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“Data, Activism, and Intersectionality”: Panel Re-cap

By Adam Tomasi

On Thursday, October 19, 2020, the NULab hosted a virtual panel, “Data, Activism, and Intersectionality,” with three panelists whose work in digital humanities, both within and outside the academy, engages questions of process, power, and representation. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Professor of  English and Co-Director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, served as the moderator. The panelists were J. Khadijah Abdurahman, director of the We Be Imagining public technology project housed in The Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) at Columbia University; Faithe Day, a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation at Purdue University; and Sureshi Jayawardene, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University.

The panel began with introductory remarks by NULab core faculty member Angel David Nieves, Professor of Africana Studies, History, and Digital Humanities and the Director of Public Humanities at Northeastern University. Prof. Nieves reflected upon the importance of new scholarship in post-colonial and feminist DH, and the questions posed by recent books such as Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble (2018) and Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein (2020). Nieves concluded with the imperative that “feminist intersectional activism must combine analog and digital” methodologies as a form of “embodied process.”

J. Khadijah Abdurahman’s presentation focused upon the potential and pitfalls of “relational information science networks” for Black people, as relationality can either repair past harms or become weaponized by unequal and racist systems. She prompted the audience to consider how diversity can act as an “extractive” project, one which should be supplanted by “symbiotic, mutually beneficial networks.” Abdurahman’s reflections interrogated respectability politics, the whiteness of mainstream DH, and the role of capitalism and a shrinking civil society in shaping narratives represented in networks. The questions that Abdurahman interrogates have sprouted from her activism as a child welfare system abolitionist, which was a point of emphasis for her. We Be Imagining, as a public technology project, builds “alternative digital and social infrastructures” through the ideas and relationships it conceives in a podcast and weekly radio show. WBI also runs an incubator for “alternatives to enterprise video conference software and…new digital storytelling tools.” More information can be found at the project website.

Faithe Day presented on her latest project, the Black Living Data Booklet (#BLDB), which aims for “media consumption and information through discernment and care,” particularly collecting data on one’s own engagement with the digital as a reflexive act. The Booklet deliberately engages with “harms of data collection for Black communities” and centers intersectional storytelling and Black queer methodologies in building community archives, developing “daily data practice,” and resisting corporations that collect data for profit. Important themes for Day include “embodiment, affect, and pleasure,” which are connected to feminist care ethics. Day’s goal, also shared by Abdurahman in We Be Imagining, is “ensuring people outside academic institutions have access to knowledge.” The Black Living Data Booklet can be found here.

A screenshot from the Black Living Data Booklet, discussed by panelist Faithe Day. 

Professor Sureshi Jayawardene presented on “StoryMap(ping) Black Urban Experiences in the Africana Studies Classroom,” which she has published on this year in the Journal of African American Studies. In her “Black Urban Experience” course, Prof. Jayawardene teaches the ArcGIS StoryMaps platform to her students for their final projects about an aspect of the Black urban experience in an American city. The goal of the final project is to inspire students to think about Black contributions to the “culture and character” of a city, which adds an essential layer to histories traditionally focused upon oppression: structural racism and Black place-making co-existing in the contested space of a city. Jayawardene reflected upon digital teaching practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, which “facilitates but forecloses possibilities” for learning. The fact that courses are required to be online means that academic DH practitioners cannot freely experiment with teaching practices, but they must retain the “ability to think of limits to the virtual taken from us by necessity.”

Following these presentations was a discussion among the panelists and attendees, which included Northeastern students and faculty, and members of the wider DH community in Boston.

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