Month: January 2020

human rightsSocial Justice

They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds

On this past Sunday, we marched in Decatur, GA in unity with millions others in India and across the world in opposition to India’s Citizen Amendment Act. To quote the Wikipedia article

The act was the first instance of religion being overtly used as a criterion for citizenship under Indian nationality law.

There are many complexities to the law. In summary, it means that Muslims freeing persecution are not eligible for refugee status. Most immediately, the bill would mean the exclusion of the 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing genocide in Myanmar. It also impacts the perhaps tens of millions of Muslims who came to India in the years since the partition of 1947. Families that have lived in India for generations lack the documentation to substantiate their citizenship status (if you had to pack up and leave in an instant with the clothes on your back, documentation might be the least of your worries).

But it to say that combined with other recent legislation, it has the potential to make 100 million Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities stateless. This is an unprecedented human tragedy in the making.

It’s immediate impact has been the increase in violence against Muslims and those of all faiths and castes who support a state based upon tolerance and a respect for all humanity.

The most poignant protests have been the women-led non-violent demonstrations in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighborhood.

Understandably, the bill has been condemned by the international community for example by Human Rights Watch, there is stunning overlap with the Nazi government’s 1935 Reich Citizenship Law.

It was a blessing and gift for us to stand on the right side of history in support of human rights.

During the march there were a few tense moments. Our daughter was concerned about arrest. Thanks to the tremendous service of the de-escalation professionals on hand, our interactions with the police were constructive.

I reminded our daughter that right to assemble, even to drink Boba Tea when and where she chooses was earned by the sacrifices of children like her who had marched in Atlanta, Montgomery, Chicago, and other countless places. The following day was the “official” Martin Luther King holiday. We enjoyed tea and took a moment in John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park to reflect.

The Bridge is a monument in Freedom Park memorializing the Civil Rights movement

Photograph of an Atlanta Civil Rights activist in Freedom Park

Notes from the Black In AI 2019 Workshop

In early December, I attended the Black In AI workshop (BAI), part of the NeurIPS AI conference held in Vancouver.

Timnet Gebru and Rediet Abebe founded BAI three years ago to address the near complete lack of Black and African voices at NeurIPS and other AI conferences.

Over that period, the organization has had a tremendous impact: participation has grown to several hundred attendees, it has spawned affiliated conferences like Deep Learning Indaba , it was instrumental in bringing the Eighth International Conference on Learning Representations to Ethiopia in 2020, and it has initiated a range of mentoring and training efforts across the African diaspora.

I spent few hours this year participating as an organizer (some coordination of remote presenters and travel grants). The talks were streamed and recorded here.

There is a lot that I learned by participating and it was an honor to work with the brilliant people who made the conference happen — I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to think through in hopes that there might be some nuggets of value.

The interesting stuff happens at the margins

When I first started in AI, it was an area that existed on the margin of computer science. Neural networks were on the margin of that margin. I think that there is a lot of freedom and creativity that comes when one is open to just think and experiment — there is also the pressure of proving the viability of your position. You can find real innovation being birthed if you look carefully. When you hear talks put all your assumptions into question, then you know that you’ve probably arrived at the right place.

What I found then at Black In AI was a lot of work questioning basic assumptions of a field which has moved from the margin to the spotlight (literally half of the commercial booths at the NeurIPS were hedge funds).

There are three talks (among many ) that stood out for me in this respect.

Abeba Birhane: Rethinking the Ethical Foundations of AI

I had the privilege of hearing Abeba Birhane who was deservedly awarded the Best Paper.

There is a lot of work on bias in machine learning models — for example Assessing Social and Intersectional Biases in Contextualized Word Representations was presented a few days after Birhane’s talk. A lot of the “solutions” in the fairness literature focus on de-biasing of the training and inference process. But Birhane’s talk called into question the point of de biasing algorithms, probing the intent of these algorithms. Is the point to present decision processes that are unfair as fair? Is the point really to reify structural oppression — to put lipstick on a pig (to borrow the title of one paper) ? She is searching for the voices of the marginalized in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

To take a concrete example, many companies are using the app to rewrite job descriptions to have less gender bias. But maybe identifying the bias is really more an indicator of internal structural patterns of oppression? But how do you get companies to address the internal gender issues that give rise to these biased job descriptions to begin with?


Her talks are recorded. Relational Ethics, starts at 20:30 into the presentation. Her talk at ML for the Developing World: Challenges and Risks starts 38:00 in. There is an accompanying blog post .

Matthew Kinney — Defending Black Twitter from Deepfakes

There was Matthew Kinney’s talk “Creative Red Teaming: Approaches to Addressing Bias and Misuse in Machine Learning” — an approach using deep learning to safeguard internet platforms from misinformation campaigns.

Kinney began looking at the Internet Research Agency‘s disinformation effort when it became apparent that Black Twitter was being targeted as part of voter suppression efforts. Since BAI, we’ve seen similar campaigns launched in support of India’s Citizen Amendment Act and other repressive efforts — these campaigns are likely to be a constant this year, making Kinney’s work all the more critical.

Less you think that the disinformation campaigns are just about the use of video manipulation, Kinney makes the point that misinformation based upon text generators like Open AI’s GPT-2 can be more harmful.


Sara Menker: Data Science for Agriculture

One of the other impactful talks was by Sarah Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence — a company that does agricultural analytics. I was interested in how the data science team in particular manages rapid response to develop models in response to rapidly changing weather and farming conditions and also how they deal with a team that is split across Kenya and New York.

Sarah Menker’s talk starts 1:48 into the video.

Prominent themes

There were a number oral presentations at BAI are around speech and language processing — particularly the development of technology to support support Amharic, Tigre, Yoruba, and other African languages. I spoke with the founder of a small startup Latan who is working on Tigre translation. Healthcare and agriculture applications featured prominently.


Remote Presentations

A number of presenters were not able to make it, mostly due to visa issues (details of this below). The diversity of their talks are indicative of the richness of the research community. Here’s a recording of Simba Nyatsanga’s talk on automatic video captioning

You can access the Black In AI 2019 Youtube channel to view the others.

Visa Privilege

One of the many issues that Black In AI has tackled was transportation exclusion. Many researchers from from Africa, South America, and the Caribbean lack either the institutional or personal resources that would enable a trip to Canada (or other destinations where computing conferences are frequently held). A large part of BAI’s fund raising effort is about putting the resources together to bridge that gap — travel grants for presenters and other attendees also provide airfare and lodging. This makes BAI one of the most economically inclusive workshops.

All that said, an on-going challenge down to the last minute was getting presenters to the conference.

We had nearly 40 presenters denied visas right off. Most of these were reversed once senior IRCC officials reviewed the applications, but for many, it came too late, in some cases the day that the conference was to start. In large part, denials and subsequent reversals seemed to hinge on a political calculus. Senior officials only became involved after pressure from Wired and BBC articles and members of the House of Commons, and various high profile AI researchers.

My analysis is that Canada wants itself perceived as an inclusive country with a progressive visa policy and is planning on building AI as a growth industry. Although these values may not be shared by individual in-consular staff, or maybe even the AI programs used for visa screening. This isn’t much the case in the U.S., where policies are in open opposition to fair visa access to persons from Africa, Islamic countries, and other locations outside of Europe, the U.S, Canada, and Australia.

Despite the reversals, there were other unexpected visa conundrums. Several participants flying through South Africa had to be provided with alternate tickets to deal with not having transit visas for Hong Kong. Several Nigerian presenters were price gouged by Turkish Airlines when trying to get on their flights. That is, they were presented with additional substantial visa fees at the gate. The complaints of stemming from these policies resulted in last week’s suspension of Turkish Airlines in Nigeria. Conference organizers had to scramble to find alternate flights home for those who flew on Turkish Airlines. I give these anecdotes only to highlight the immense privileges that those of us in the U.S., EU, and Canada enjoy in having relatively open and worry free travel.

Planning Distributed conferences

Pulling off the Black in AI workshop itself was the epitome of a distributed team in action. As we began dealing with the problem of managing visa rejections in Brazil and Nigeria, or just managing hotel payments and livestreams highlighted the need for coordination and process. There is a lot of process knowledge that I feel is unique to making such a trans-national, inclusive (language, gender identity, diverging racial categorizations) work. I wondered about the best ways to capture and curate knowledge.

On Having Allies

I was encouraged to see individuals come together in sincere, and supportive ways to bring about a wider view of what global collaboration could be. The coordinated effort by people in Women In AI and LatinX in AI was amazing. The tireless, round the clock efforts by those both famous and invisible, the commitments to encouraging and supporting the emergence of new scholars, developers, artists, thinkers was uplifting in spite of so many other causes for concern. I don’t doubt that there is an AI bubble, or that in a few years the generative networks and transformers will be pedestrian as rice cookers or smoke alarms — less AI than just another kind of device or program. What I think is that getting people together from across the globe, really from across the globe — from across the economic and gender and racial divides — is really how important and unimagined change happens.

Black Women's HealthHealthcare Inequality

Centering the health of Black women

It has been three months since my mother died. Through the deep feeling of loss, I am learning that the process of grieving is a continuous reflection: a meditation to pull meaning, hope, joy, wisdom out of memories that are still sharp and vivid.

More than anything, I am left with a profound sense of gratitude. That she shared, loved, and praised so generously. That she rejoiced in giving, embodying her birth name Joyce. I feel gratitude that she lived a full and glorious 88 years, educating scores of children as a middle school teacher, enjoining her many friends to “Keep hope alive and keep your spirits up”, encouraging her neighbors, church members, and relatives with gestures large and small of love and acceptance. I feel immense gratitude that she left to this world friends, nieces, cousins, children who still continue to support each other and strive to carry on the essence of her soul. She never forgot a birthday — celebrating each with elegantly crafted cards adorned with exquisite calligraphy and thoughtful words. Her retirement was spent as a prayer to life: gardening, traveling, and loving three grandchildren. For these gifts, I am thankful.

She indeed gifted us many lessons. The way in which she died — to be specific her last few weeks in the hospital — is one among many; a kind of charge, a parting story to be unfolded by us the living to survey, understand, and learn from in order to improve and uplift the lives of the next generations. This particular lesson is on how health is provided and not provided to women of color; it is about how a system fails to understand and value the lives of Black women; it is about how to destruct and then rebuild a racialized hierarchy of who lives and who dies.

This life life lesson from Joyce is to figure out how to center the health and well being of Black women.

Let me explain. My mother had to be taken to the emergency room after dealing with stomach pain that had gone on for weeks. Like many Black women of that age, she had feared going to doctors — news is often bad, and for Black women born in the 1930’s the remembrance of Tuskegee experiments, segregated hospitals, visits to doctors who could not be bothered to appreciated and respect Black women’s bodies play into the oft-quoted “anywhere but the doctor” sentiment. There is a podcast How the bad blood started, that sets this in historical context.

When my mother arrived at the hospital, I don’t doubt that the immediate emergency surgery — removing a section of her intestine — was performed well. American excels at emergency and trauma response and has probably mastered what to do with Black bodies in physical trauma. You see this approach to care in the policies that govern many communities of color.

The tripartite system of the IHS, tribally operated clinics, and urban Indian clinics represent a unique ecology within which American Indians seek help for physical, mental, alcohol, and drug problems. This is particularly relevant when discussing health care challenges for American Indian elderly since the emphasis of the IHS system is on acute rather than chronic health problems

From Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health in Late Life: A Research Agenda. National Research Council (US) at

In the days that followed — as my mother tried to recover from the stomach surgery — I began to notice a pattern. The Black nurses seemed to spend more time, ask more questions. One of the Black nurses braided her hair, spent the time to turn her gently, administer the massages to keep her muscles moving, southed her mouth with water to keep the dryness in check. They took the time to perceive and understand their patient, to build the bonds of knowing and trust that would facilitate care. They took the time to recognize her humanity and enter into the process of healing. The White nurses seemed indifferent at best. I noted in my journal trying to disbelieve my eyes.

The surgeons — they were all white — offered curt responses to our questions. When my brother and I asked why duplicate tests had been run, why we were not consulted about a procedure, we were met with defensiveness. You can’t imagine the the restraint required of a data scientist not to resort to physical violence when they dismissed and told not to ask questions, when their mother’s health is at question.

Along with one of the Black nurses, we — her children — figured out that she had likely had a stroke; that sometime on the Tuesday of her second week in the hospital she had lost a lot of the functioning on her left side. As she began to fade, we only got partial answers from the doctors. What was a minor stroke one day, was significant the next. She developed a throat infection, she began to fade. Again, it was the Black caregivers at a hospice center that insured that her final hours at home were calm, prayerful.

Three months after my mother’s passing, we are still consulting with Medicare and the insurer on procedures that may or may not have been necessary or duplicative.

Everyone will acknowledge that the U.S. medical system is in crisis. It assumes that cases will be resolved through litigation — so stories of mothers falling through the cracks of overworked providers are common. Billboards of malpractice attorneys feature prominently in Atlanta — they are on buses, on the radio, and their ads will track you on the internet. Yes, I get that, but there are other factors at work.

In this Longreads piece, Danielle Jackson talks about the mortality crisis facing Black mothers. Lest you think this is just about poverty and access to adequate health — it certainly is a factor — please remember how Serena Williams nearly lost her life in childbirth. Don’t take my word or those of my mother’s — physicians do not see Black women, they are not trained to see Black women.

It goes much, much further. Georgia’s governor proposed this year to cut funding for research aimed at improving maternal health for Black women. A study came out after my mother’s funeral which highlighted how algorithms used in hospitals to allocate care showed bias against Black patients. We are apparently just not worth saving. Further, if you are a Black scientist interested in doing research on how to improve the health of Black people, it will be harder for you to obtain research funding and obtain tenure.

The figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control tell bittersweet stories.

Thankfully, the racial disparities in mortality have decreased — from a five year gap in life expectancy between Black and White women in 1999 to a 3 year gap in 2013. But despite that drop, the gap seems to have been been constant over the first part of the 2010s. Further, disparities in the number of deaths around childbirth and Alzheimer’s disease have increased.

The day after my mother’s passing I learned that my oldest son and his companion were expecting a child. It brought joy to our family in a dark time, but there yet we have to go forward in the knowledge that his partner, and their child are at higher risk giving birth in the U.S. than in the Caribbean. They live in Illinois, where the Black infant mortality rate is 12.8 — higher than that of the Virgin Islands, Barbados, Granada, Saint Lucia, Antigua, and the Bahamas. In London, the infant mortality rate among mothers of Caribbean descent is 8% — although this is twice that of the general population it still gives children born to Black mothers better odds than Chicago or Atlanta. In other words, in nearby places with Black populations of 90% or greater, infants are faring better. There is nothing inherent about Black children that predisposes them to die like this.

As I contemplate the seriousness of these trends, I recall my grandmother who was lost to Alzheimer’s. As we sat planning the funeral, we received a visit from one of Mom’s college friends who was going through the early stages of the disease. She had been brought to our home by a friend who had explained that they were trying to participate in a clinical trial to address the low participation of Black women in experimental Alzheimer’s therapies.

But there is something more in these figures as I think about it. Does the United States preserve this hierarchy of healthcare because it would undo axioms of existence? As the Center for American Progress stated in this 2018 report

That is, the social and economic forces of institutional racism set African American and non-Hispanic white women on distinct life tracks, with long-term consequences for their health and the health of their future children. The experience of systematic racial bias—not race itself—compromises health.

Exploring African Americans’ High Maternal and Infant Death Rates,  Cristina Novoa and Jamila Taylor

The racist hierarchy of how health in the United States is done is apparent in so many ways.

Even with ACA, people of color — for Indigenous, African American, and Latinx citizens most acutely — continue to be mis-treated under the U.S. healthcare system. From Key Facts on Health and Health Care by Race and Ethnicity | The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Among the Indigenous peoples of the United States, 30% have no access to health insurance, among African Americans, the uninsured rate is 12%. What are the lessons to be learned from the relative resilience of LatinX citizens? Are the racial categories of the 19th and 20th century, constructed out of a context white supremacy appropriate for the challenges that are faced in the 21st century? What are the objective ways in which these disparities can be effectively addressed?

There are people that are wrestling with these questions. Healers like Brittany Kellman are trying to create health centers that actively engage with the unique health situation of Black women. But the barriers of access, physician engagement, perception, and systemic pressures are huge.

Ultimately, radical change in healthcare options depend upon the willingness of government and systems to address disparity. The access to health and being should not be left to the luck of the draw — where you live, who your parents were.

In my desire to be an optimist, ideas and thoughts on addressing the problem:

Mural near my grandmother’s childhood home
  • If you’re African American, talk to your friends and loved ones about health. Discuss what’s worked, what hasn’t. The challenges you’ve faced. Document your interactions with the healthcare system. Knowledge is power, sharing is love.
  • Find the healers, providers, institutions in your community that care and are invested in improving the health of Black people generally and Black women in particular.
  • Encourage your mothers, aunts, daughters, partners to get care from the providers that care. Work with each other to take ownership of care, health and healing.
  • If you’re a healthcare professional, it’s time to demand a rethinking of how nurses and doctors are trained to interact with their patients. You cannot save our lives if you cannot appreciate our humanity.
  • Regardless of your political affiliation, you can work to ensure that everyone in the U.S. has access to healthcare that keeps them alive and well. Ask yourself if the county you live in ever worried about the cost of endless wars or drone terrorism.

No, I have not solved this gem of a puzzle that Joyce bequeathed. It is one of the many meditations of grief.