internet for Poor People”, which called out Facebook’s agenda to control the internet experience they were offering. While India rightly maintained their sovereignty in this case, Facebook’s approach reveals the lack of sensitivity and awareness that remains all too prevalent in the attitudes of the tech industry.

Decolonizing these processes requires flipping the typical top-down approach wherein the technology company itself creates the strategy for its own adoption in a community it plays no part in. Engaging the community and actually empowering it to direct the adoption of a technology or service is a necessary step if the goal is to impart greater benefit than harm.

On the path to decolonization at One Degree

From my place as a white-identifying software engineer, I want to express solidarity with my coworkers and One Degree community members who experience colonization, and who have provided the expertise needed to keep decolonization at the heart of our mission-driven work.

Working with One Degree for over a year now has provided me so much meaningful context with which to understand Waziyatawin and Bird’s assertion that decolonization is “meaningful and active resistance” against forces that further “subjugation and/or exploitation.”

Technology development is a multidimensional process of planning, design, and implementation. For others who, like me, have had the privilege of never experiencing colonization, I offer the following check-in questions to assess the direction of your technology development:

  • How does this technology center and elevate the experiences of people of color and other marginalized communities?
  • Is the problem we are trying to solve with this technology actually felt by the community we want it to serve?
  • Can this technology be used to increase the self-determination of communities disproportionately experiencing poverty and/or homelessness?
  • Does this technology honor where the community has come from, and where they hope to go?

With that said, I want to highlight a few processes already in place at One Degree that answer these questions from a perspective of decolonization.

How does this technology center and elevate the experiences of people of color?

One Degree is built for, by, and with the community we serve. The idea for the organization was inspired by CEO Rey Faustino’s experience growing up in a working class Filipino immigrant family in Los Angeles. Our organization has codified hiring practices that signal our inclusive culture, and how much we value diversity and equity, to prospective candidates. Members of underrepresented communities are always encouraged to apply for positions at One Degree, even if their qualifications aren’t a perfect match. In hiring, diversity is not a goal for One Degree; maintaining our diversity is our goal.

Is the problem we are trying to solve with this technology actually felt by the community we want it to serve?

We revisit the tags and properties used to organize our data and update our platform to more accurately represent the needs of our community every year. We are able to do this using data and direct feedback, but more importantly, we understand why this is vital and we dedicate the time and resources to see it through every year.

Can this technology be used to increase the self-determination of communities disproportionately experiencing poverty and/or homelessness?

One Degree has set out to empower individuals to build a path out of poverty for themselves and their communities. Framing our mission in this way protects us from a Facebook-like blunder by making sure our emphasis is on putting power into the hands of our community with the technology we offer. The member story of Jeronimo, which recounts how he used One Degree to become a community advocate, is an excellent example of how this aspiration has been realized.

Does this technology honor where the community has come from, and where they hope to go?

As we continue planning additional tools and offerings for our community, it remains our priority to deliver technology that treats our members with dignity and respect. We believe that people who live in low-income and under-resourced communities have agency. Our theory of change begins with enabling people to find and use the full range of resources they need to help them in a moment of crisis or to improve their lives.

Many of these examples have their roots in one of One Degree’s organizational values, including our value of “Innovation comes from humility and curiosity.” As an engineer, working with humility and curiosity often means considering my teammates’ approaches before advocating for my own way of solving something. Within our engineering team, it informs the tone we take with code reviews, and directs our efforts to learn and solve rather than just work and fix. This intentional approach creates an environment in which different ways of thinking are valued and where we have the freedom to slow down enough to see each other’s point of view.

As engineers we also naturally spend a lot of time “behind the scenes” building our platform away from direct interaction with our community. While doing this work is important, engineers at One Degree don’t just code, but also engage with our larger community of One Degree members, service providers, and like-minded tech organizations.

In the past year, One Degree engineers have spent time volunteering with St. Anthony’s Dining Room and Mercy Housing to support their food distribution programs, connecting with Techqueria, a nonprofit serving the largest community of Latinx in Tech, and volunteering expertise at UC Hasting’s Hack Homelessness design challenge.

Participation in our community gives us insight as engineers into the community we are building our platform for and, on a personal level, it definitely motivates me to do better and more thoughtful work.

At One Degree, it is our experience that going against the grain of colonization requires a conscious effort that is both reflective and actionable. For now, there is plenty more work to do to break down the longstanding structures of colonization, but we are dedicated to doing this work together and in earnest for the betterment of our community.

If you are already a member of our community, thank you so much for being a part of our work! If you are just finding us, we hope you will join us in looking forward to continuing this work with hopefulness and positivity.

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