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Big Data as a Force for Equity

A Conversation with Dr. Khadijia Monk and Dr. Theodoric Manley

West Big Data Innovation Hub writer Kim Bruch recently sat down with Dr. Khadija Monk and Dr. Theodoric (Ted) Manley to reflect on Black History Month and the role

Dr. Khadija Monk

of big data in their research and work. Monk and Manley, participants with the California State University—Los Angeles Spoke Project entitled Big Data to Promote Community Learning and Impact, have been working with students on using big data to explore an array of research topics for many years.

KB: What does Black History Month mean to you?

TM: When I first learned about Black history month, I was a freshman in High School (1971). My language arts teacher introduced and exposed us to the play by Lorraine Hansberry A Raisin in the Sun and showed the original movie performance of the play produced in 1961. I was very naïve about Black history as I attended a white school with very few teachers of color. Mr. Certane, my language arts teacher and track coach, was the first African American male I encountered in the classroom even though I witnessed several of Dr. King’s speeches on television as a child. My parents were part of the second wave of the Great Migration, and they seldom talked about the Jim Crow South in our home except on occasions when we visited our grandparents in Georgia and Florida and were told to stay away from areas where whites lived. Lorrianne Hansberry’s play was inspiring to me because I could feel the

Dr. Theodoric (Ted) Manley, Jr.

compassion, anger, failure, and beauty of being Black and the wonderment of all the ways Black was felt by male, female, mother, sister, child, and whites throughout the play. For the first time, I understood how one’s outward appearance carried meaning for oneself and those around you. While I maintained close relationships with whites (mostly Jews and Italians), I began to understand racial difference and immersed myself in reading literature on the Black experience with the guidance of my older sister who was member of a book club and ordered several genres focusing on Black history from slavery to freedom.

KM: I struggle with Black History Month. As I become more aware of the historical duality that plagues the United States, this month evokes pride, frustration, and purpose. When I say the historical duality, I am referring to, on the one hand, the Eurocentric history we have been taught is responsible for building our nation. On the other hand, the violent and generally ignored history that physically created this prosperous country. It is hard for me to reconcile these two histories. To illustrate, as a Gen-Xer, growing up in the 1980s “post-racial and colorblind era”, I took away the same Black history lessons most of my generation received to the dismay of our parents and grandparents: a cursory look at the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fredrik Douglass, and other Black scholars, activists, and artists who contributed to American culture we never knew existed, and immediately stop discussing, on March 1st.

To add to my own cultural ignorance, my mother and grandparents provided little historical context to Black history in the United States other than making me watch the movie Roots while avoiding discussions about the bullet holes in the windows and ditches in the front yard of their Birmingham home from burning crosses. In my angsty youth, I misinterpreted their avoidance of race and civil rights issues as everything but what it was, trauma. So, Black History Month evokes frustration in me because of those emotions.

At the same time, those Black contributors to American culture bring me tremendous pride and joy. Particularly with the technological accessibility of previous historical documents. I feel that I can now incorporate a more holistic historical background into my pedagogy. I feel a renewed sense of purpose if I can combine complex cultural contexts to data to explain why urban communities, for example, look the way they do.

KB: What and who inspired you to take on a career in academia?

KM: What inspired me was the last job I had before returning to graduate school. I was working at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I was so impressed by the international students who came to the Kennedy School to take an active role in strengthening developing democracies through civic engagement. Likewise, I was also amazed at local politicians and policymakers from the United States who attended the Kennedy School to improve their communities. I sat in on a few classes and thought about the collective synergy and problem-solving I witnessed in various classroom settings. I then thought about those faculty members’ academic and scholarly work and how their research and teaching could positively impact policies, systems, and structures worldwide. Finally, I began reflecting on what I could do. I thought about how I could contribute to improving urban communities in the United States. Specifically, communities I saw decimated by the War on Drugs policies of the 1980s and 1990s, Reaganomics, urban disinvestment, and the collective stigmatization of marginalized people concentrated in these places. What inspired me was witnessing people who looked like me, Black and Brown people, working to improve democracy through local policymaking. I thought I could impact more people through a career in academia, than through policymaking in one arena.

KB: What and who inspired you to utilize big data for your research?

TM: When I attended the University of Chicago for a PhD in 1982, Professor Donald Bogue introduced me to demography, the study of population characteristics. At that time, he was working on publishing the Population of the United States along with several of his colleagues in geography. The data were national, and I was fascinated by the patterns and trends represented in the data. What intrigued me the most were the differences between the white and people of color populations on mortality, morbidity, fertility, employment, unemployment, income, and family structure. I began to look at these characteristics by cities to understand and compare various characteristics of the population across various Metropolitan regions. This experience led me to appreciate the power of big data.

KB: What do you think of the current state of diversity in academic research and specifically big data?

TM: While we’ve come a long way there is more to be done particularly in representing progressive ideas and solutions using big data. I think there is a learning curve for some while others need to acquire an appreciation for the value of big data in documenting social issues and resolving social problems.

KM: If we can get more diverse researchers to influence and contribute to big datasets then we have an opportunity to develop more inclusive solutions. However, I feel that academic research is still viewed by the academy in very narrow terms (i.e., peer-reviewed publications, large national grants, and positive statistical findings). I think when we can begin to appreciate the development of bigger datasets that focus on non-traditional Eurocentric correlates and are okay with “messy” findings, then we may have a chance at developing more inclusive policies and solutions not currently captured in traditional big data.

KB: If you could have dinner with someone who was a pioneer for civil rights, who would it be and why? What would you ask him/her?

TM: I would have dinner with Ella Baker, former Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker was an important icon in establishing the concept of group centered leadership. I’d like to discuss with her the way she created group centered leadership and organizing.

KM: I have a self-serving answer, and that would be my maternal grandparents, who passed when I was too young and angsty to appreciate them. I think about them a lot and how they would respond to the myriad of current racial injustices. I would want them to tell me how they used their barbershop in Birmingham as a community meeting spot for activism. I would like them to tell me how they subtly involved themselves in social movements. They, along with my mother, now in her 70s, have continually influenced my moral compass. I can feel the tension and trauma of their lived experiences of racial injustice at my heels, which fuels me to do better.

KB: What advice would you give to new academic researchers of diverse backgrounds?

KM: Find a support group! Minority researchers may be the only ones in their cohort or program. Often, when I speak to minority graduate students, they desire to develop workgroup relationships they see developing in their programs. Faculty of Color, depending on the University or organization, may feel the same way. What I suggest, and what has helped me, is connecting with other minority scholars and practitioners. This support/writing/research group can help with career advice and lead to developing research projects that use big data in non-traditional ways.

TM: Try to incorporate big data wherever possible when describing and analyzing issues in your field of interest.

About the West Big Data Innovation Hub: The West Big Data Innovation Hub is one of four regional hubs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build and strengthen strategic partnerships across industry, academia, nonprofits, and government. The West Hub community aims to catalyze and scale data science for societal needs – connecting research, education, and practice in thematic areas such as natural resources and hazards, metro data science, health, and data-enabled discovery and learning. Coordinated by UC Berkeley’s Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and the University of Washington, the West Hub region includes contributors and data enthusiasts from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and a global network of partners.


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