In launching Tiny Panther Consulting this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to pull together everything I’ve learned as a community organizer, data librarian, researcher, and facilitator into a coherent practice.
And in the past month I’ve been thinking a lot about what Trump (and perhaps more importantly the people who voted for him) mean for my work.
Here are some of the writings that have guided me this year:
Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates —
Much has been said about the importance of this book to not just understanding but feeling the trauma of racism in this country. But have we talked yet about how formative the Howard University library was for developing Coates’ sense of identity?
I delighted in the passages in which Coates described his hunger for reading, how books opened his eyes to fresh perspectives, old histories, and a deeper truth. Reading helped Coates break free of the American narrative, which devalues his life, and gave him the words to confront the hypocrisies of the American dream.
As a librarian, I’m thinking about how important it is to value and protect access to multiple narratives, and to protecting spaces where people can do the reading, write new stories, and help us move us forward.
And in the weeks after the election I’m feeling a need like the one Coates describes, to reexamine our history, go beyond the media narrative, and really understand how racism, misogyny, and so many other factors got us to where we are today.
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil —
Speaking of overly simplistic models, Cathy O’Neil does a fantastic job of exposing the social consequences of bad data analysis in her newest book.
In my work, I tend to think of data a tool for building bridges. Numbers and spreadsheets give us common ground for understanding problems, discussing interpretations and finding solutions. I was great influenced by that scene in Carl Sagan’s Contact, when the scientists realize the aliens are communicating with us in prime numbers!
I want to believe that data analysis and community building go hand in hand, and that with universal data literacy, we can effectively use data to build our communities together. But life’s not really that simple…
O’Neil reminded me that data can be used to build fences too, and that algorithms can reinforce bigotry, discrimination and segregation.
This year, I’ve been working to develop a model for human centered data analysis, that involves working with community members to co-create data practices within an organization. I just started working with the fantastic folks at COOP and look forward to refining and iterating on this approach in 2017. My hope is that the more people who participate in the creation of a data model, the more accountable it will be.
The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
Lines from this poem have been running back and forth through my brain since Election Day:
… Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity…
Yeats wrote this in 1919. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958. Didion used the last line of the poem to name her essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1968. And the Wall Street Journal tells me I’m not the only one remembering Yeats’ words in this trash-fire year.
In the last ninety seven years, things have fallen apart again and again and again and we’ve mostly managed to put them back together again. Sometimes we even manage to make them better than before.
It’s helpful to remember that we’ve been here before. With hard work and determination I bet we can make it out again.
At the end of this Thanksgiving Weekend, I’m grateful for wise and uplifting words, for projects with clients who believe in a better world, and for the birth of Tiny Panther. Looking forward to continuing this learning and this work in 2017.