Black History Month: Sharing Resources to Expand Diversity in Tech

February 2, 2022

Last year, in honor of Black History Month, the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) highlighted pioneers in science and technology (see Part I and Part II of the post). This year, we’ve pulled together a list of resources, including on-campus groups here at UCI. We also list some nationwide organizations and books that focus on diversity and race in technology, as well as spotlight some Black leaders in computer science and engineering, both on and off campus.

“When we think about Black History Month, we usually begin by acknowledging those who have come before us and who are often overlooked in our society,” says Gregory Diggs-Yang, assistant director of the Stacey Nicholas Office of Access and Inclusion (OAI). “We should always honor those trailblazers, but we should also recognize those great contributors who are currently widening the trail and those who are just beginning down it.”

Created in 2014, OAI is a joint office between ICS and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, focused on recruiting, retaining and graduating talented students from historically excluded populations. “The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list,” stresses Diggs-Yang, “but rather a starting point for reflection during Black History Month and a way to recognize current Black visionaries and new pioneers. I am excited to be acknowledging the current unsung heroes of Black history as it is being made.”

Creating a Supportive Campus Culture
We start with a list of organizations at UCI that are focused on supporting the Black community:

  • The Black Faculty & Staff Association (BFSA) provides a sense of purpose for African American faculty and staff by creating a presence on campus that is visible, supportive, nurturing and productive in serving the needs of the African American community (sign up for the BFSA list serve).
  • The Black Graduate Student Network (BGSN) provides an encouraging, inclusive, social networking community for African American graduate and professional students at UCI. The organization’s goals are to strengthen camaraderie among African American students, celebrate the culture they proudly represent, and voice their life and educational experiences to younger underrepresented students so that they may be inspired and supported to pursue graduate education.
  • The Center for Black Cultures, Resources & Research (CBCRR) provides a just, safe, vibrant, inclusive, culturally supportive and socio-ecologically sustainable space — a home away from home — where Black students can thrive and reach for their highest potential.
  • The East African Student Association (EASA) is a cultural organization dedicated to building a community among the East African student population and sharing meaningful experiences and conversations.
  • The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) is a student organization that helps improve the recruitment and retention of Black engineering students.
  • The Nigerian Student Association (NSA) is a cultural organization that aims to bring together students and staff from the African diaspora who are interested in learning more about the roots and beauty of Nigeria.
This short video introduces each of the campus organizations listed above.

These are in addition to UCI’s Black Thriving Initiative, developed specifically to recognize and respond to “anti-Blackness as an existential threat to our mission as public research university.” The initiative is working to create a university culture where Black people thrive.

Expanding Access & Representation
Here, we share a variety of organizations across the nation working to increase diversity in STEM education and the tech industry:

  • AllStarCode teaches computer science skills to young Black men.
  • supports women in technical fields.
  • Black in AI has thousands of members working on initiatives to increase the presence of Black people in the field of Artificial Intelligence.
  • Black Female Founders is a global membership community for Black women in leadership roles within the tech industry. 
  • Black Founders seeks to empower Black tech entrepreneurs by creating an ecosystem of advice, mentorship, and funding.
  • Black Girls Code empowers girls of color ages 7 to 17 to be STEM leaders.
  • BLACKandSTEM is a community of Black STEM students, professionals, and advocates.
  • Blacks in Technology (BiT) is a global platform for Black women and men in technology.
  • Blacks United in Leading Technology Int’l (BUiLT) is the largest community and nonprofit professional organization that focuses on Black people in the technology industry.
  • Black Women in STEM is an online community for self-identified Black women in STEM.
  • Cite Black Women is a campaign to push people to engage in a radical praxis of citation that acknowledges and honors Black women’s transnational intellectual production.
  • Code2040 aims to dismantle structural barriers that prevent Black and Latinx people from becoming tech industry leaders.
  • Data for Black Lives is a movement of activists, organizers and mathematicians committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people.
  • /dev/color is a nonprofit networking organization that empowers Black software engineers to become industry leaders.
  • Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research (DAIR) is a space founded by Timnit Gebru for independent, community-rooted AI research free from Big Tech’s pervasive influence.
  • People of Color in Tech (POCIT) is a resource dedicated to telling the stories of people of color in tech.
  • StrongTIES promotes K-12 STEAM education.
  • Zyrobotics is an educational technology company that makes STEM learning accessible to all children.

Reading and Learning
From children’s books on coding to a discussion of race after technology, this list covers a variety of perspectives when it comes to exploring diversity in STEM:

  • Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble 
  • Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton D. McIlwain
  • Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in Stem by Tonya Bolden
  • Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures by Andre Brock Jr.
  • How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Funk (children’s book)
  • “Interrogating Structural Racism in STEM Higher Education” by Ebony Omotola McGee in Educational Researcher (PDF available)
  • Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care by Dayna Bowen Matthew (or Just Health: Treating Structural Racism to Heal America, release date 2/22/22)
  • Power and Privilege in the Learning Sciences: Critical and Sociocultural Theories of Learning, edited by Indigo Esmonde and Angela N. Booker
  • Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin
  • Sasha Savvy Loves to Code by Sasha Ariel Alston (children’s book)
  • Women of Color in Tech: A Blueprint for Inspiring and Mentoring the Next Generation of Technology Innovators by Susanne Tedrick

Following Influential Leaders
Many of the organizations listed earlier were founded by pioneering tech leaders, some of whom we highlight here, along with other Black leaders in STEM. This is just a small sampling of the many Black innovators we hope you’re following on social media:

Highlighting UCI Innovators
Of course, we also want to highlight Black innovators in STEM here at UCI in engineering and in the information and computer sciences.

In the Samueli School of Engineering, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Tayloria Adams studies the physical properties of stem cell and cancer cell populations using innovative microfluidic devices. Her projects use electric currents and cell motion to develop membrane capacitance and other measurable cellular properties as reliable label-free biological markers. She holds a patent for her discoveries and was a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellow and UCI Chancellor’s ADVANCE Postdoctoral Fellow. Adams recently earned a prestigious NSF CAREER award and an award from the University of California Cancer Research Coordinating Committee. Also, she is working with a multidisciplinary team to develop a curriculum focused on the meaningful engagement of minoritized students in the classroom. This NSF-funded grant, led by Pheather R. Harris, director of UCI’s California Alliance for Minority Participation, is cutting-edge and explores the environmental factors causing minoritized students to leave STEM. Adams is also highly engaged in activities to increase the number of Black high school, undergraduate and graduate students pursuing STEM fields.

“Black History Month is very important to me,” says Adams. “It’s a chance for reflection on the strength of my ancestors, which I channel into my research, teaching, and service. I strive to be my ancestors’ wildest dreams and to influence the next generation of Black engineers.”

Also in the Samueli School of Engineering, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Timothy Downing is leading a team of interdisciplinary researchers working to uncover the molecular and physical principles of epigenome replication. The project is funded through a $3 million NSF grant for research that seeks to better understand the dynamic nature of the epigenome, which will open new possibilities for cellular engineering. The award will also support activities that broaden participation in science among high schoolers and undergraduates, including students from underrepresented groups. In addition, Downing received $2 million in funding for a 2019 New Innovator Award. With this work, he aims to shed light on how mechanical cues integrate with and give rise to disease-driving epigenetic mutations, ultimately leading to the discovery of better treatment options for cancer patients.

“Black History Month is a great opportunity for us all to reflect and remember to bring our full self into the edges of the social networks that we live and work in,” says Downing. “It represents the idea that there’s space in our society for everyone to exist and participate authentically. When we do that, incredible things happen.”

In the School of ICS, Assistant Professor of Informatics Roderic Crooks studies the intersections of race, technology and public life. His current project explores how community organizers in working-class communities of color use data for activist projects, even as they dispute the proliferation of data-intensive technologies in education, law enforcement, financial services and other vital sites of civic concern.

“The pursuit of science, including information and computer sciences, does not exempt anyone from participation in the complex dynamics and shared histories of anti-Black racism in the United States and across the world,” says Crooks. “We are all deeply enmeshed in systems of power and privilege that benefit some and harm others based on interlocking hierarchies of citizenship, wealth, race, class, gender, sexuality and disability. I am encouraged by the increased willingness of our students to name these dynamics and to consider the study of structural oppression central to the work we do in ICS.”

Also in the School of ICS is Ian Harris, who has been a professor in the Department of Computer Science since 2004. His research interests include the design of secure hardware and software systems and the application of natural language understanding to security and design. His current projects include the detection of phone-based social engineering attacks, the formalization of natural language specifications, and the development of a cyber test range to evaluate the security of IoT systems. He is also leading a team of students participating in the MITRE Embedded Capture the Flag competition.

Joni Ricks-Oddie is the first full-time director of the UCI Center for Statistical Consulting and is also director of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS) Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design (BERD) Unit. By managing both, Ricks-Oddie — who earned her Ph.D. in epidemiology from UCLA in 2012 — has streamlined processes so the two groups operate in sync as a “one-stop shop” for the UCI community and affiliated organizations needing to collaborate with a statistician. She works with a variety of organizations, including Chapman University and Children’s Hospital of Orange County, and has organized many training sessions and workshops at UCI. She has a heart for working on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)-related projects and is currently helping to lead the ICTS Black Thriving Initiative Strategic Plan as well as working with faculty in the Statistics department to expose underrepresented minority (URM) middle and high school students to careers in statistics and data science.

“Every few decades our nation has a crisis of conscience as it pertains to its Black citizenry,” says Ricks-Oddie. “We change policies, enact new laws, develop diversity initiatives and commit to do better. Unfortunately, each time, the situation or crisis that initiated the movement ultimately gets forgotten and society moves on to some other, more fashionable issue. I truly hope this time we do not get weary in well-doing and are able to sustain our commitment to making UCI a place where Black people are truly able to thrive and be their authentic selves.”

Shani Murray