Woodrow W Winchester III, a senior lecturer and director of engineering management in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, has registered a couple of notable achievements recently. First, he was invited to be a fellow in the second cohort of the National Science Foundation-funded Aspire Alliance’s Institutional Change Network IAspire Leadership Academy. Then, Fast Company published an enlightening article written by Winchester addressing racial bias in the design of emerging technologies.
The IAspire Leadership Academy is intended to develop and train the next generation of underrepresented leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics higher education. As the academy representatives wrote to Winchester, “This program will equip you with skills to lead more effectively in an increasingly complex environment and give you confidence to influence institutional transformation either from your current position or as you rise to other positions of leadership.”
The letter went on to explain that the IAspire Leadership Academy is a structured development experience over the course of two years. The first year focuses on core curriculum, and the second year is an in-residence action project experience utilizing the new knowledge and skills gained. The first year includes three in-person sessions which link to, and build upon, one another.
“You will experience coaching from your peers and trained facilitators,” as the academy reps wrote to Winchester. “Additionally, you’ll also be provided with self-directed learning experiences between the sessions.”
In his Fast Company article, Winchester explained that “Black-centered designs are the key to “dismantling the New Jim Code,” the racial inequities in new technologies. “Black-centered design approaches offer a framework by which the nuanced complexities of the Black identity can act as an ethos for creating more equitable and just emerging technological solutions.”
Winchester went on to write that “The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Blacks and the continued violence against Black lives as elucidated in protests responding to the death of George Floyd have thrown light on pervasive systemic racism against Black people in the United States. That extends to the technology industry. Anti-Black racism in technological design abounds, and it cannot go unnoticed and unchallenged.”
As illustrations, Winchester recounted that many wearable heartrate trackers rely on technology that could be less reliable for users with darker skin, which negatively impacts people of color whose employers incentivize employees’ use of fitness trackers with extra vacation days, gear, or even lower health insurance premiums.
In addition, Winchester pointed out, recent studies on facial recognition technologies find that many of these systems perform poorly on Black faces, “compounding the problem of racist policing practices and a deeply flawed and harmful criminal justice system,” Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League wrote on Medium.
Winchester also wrote that the future imagined by Anthony Walton in his 1999 The Atlantic essay, “Technology Versus African-Americans,” has seemingly come to pass. But it can still be changed, said Winchester, who declared that, to move forward, designers of emerging technology have to prioritize the needs, values, and desires of Black bodies and lives.
As Winchester wrote in his Fast Company essay, “Dismantling the New Jim Code—as with the political and social strategies that Blacks leveraged to combat Jim Crow laws—requires new design perspectives and power paradigms. It requires Black-Centered Design. Black-Centered Design approaches offer a framework by which the nuanced complexities of the Black identity can act as an ethos for creating more equitable and just emerging technological solutions.”
In addition to his leadership positions in the MIE department, Winchester is also the director of professional development and continuing education for the American Society for Engineering Management.
Winchester also represented the MIE department and the college at Primer 2020 on June 25. As he said, his representation there gives MIE’s engineering management program visibility in some very influential practitioner communities and it illustrates how the program “is being intentional in fostering and amplifying more inclusive technological design philosophies and practices.” (July 2020)