Improving Computer Science in and outside of Waterloo

Fatema presents next ot a presentation slide that defines an algorithm

Last month the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group (WPIRG) held the “Getting Organized: Tools for Resisting White Supremacy” conference, comprised of many workshops, talks and events, among them the “Manifestations of Racism in STEM” event. Fourth-year student Fatema Boxwala had the opportunity to speak as a panelist as part of this discussion. Today we’re interviewing her about her experiences as a Computer Science student working in the technology sector, and the activism she brings to it.

Fatema Boxwala is a fourth-year student in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, minoring in Fine Arts. For four years, she has been working toward change in the Math community at Waterloo, and her journey to her career in activism started with joining the Women in Computer Science Undergraduate Committee (WiCS) in her first year.

“At the time I didn’t have any friends in my program, and I was hoping this would be a way for me to meet other women in CS. Joining WiCS was a really great decision for me, and it is how I met the majority of my friends. The work I did on WiCS was primarily related to advocating for WiCS at different levels of the school’s government, and I was able to get involved in other organizations like MathSoc and WPIRG more heavily this way.”

Like many students at the university, the draw to community was a factor in Fatema’s ultimate impact, however her passion for doing good was always present.

My drive for social justice, I think, stems from my moral compass. I really just want to be able to do good and live a life that makes other people’s lives better.

She continues, "Before I came to university I thought it was possible to be a person who does good just by living my daily life in a way that was neutral and kind to others. However, once I started school and doing work with WiCS I started to realize that the systems that we live in are actually terrible, and are actively oppressing people.”

Fatema cites Elana Hashman, the founder of the undergraduate committee as one of the role models who helped her realize these things, “She introduced me to WPIRG, and took a lot of time to educate me about social justice, and especially movements within tech.” With this introduction into systems of oppression and recognizing them in the tech industry, Fatema launched into activism.

Once I started learning more about social justice, the more I realized that there was really no way for me to satisfy my morals without being involved. It would be really difficult for me at this point to try and live my life without working to dismantle the systems oppressing marginalized people.

While Fatema felt her work with WiCS allowed her to have an impact in the school community, she encountered a lot of pushback for it. Unfortunately, many of the issues that she recognized as present in the tech industry remained in the realm of Computer Science at Waterloo, and like many passionate activists, she began to feel overworked.

“… after many terms of working consistently with WiCS, I started to burnout. There has been a lot of criticism of WiCS work by my peers, by students who are against women only events and don’t support WiCS’ work in general.”

Despite these setbacks, her activism continued to influence her experiences in tech. Through co-op, Fatema has had the opportunity to work with major employers such as Facebook, Yelp and Rackspace.

“When I say I’m trying to make tech less awful, I basically mean that I want to make it a less sexist, racist generally bad place to be. As an industry, tech is not very inclusive, and my goal is basically to make space for people to thrive who aren’t just white dudes from the top 10 colleges and universities.

The tech industry is also hugely complicit in the injustices prevalent in all of society, and I want to help make these connections clearer.”

“Manifestations of Racism in STEM” was an event that spotlighted these very issues. Fatema’s portion of the talk focused on racism in algorithms resulting from datasets that are flawed with bias and systematic discrimination. Even with these algorithms playing a huge role in our lives, she remains hopeful.

“I think that there is a lot of potential for using technology to dismantle existing racist, sexist, capitalist structures, but right now the industry is just holding these structures up. My time working at large tech companies has really made this clear to me.

As of right now, I think the tasks of ‘making tech less awful’ and ‘using tech for good’ are really daunting, and my approach is basically to work from within existing systems to improve them. I don’t know if this is right, or if it’s going to work, but it is what I’m doing.

While most students look forward to their careers after graduation, Fatema feels bittersweet. “I intend to graduate soon, and probably work for one of the companies that I have interned with. I want to keep doing activist work, but I recognize this will be harder once I am away from the community within Waterloo that I’m used to working with. I hope to keep speaking about the problems inherent in the tech industry, at whatever opportunities I can find.”

So what can the remaining students do to carry the flame?

“I think the most important thing people can do is to educate themselves. There is so much injustice in the way that our society is structured, and it’s really not something that we learn in traditional education systems. Listening to the stories of people from marginalized groups and accepting their experiences as fact is the best way to start. It may seem like a daunting thing to do at first, but there are so many spaces to go to learn more (like Twitter!).

On our campus, people can get involved by supporting WPIRG and attending their events. Of all the organizations doing work at our school, I think WPIRG is one of the most effective. All of the talks held at the recent conference were comprehensive and useful, and I believe they will be posted online. WPIRG also supports other campus groups, such as BASE (Black Association for Student Expression) and the ASA (Aboriginal Student Association), who hold events that anyone can attend.”

If you’re interested in hearing more from Fatema you can find her on Twitter @fatty_box and through her website

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