23 Mar 2021

Pathways to a Just Digital Future: Behind the Scenes


by Shona Simkin

In a year that has been rife with challenges, the Digital (DI) and Gender Initiatives (GI) have been working together on a far-reaching, ambitious project aimed straight at one of the biggest: structural inequalities in organizations and society. It’s an effort that has also broadened group and individual horizons, stretched skills and aptitudes, called up questions of identity and boundaries, and knitted together a team based on trust.

Pathways to a Just Digital Future, which includes a 10-episode video podcast series, a virtual event on March 31, a comprehensive website, subject-specific newsletters with bonus video content, and a cohort community to continue the work and conversations, is the latest—and largest—collaboration between the two initiatives.

“Technology has the potential to build a better world,” says DI Director David Homa in the intro video. “But its applications and uses are often biased,” chimes in GI Director Colleen Ammerman. “And can reinforce systems of inequality,” concludes Homa. What can be done?

Tackling a subject as complex as injustice in tech calls upon the unique perspectives and expertise of the two HBS Initiatives; the DI examines how technology is transforming organizations and the world, and the GI works to eradicate gender, race, and other forms of inequality in business and society. While much of HBS is organized by discipline—finance, marketing, strategy, etc.—the initiatives cut across all of those subjects and explore their connections.

“We always consider multiple audiences at different levels—that's a normal thing for us,” says Homa. “Our communities have intersection points, but there are also large parts that don't connect, and we thought that this is a topic where those in the outer edges of the different communities should be talking. It started with the community, and then we backed into the topics.”

“There’s a lot of attention around diversity and inequality in tech companies and technology itself,” explains Ammerman. “The digital phenomenon is transforming everything about work, and for those of us who think about what work is like for people, it only makes sense for us to consider those points of connection.”

That interdisciplinary nature is evident in the three prongs of the project: Summit Listening, a 10-episode series of video podcasts with scholars, practitioners, and activists; Summit Gathering, a March 31 virtual event with a panel featuring several guests from the video series and a plenary Q+A; and Summit Improving, a cohort community to continue the conversation and implement change.

How to best engage the varied communities within the tech field, and get their insights and lessons out into the world? It takes a whole team, in this case eight dedicated people: Ammerman, Homa, Ethiopiah Al-Mahdi, Tanya Flint, Elizabeth Sarley, Jamie Thomas, and Michelle Monti

DI Community Manager Thomas suggested crafting smaller interconnected offerings as a way of extending the conversations and connecting with the community. “When we have a big event it's great to see people and practitioners face to face, but it's also a bit one sided in that the speakers are presenting their work—it's not really a conversation. We wanted to make sure there was an element of the community voice,” said Thomas. “Inequality in tech is such a relevant, complex, and difficult thing to think about and work through and try to improve. It's not something a few people can solve and do; it's an effort that everyone has to take.” As the project manager, Thomas guided the team towards its goals and maintained multiple overlapping calendars and deadlines.

To quite literally illustrate the concept of the paths being forged and explored in this effort, the DI’s Associate Director of Technology Flint called on her background in web design and sketched out a meandering dotted line with tributaries of questions and islands of expertise. The team quickly realized they had their project hero image, and variations evolved for newsletters and videos. “The pathways represent that we might not know all the possible solutions for these issues,” explains Flint. “There is no one solution, there's no one expert—it's a matter of exploring, and for people to come together and join the pathways.”

To keep those pathways clear and focused, Flint took on what she considers to be her most important role in the project; utilizing technology to help the team work together better and more efficiently. She implemented workflow tools and systems that allow the team to constantly iterate, improve, and to accurately assess and allocate time and resources. Utilizing her coding background, she was able to include content from tools such as Slack into the newsletters that tackle individual issues.

Those newsletters with behind-the-scenes Slack chats were the idea of DI Assistant Director of Communications Sarley and one piece of the project’s communications strategy carried out through many additional assets such as web content, video interviews, social media teaser clips, edited transcripts, and video asks to the community. Sarley collaborated with Al-Mahdi to bring the stories emerging from the listening tour to the community in different formats and viewing timespans.

Rather than expecting everyone to watch a 30-minute video, explained Sarley, the team wanted to offer many avenues for the community to jump into the content and see how they have the power to create change. "This project explores how tech can uphold or reinforce systems of inequality and we didn’t want the way we were delivering the content to be another barrier,” says Sarley.

All of those opportunities for engagement stem from the video podcasts, which were the focus of Community Manager Al-Mahdi’s storytelling and creative direction. As Al-Mahdi explains, what started as a simple concept—formulating interview questions and editing the video into a 30-minute end product—quickly evolved into deeper, thornier issues of institutional responsibility and personal agency. “When most of the people we are speaking with are people of color, it’s not only a question of what to ask, but also, what not to ask. While we have our own goals for this project, we still represent this institution—its power and privilege—and must recognize that there are boundaries to respect,” says Al-Mahdi.

During the editing process, Al-Mahdi found herself spending hours watching and re-watching each interview, intently mindful of these boundaries. “The more I got into it the more it became clear that there was a lot of responsibility. As a person whose identity is core to these spaces and issues, I found myself very protective towards our speakers and their work,” she says. “The line between exploitation and engagement is delicate. How do we make sure that the people we're speaking to are not overexposed? How do we assure that our interests don't supersede theirs? And how do we make sure that they, and their work, shine in a way that is their own?”

With six videos completed and four to go—and an upcoming virtual event—the team has a roadmap, but one that is constantly being fine-tuned. “This is a project that is both creating great content and attempting to ask questions that are sincerely invested in revelations. This has been an enormous opportunity to grow and an active exercise in trust. It's been a hard, rewarding process,” says Al-Mahdi.

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