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How can tech companies commemorate MLK Day?

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the 20th century's best-known civil rights advocates. Here's how tech companies can honor and advance the values MLK championed.

Martin Luther King Jr. worked for years to advance civil rights and social justice. King's efforts went far beyond his iconic 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

King used his visibility and influence to advocate for nonviolent solutions to poverty, racism, and militarism. The Atlanta-based King Center calls these issues "the triple evils" and argues that these problems are interrelated.

Each of the three is a broad category encompassing many related issues. Examples of poverty include unemployment, homelessness, and illiteracy. Racism includes prejudices, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and stereotypes. And militarism includes terrorism, human trafficking, and war. 

If you work in tech, consider these suggestions on how your efforts, your company, and your employees can honor King's legacy by working to address the triple evils.

How can tech reduce poverty?

The World Bank says about 689 million people, or 9% of the world's population, live in extreme poverty. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed 100 million more people into poverty. 

In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King said, "There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it."

Maciej Kranz, for example, has argued for the transformational power of technology. Inspired by her work, three ways the tech sector can address poverty include:

Support financial independence: Property ownership can help lift people out of poverty. Digital land records created with GPS-based technology are harder to change or destroy. The development and use of tech-based property records allow people to buy and sell land or access loans. Trustworthy records can help build a foundation of financial independence.

Develop smart agriculture: Once people have established land ownership, better farming outcomes can also improve people's lives. That's because most of the world's poorest people rely on farming to live. With real-time data, agricultural production can improve at every stage — from planting to crop profits.

Provide internet access for education: About 21 million Americans lacked internet access, according to a 2020 report. But that number could be much higher. Expanding wireless, high-speed internet access can open educational doors for children and adults. Access to education close to home is one way out of poverty for millions of people worldwide.

How can tech counteract racism?

According to New York University professor Charlton McIlwain, racism influences the use and development of technology. People of color may be excluded from opportunities to use technology positively. Tech such as facial recognition and mortgage lending technologies may have bias built in due to human-influenced data sets.

McIlwain studies the ethical use of technology. He suggests three ways the tech sector can tackle racism:

Engage on the issue: McIlwain says the tech sector must recognize and deal with "the historical and present realities of race, racial discrimination, and the disparate impacts of race that play out in virtually every social domain." 

For example, in the case of housing-based finance, tech companies should understand that people of color faced generations of discrimination in homeownership and access to the ability to borrow money. Those practices of the past continue to influence today's reality.

In other words, tech companies can avoid unintentional racism in their products by seeking knowledge and understanding of how race may influence the industry using their technology.

Question carefully: In the late 1960s, most tech and political leaders didn't ask how innovation could help address racism or social issues. Instead, they focused on using technology to automate criminal justice data systems. These technologies, such as automated risk assessment tools, negatively affect people of color more often. 

In a 2020 column, McIlwain asked some of the same questions Civil Rights-era leaders posed more than 50 years ago. One of his toughest questions: What needs to happen so that people of color have a stake in our collective technological future?

Recognize that people aren't the problem: If we unfairly link crime, poverty, or disease to Black and brown people, "we risk turning those people into the problems that we deploy our technology to solve, the threat we designed it to eradicate," McIlwain said. 

One way to avoid making people the problem is through data. The first step is acknowledging that technology could negatively affect a community. Once you've done that, you can use data to positively influence the development and deployment of new technologies and better support that community.

How can tech companies help create peace?

Conflict or violence affected the lives of 2 billion people worldwide in 2018. The Red Cross predicted that by 2030, half of those people will be living "in extreme poverty." But MLK offered hope: "World peace through nonviolent means is neither absurd nor unattainable." 

Here are three ways tech can promote peace, according to Vision of Humanity:

Manage big data: Data analysis can help people working for peace make better decisions. Data can help leaders understand the people involved in conflicts and their motivations. Big data can also help track and identify human rights violations. 

For example, the UN Human Rights Office reviews thousands of hours of video and images to stitch together narratives on human rights, even when governments will not cooperate. Microsoft is partnering with the UN on this initiative. 

Democratize data: Data shouldn't belong only to people in power. Universal access to data contributes to fewer conflicts, better governance, and less violence. Or, as one organization, Digital Democracy, puts it, "Change does not come from technology, but from how people use it." 

Some ways to democratize data include adapting existing technologies and training people to use them to defend human rights.

Design social media intentionally: Ill-intentioned people can use social media platforms to spread false information. Social media companies may also trap people in echo chambers that reinforce or radicalize users. 

Still, researchers say social media can support positive change. Allowing people to communicate freely and directly can eliminate misinformation, facilitating peace in the process. 

Tech companies can support peace by redesigning their tools and platforms. Specifically, one recommendation is to add functionality that prevents people from using social media for political harm. Companies should also design their products to favor consensus instead of conflict.

In conclusion

Martin Luther King's political profile and outspokenness against injustice made enemies. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a US federal holiday on the third Monday in January, honors his January 15, 1929 birthday.

As you reflect on how the tech industry can be better and do better, consider this quote from one of MLK's many powerful speeches and writings:

"Through our scientific and technological genius, we've made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers — or we will all perish together as fools."

This article was reviewed by Dr. Paige J. Gardner, Ph.D.

Dr. Paige Gardner, a Black woman wearing professional clothing, poses next to a railing.

Dr. Paige J. Gardner is an assistant professor of student development administration at Seattle University. Previously, Dr. Gardner served as assistant dean of students at Loyola University Chicago. She has 12 years of experience in crisis management, facilitating diversity and equity training, identity development workshops, and professional development retreats for college students, staff, and faculty. 

Her research centers race and gender equity in the workplace, the experience of emotional labor at historically white institutions, and scholar-practitioner identity development. As a queer, Black, cisgender woman of color, Dr. Gardner is deeply invested in advocating, empowering, and building solidarity-based coalitions with and for those on the margins of society.

Dr. Paige Gardner is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

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