230: Using Tech + Policy For Good with Corey Ponder

April 14th, 2021 · 1 hr 10 mins

About this Episode

01:55 - Corey’s Superpower: Empathy

  • Finding Voice: You Are Not a Statistic
  • What does it mean to support Black lives?
  • Authentic Self
  • Having Conversations Around Allyship
  • Owning Vulnerability

09:06 - Having People Hear Your Stories

  • “How are you doing?”
  • “Me Too” Movement – learned something about self and blind spots in the process and the feedback was helpful

13:01 - Allyship Best Practices

19:04 - Developing Empathy

36:03 - Using Tech + Policy For Good


Arty: Centering around empowerment + asking, “How ARE you?” with the intention of listening.

Chanté: We can’t outsource empathy.

Corey: How the model of technology has shifted away from interest-based to follower-based and influencing.

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ARTY: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Episode 230 of Greater Than Code. I am Artemis Starr and I'm here with my fabulous co-host, Chanté Thurmond.

CHANTÉ: Hey, everyone and I had the great pleasure of introducing our guest of honor today, Corey Ponder.

Welcome, Corey.

COREY: Thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here.

CHANTÉ: We're so glad to have you. If you don't mind, I'd love to read your bio so everyone knows who you are.

COREY: Sounds great.

CHANTÉ: Corey has over 10 years of work experience, he has had several roles across two industries and has also served in community organizations and nonprofits. At the core of each of these experiences is a passionate commitment to building community and developing people and programs.

Corey most recently worked at Google serving as a senior policy advisor focused on privacy, advising product teams on best practices and approaches to inspire user trust. He also owns and manages his own business, em|PACT Strategies, a consulting firm that helps organizations build inclusive communities by prioritizing empathy as a skillset. Corey serves on boards of InnovatorsBox, a firm focused on creativity, and Youth Speaks, a nonprofit focused on youth arts and education.

Great background. Corey, did we forget anything else?

COREY: Well, I have to just because I am a lifetime SEC, Southeastern Conference, person, that I have to shout out Vanderbilt University, where I went for undergrad and then also, because I'm in California, I have to shout out University of California, Berkeley, where I went for my Master's in public policy. So those two things I would add.

CHANTÉ: Those are great institutions for education. So good.

Let's start off with the first question that we give everyone and that is: what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

COREY: Yes. I love this question. It gives me a chance to really nerd out. So I would say the first thing that comes up for me is empathy. When I think about empathy, I think about how superheroes, oftentimes exhibit qualities around being empathetic that we might look at as healing abilities, or the ability to regenerate themselves, or regenerate others, the stamina, or the fortitude, last, or survive in a space where there's a lot of things attacking them mentally and emotionally and able to persevere in spite of all of that.

So I would say empathy is definitely the superpower that I have. I think when I step into spaces, I'm always thinking about what can I do to make other people feel more welcome, or feel more authentically themselves, which I feel like is the healing part. I feel like the regeneration piece is often me putting myself into positions where I don't like conflict, or seek it out, but I definitely feel like I put myself into spaces where I'm like, I want to support you and it might come at some risk to me, but I think I can bounce back from this. And then the stamina piece. I mean, none of this work, showing up for others even is not just a one-time thing and so, the consistency piece, I think, is something that I've really over time become more comfortable with just knowing that things might be protracted. People might need you for long periods of time and I'm here for it.

CHANTÉ: So you said a few things here that really, I think, demonstrate the skillset for somebody who is in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space and I will bet that you probably didn't see that 10 years ago, or whenever you started down this journey.

So if you wouldn't mind, I'd love to know how you got to this space now and I'll also add in, before you answer that question, that a lot of folks, BIPOC folks like us, we know what it's like to be othered. We know what it's like to be excluded. So I know for myself, I'm in the DEI space, but I'm just really curious. I did peek at your background, but just for folks who haven't or who don't have those quick fingers right now, they just want to hear your background, walk us through how you got here.

COREY: Yeah, absolutely. So there are two inflection points. The first is I am a Black man so there are moments that I think about as a part of my growth as a Black boy and feeling like I had to grow up very fast to be taken seriously in whatever space that I was interested in to see the world from a perspective of hey, you really have to make sure that you're showing up and representing the person that you want to be because people will quickly ascribe something to you.

This was a conversation that was permeating all around me so that when I got to college, there was an inflection point. The first one where I remember I was like, “I want to be a biologist and I might also go to medical school.” When I took lab for the first time, it was a moment where I realized like, oh man, despite all of the things that I have done, all of the things that are within my control, I studied hard. I was getting great grades.

I was just woefully unprepared for that space of even just being in a lab and doing a titration. I was like, “What the heck is a titration? What is an Erlenmeyer flask?” I realized that in a lot of ways it was because I didn't have access to the resources, or the conversations, or nobody had even told me that I could do those things. I wasn't seen as somebody that could do those things and so it's like, I didn't know what I didn't know and I think that I really started doubting in many ways from that moment who I could be, what I felt like I needed to thrive in the spaces, what I felt like I was capable of in these spaces.

It took me throughout college—great relationships and friendships, but also investment and resources around me to really find that voice that said, “Hey, actually, here's your story,” You're not this other narrative, this person that can't do it and you're not a statistic in a sense of a Black man that is x as opposed to a successful Black man. That was the first inflection point for me.

Then I think the second was just having been at this point, maybe like 6, or 7 years working. I was at a moment at Facebook actually, where there was an increased conversation around what does it mean to support Black lives? Why are people talking about Black Lives Matter? In particular, during 2015, 2016, I forget specifically when, but Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were two Black men who were killed by police officers in different instances, in different cities, in different places, but within the same week. It was one of the first times that from a technology perspective, we were discussing this in an international way because it had been captured on Facebook Live.

So there was this conversation around who are we as a part of this broader conversation? It was the second inflection point because it reminded me that was man, I am a Black man so even as I've done all of these things, I've been in careers, I've had these jobs and these opportunities where I've done things that I can be proud of, I'm still walking into this space the next day, after hearing about these instances and really feeling like I'm carrying something that I don't know how to speak to. I don't know how – I've never really talked to anybody about how it impacts the way that I am showing up in this space.

So from there, I just made the commitment where I said, “I'm going to start trying to be more authentically myself. I'm going to start talking about all the parts of me that make me who I am.” I didn't have a plan for it; I just knew that I wanted to have those conversations. The interesting thing was I started having those conversations and people naturally, after I would talk to people, would say, “Well, what's next? What can I do to support you?” It really just made me think about the broader conversation around allyship.

There's a broader conversation around what does it actually mean to show up for somebody and then I realized retroactively that there have been many examples, not only in my life, that people who have shown up for me that now I can pinpoint and look at as case studies, as data points, but also that I have naturally gravitated to doing that because of what I said earlier about the superpower of empathy. It has been something that I had always valued, even if I didn't know what it was, or what I was doing, or what it meant, but it was really important for me to see other people's stories because I knew how important it was for people to see mine.

So those two inflection points really shaped how I viewed diversity, equity, and inclusion in my role, in the broader conversation. One, my own vulnerability with myself, but also two, how valuable it is to have people hear your story and validate who you are and your experience and how it's a part of a whole and how they see you.


ARTY: With stories like you mentioned being able to have this experience where you really understood what it meant to show up for someone.

COREY: Yeah, absolutely. I'll give two stories.

One was actually when someone showed up for me and I remember it was my boss actually shortly after the conversations, or at least what I mentioned earlier about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I just was having a really rough, it was a rough day. I mean, I was trying to show up business as usual was very much like, well, I have a job, I have meetings I have to go, and my boss asked me, “How are you doing?” That's a question you hear maybe a hundred times a day and it's also a question that feels like a rhetorical. I mean, you're supposed to say, “Good,” and keep it moving. I said that, but she really stopped me, told me like, “Hey, I'm asking because I really want to know and I have time. How are you doing?”

I think just in that simple moment of making the space, creating an avenue for me to actually express a real truth, it just made me feel like wow, you didn't have to listen to my story. You didn't have to consider that I was something more than this a meeting I had to go to, or that I was more than this deliverable, or this project that I was working on. And you did. That meeting was, I, even years later, still to think about it because it was just like, wow, that meeting didn't have to happen that way. But I felt like this wasn't just my burden to bear after that question, or that conversation. The question that she asked and the conversation that followed.

I think for me, showing up for others actually has been in this work—working through impact strategies and thinking through how do you actually show up as an ally. I've had a number of experiences. But in particular, there was one right around the decree, I would say the resurfacing of the Me Too movement and that conversation around sexual harassment in the workplace.

There was an event, or a town hall, or an opportunity where I had a chance to really show up. I initially—and this is also a part of the failures piece—showed up to that very equally with the best of intentions and said, “Hey, what can I do to move this conversation forward?” Along the way, I remember realizing that oh man, in all of my eagerness to show up to this, I actually have silenced, or not included the voices that were probably most important to actually have this conversation. Women in particular, but also just thinking about in general, people who are survivors, or have been a victim of assault.

So it was one of those moments where I took on feedback from people, some of my coworkers, colleagues, friends, I figured out a way to revamp the event, postponed the event so that I could do it the right way. And then I remember in the aftermath of that, seeing I learned something through that process about myself and also, the feedback that I received about the event afterwards was like, all right, this was a conversation where it really prompted people to think about a story that they haven’t thought about before—people who showed up to the event. Because I was helping organize it, showed up, and got something else out of it because I wasn't the only voice in the room.

It was another moment where it was like, wow, this isn't necessarily my story, but I leaned in a little bit, or leaned in a lot in the beginning, learned a lot in the process about myself and even where my blind spots were within that entire process of learning in some ways helped tell a story that other people realized like, oh, wow, thanks for helping me see this narrative.

CHANTÉ: That is so helpful. I feel like the times where I've had to show up as an ally and lean in to something that I didn't necessarily understand, really helped me to better articulate the needs I had as a Black identified woman, or as a Latino woman to say, “Hey, friend or colleague, you want to show up and help me. This is how you can help me,” Because I've learned from my own ouch moments like, oops, I shouldn't have done that and thankfully, somebody was gracious enough to share feedback in that moment, but many times, they're not.

Do you have any best practices in terms of folks who want to show up, especially right now in this year, as an ally, they're very well-intentioned, well-meaning people, but they don't necessarily have somebody like an insider to give them the lay of the land, or to tell them where the real pain points are?

COREY: Yeah, absolutely. Two things. The first thing is that to your point about the feedback, I think feedback is so critical and also, we have to recognize that for many communities, like you said, we're in the intersect. We are at the intersection of a lot of identities.

I recognize that even though I am underrepresented as a Black person in many spaces, I also am in a privileged position because I'm a man. So I'm having to constantly examine those different nuances and intersections of my identity. Yet that also helps me understand that there's a lot of emotional labor in just showing up to be Black every day so, then sometimes, I might not have the energy, or might not have the capacity to give that feedback to somebody who was looking to be on their journey as an ally.

The first thing that I would say is showing up for others is really, there's got to be a hunger, or a desire to actually grow and change. This idea of a growth mindset and it has to be separate from passively taking on the information, or the stories of others.

I think once you have that, really having said, “I want to do this and I am motivated to do it.” Then I think the second thing is to go back to the superpower question from earlier, is I like to think about showing up for others as a trusted sidekick. So this model of thinking about you're not showing up to save the day, because that's also a lot of labor. Expecting to be the person to in the movie on a high note and be the person that walks down the aisle to get an award, or reward is not really the goal. But what it really is about is really understanding the stories of the people that you're playing in the same universe with and then figuring out what ways you can augment their journey.

I think about three things that are a part of that, which is really those everyday moments. When I've had conversations through my work, oftentimes people are like, “Black lives matter. We need to March,” or “Gender equity. We need to dismantle capitalism.” It’s like, that is probably true and there are scholars out there that are speaking more deeply than I can ever speak to on that, but what about those moments that are outside of that?

So you might say that Black lives matter,” and you might have the t-shirt, or you might step up in a forum and say, “Hey, I'm declaring that I believe in this cause,” but are you then actually including your coworker who was Black in the team lunches that happen every day that y'all just get together organically, but somehow that person is never on the organic chain? Or if you're thinking about gender equity and pay discrimination, that is a big thing, but also, are you actually making space and not taking up the room when you're in a meeting everyday being the person that has to get the last word, or are you making sure that everybody's opinions are on the table, including your women colleagues, or female colleagues are heard in the room? I think these are the everyday moments where we can show up as an ally.

I think the second piece is thinking about these things that we have to confront about ourselves. It might be ugly or scary, but are necessary. We all have biases. We all are a product of certain privileges because we have identities that confer some amount of power to us and some type of favoritism to us. So if we're thinking about that, we have to really examine that how those show up and affect us.

Peggy McIntosh wrote Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, where she did a lot of research in this space, where the idea is that we carry this around and even if we don't acknowledge it, it's still there. This idea of it might be invisible to us, but you can imagine walking into a room with a big knapsack on not realizing that every time you turn left or right, you're hitting somebody with your privilege. So I think it's important to acknowledge that we have that backpack on whether we realize it, or not and it's affecting people whether we accept it, or not.

And then the third thing is taking that next step of we have the positionality. So if you're talking about supporting from your identity, or from your perspective, you have some ability to influence change. Again, even if it's at a micro level. Because I'm a man, I have some privilege in the communities and spaces that I hold. Because of I’m a man, people are going to see me a certain way so then what I talk about what I represent, what I say, what I'm willing to advocate for is going to hold a different weight, whether that's right or wrong, it's going to hold a different weight than if a woman were to ask, or advocate for the same thing. So then what can I do to use that privilege in support of what that community might actually be asking for, or want? That might take a little discomfort on my part, but I guarantee it is way less uncomfortable than underrepresented groups having to advocate for their right to be seen, or heard, or validated in spaces.

So those would be three things, I think you could do in that journey.

CHANTÉ: Those are awesome things. The one that really resonates for me, too is just the empathy part because I feel like that is a core skill that we're going to need for the future of work. Oftentimes, when I say that people ask me, “Well, how do I develop empathy?” I have my own answer there, but I'd love to hear yours.

How do you think people can get better at working on that empathy muscle and if you have anything that's worked for you personally, or that you recommend more professionally that you've seen in the workplace? That'd be helpful.

COREY: Yeah, absolutely. Two things. The first thing that came up for me is Hamilton. I feel like everybody has seen it now. If you haven't seen it, spoiler alert, there's a theme that goes throughout Hamilton where Ehrenberg says, “Talk less, listen more.” There's this idea that I feel like with empathy, we often think of it as just like, ”I have to be in touch with my feelings,” but actually what I think it is, is actually a skill, a tangible skill of can I actually listen to someone and I think there's a difference between being able to hear and being able to listen.

So I think the first thing that I have done is like, how can I actually actively listen more effectively to the people around me? There's actually this research, I think 2014, 2015, it was focused on can we use empathy? Like, actually measure the effect of empathy on reducing, in this case, anti-trans gender opinions? I think the research was called “Durably reducing transphobia,” but essentially, what they did was it was an exercise around active listening.

They used the political tool called deep canvassing to essentially equip these researchers to go into a home where people expressed, or had been exposed to anti-transgender views and they literally just listened to them. They processed actively with this person about why they believe what they believe and then through that process, they didn't actually rebut with facts, or say, “But actually, that's not true,” or “Did you know that that's actually not true?”

What actually happened was people realized through their own act of processing that you know what, this is not actually about transgender. It's actually about safety. I can relate now. I can empathize because now that I've come full circle and have been able to tell my story about why I'm processed out loud, I realized that I do have something in common with the transgender community. They want to feel safe. This law makes them feel unsafe. I want to feel safe in bathrooms, but those two things don't have to compete with each other. We're all people that want to be safe. That that research for me really sticks out whenever I think of active listening.

I think the second thing is I've talked a couple of times about storytelling; there's a part of this for me, that really is seeing people as these amazing figures in a story you just haven't read yet. I think when I practice empathy, it often is just me really taking an interest more deeply in the why somebody does what they do as opposed to what they are doing. This hearkens back to Simon Sinek, who was a leadership consultant, or coach, but he had that phrase in a TED Talk where he said, “People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” I think for me, that boils down to the core, how I think about if you want to cultivate empathy as a muscle, or a skill, it's really asking that question, “Why did they do that?”

An actual tool that I often use in my work is something called empathy mapping, which is often used in UX design actually, in tech, to really think about human centered approaches to product design. But it lays out all of these ways about how do you think they would feel? How do you think they would see this? How do you think they would hear, or receive this message? And then it really gets you to ask this question about why would they react this way to what you're about to present, or why would they react to these set of circumstances in a certain way?

CHANTÉ: One of the things that you're talking about here is the empathy mapping. I actually do this course, or this workshop with some collaborators around designing for inclusion and that is something that we really focus on. Have you seen that in practice well somewhere that you could illustrate, or show? I guess, we could provide an example, or a case study so folks know what you're talking about.

COREY: Yeah. One of the things that this makes me think of is Google Assistant space, which is also a space that I spent some time in. But within the Google's Trust and Safety team, there was a focus on thinking about digital assistants and whether they had an inclusive voice when it came to gender, because there is a lot of research now that exists about voices and people perceive assistants to be female, but because of the voices.

Companies are really doing a lot of that work now to think through what the implications are around that. But at the time, I remember in this work very early on, what I thought was interesting about this was just the steps that the Trust and Safety team went through to actually figure out if there was an issue here because you design a product, the product is meant to respond to queries.

But soon, what they started finding was that maybe some of the queries that the digital assistant was getting were actually maybe more vulgar, or maybe more derogatory. So how does that break down? Does that break down like, is it just objectively that's how people talk to digital assistants? Well, no, and actually doing work and trying to reduce those offensive, or shocking, or risky experiences, what they found was that maybe this is actually offensive, or derogatory on the Google Assistant voices that present, or sound feminine.

So now that we have done this research, how can we actually address that in the broader product? I think the Google Assistant then did things to try to make the voices more gender neutral, to provide more options so that there were a range of voices and then also, not necessarily default to the feminine voice, or not even call them feminine. I think they started calling them like Voice 1, Voice 2.

So I think that that's one example of that I know, that I am aware of where when you're thinking about inclusion as it could be an objective truth that you're here to provide an answer to a problem. But often, that problem that you're solving might actually have many other subproblems within it.

But the idea of inclusive design is important. It's an important lens for everybody to have honestly, on the product, because there are a range of things that might be happening that we're just not aware of. But certainly, the power of doing extensive UX research, or a deep dive on some of those things, I think is what helps augment and move us away from those types of snafus happening in our technologies.

CHANTÉ: That was a beautiful example. Thank you. That sounds like a really cool project that you got to be a part of. Was there anything else that you learned from being on that project team that you can share?

COREY: Yeah. Well, I should say, first off, this happened before I came into the team, but I think it was one of the things that I found very powerful about the team itself, doing the work and also, where they were centering people. I think that was one of the reasons why I've also been very interested in policy within tech, because it very much it's about centering and advocating for best practices for people and defining what users actually are.

But I think for me, the lesson that I took from that just was again, that we all really have to be our advocates for this type of work and this type of change in the products and also, that a lot of this is sometimes not as complicated as we make it out to be. I think that it's really about priorities and what we value. What I appreciated about this team was just this idea of wow, you actually value not just the objective user, but the user in a sense of what context would they use this and how would this impact this community that we're trying to build this ecosystem?

ARTY: So there's something you said earlier that really struck me when you were talking about this example with empathizing for these people that had been exposed to anti-transgender ideas and sitting down and listening.

One thing that strikes me about that is just that as opposed to these people being a certain way, you framed things as these people were exposed to a certain kind of content that then they had this fear that came up in resonant to something that they were exposed to. I see those sorts of dynamics in other contexts. Would you mind elaborating a little more on that thought?

COREY: Yeah. I definitely think that we are in – not that 2020, or certainly, the last 4 years since 2016 with President Trump, I don't think that that is unique. I think that it feels exacerbated because on top of that technology has been a lens through which we've seen almost an exponential growth in access to information. It may have outpaced the way in which we also keep up with the ways in which you are skeptically dissecting this information and analyzing it for truth and veracity. So I think that there's been a confluence of forces that have made it so that things like misinformation and disinformation are permeating and now, it is easily accessible.

One of the things that I think about a lot in this space, as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion and why I think empathy is so important is that I feel like it can become very easy to go down this path because we're always looking for ways to validate our own experiences. So if there's one thing that we – an easy way to do it that is harmful, or damaging to others, is to validate by saying that, “Well, it can't be that over there.” I'm invalidating that to bolster the way that I see the world, or my experiences.

What I really focus on from my work and why I think the empathy piece has been so powerful is that it's a reminder as we move through that cycle of how can you be more empathetic, that at the core of our human experience is this idea that we all do not like the feeling of being othered, or unseen. Even if for someone who feels like they are, whether you agree or disagree with this idea, I'm disaffected.

I think this election cycle is a great example. A lot of people felt disaffected on both sides like, you're white middle-class, or you're Black and in poverty, or you're white and in poverty. You have all these sects of people that are like, “Ah, nobody's listening to me,” and that's reinforced because you're like, “Nobody has the experience that I have and nobody knows what it's like to feel othered like this.”

But actually, the reality is, regardless of whether you understand what it means to be grow up white and poor, or Black and affluent, or Black and poor, or white and affluent, you all have this common experience where you have been othered at some point.

Empathy says at the core of that human experience is something we all should be able to understand. So we're not necessarily focusing on what you went through so much as why did you have to go through it? I think that this disinformation, this misinformation feeds the –

If we had more empathy, I think that would be the thing that would combat this because it would allow us to ask the right questions around maybe this is true, maybe this is not true. If I don't have the tools to actually assess whether it's true or real, what I can say is that I need to really think about the community that is centered in this story and understand how this would make them feel if this were true, how does it make them feel if this were not true.

I think that that's where empathy and developing that as a skill could do a lot more work in this space where we're probably only going to see more honestly, content, or information where we have to vet where it comes from, whether it's real, who’s saying it and why they're saying it.

ARTY: Yeah. I was thinking about how powerful it is just that even in listening to this context, as opposed to trying to correct it, what you did find was this commonality of, “Oh, we both have a desire to feel safe, it is part of the human experience,” and then with this disinformation, you've got this dynamic that really plays on fear. A lot of this information that's associated with fear reminds me of this TED Talk by Daryl Davis that I think Chanté, you're the one who actually had me listen to that. But specifically, that ignorance breeds fear breeds hate and then if we can go about empathizing and listening and building those connections and tackling the ignorance, that it can have a chain reaction effect on all of these other things.

COREY: Yeah. This has made me randomly think of a song lyric by Nas, street prophet that he is, but his song with Puff Daddy, or P. Diddy, or whoever he was calling himself at the time called Hate Me Now. He said that line: people “fear what they don't understand, hate what they can't conquer. I guess, that's just a theory of man.” I was like, ah, this is making me think about that because I think so often, we are pushed into those lanes where the idea is to think that you have to conquer something. So it's like your safety, your capacity to do what you want to do in this world is won by subjugating, or by conquering something else, someone else and that's the only way that it can happen.

And then also that fear piece; if I don't understand it, then it's not safe. So if I can't wrap my head around it, then I need to assume the worst and fear it. I think why empathy has been so powerful for me is one, because we don't often talk about it as something that we can actually cultivate. We often talk about it in a you either have it, or you don't, or it's a natural gift, or it isn't. I think it actually is something that can be cultivated and brought to bear, like in that research, where it’s like this was a community.

I think the first time I did it, it was in South Florida, or maybe somewhere outside of Miami. I'm not actually sure of the specific locale, but this community had been subjected to all sorts of messaging around the transgender community, because it was meant to drive a particular position, or opinion on a bill around bathrooms and whether bathrooms could be used by people of the multiple genders, or you had to have separate men and women bathrooms. They were able to do through this research, they were able to find that not only were they able to shift people's perception around those issues—actually shift them positively in the direction of saying like, “Oh, actually I do support transgender rights in this conversation.” But that it was a statistically significant shift and it lasted for three months after that conversation when they did a check-in.

So I think that it just really speaks to we don't have to fear what we don't understand. If you really just take the time to let people really work out their own narrative for themselves, they will often figure out that their own narratives are incongruent with how they actually are showing up in the space and it's not about telling them, “Your narrative is off,” like, “You're wrong.”

I think that there's value in that, but if you're going to make the real change over time, in psychology, they call it act of processing. There's value in actually getting people to their own whatever it is, whatever reason they have for fearing what they don't understand to process that out loud in a way where they can actually be like, “I was heard and are realized that hearing myself is incongruent with how I actually like what I actually value.” So maybe coming to my own conclusions, I don't have to fear this, even though I don't understand all the parts of that experience

CHANTÉ: That was really helpful, Corey and one of the thought bubbles—well, one of the many that popped up as you were responding to Arty's question was how do we then, because it sounds like there's a lot of value in anticipating, or using tech and policy for good in those moments. I'm just wondering, I know that you consult around this.

So maybe take us down that avenue, because I think we're at this place where we've seen coming off of this last election, the power of the misinformation strategies and how we've partnered that with let's say, the Cambridge Analytica situation where they used data to underpin those fears and then really influenced a community, or a country to the space that they wanted them to be. How do we get ahead of that? What are some things we can do? Or what are some things maybe you're working on that are worth mentioning here today?

COREY: Yeah. So those are very, very good questions, or good thoughts. I think that one thing that just thinking about even as you were saying with Cambridge Analytica, my first thought was just that we have existed in the technological space, in this information age where empowering people online, I feel like it has been separate from the using the data, or giving the data up in a way that, or using the data or giving the data up.

By that I mean, essentially, we're using these products and tools, wouldn't have never really thought about it as a platform for change, or a platform to see the world we want to sees except for these little blips, or these moments where there are revolutions around like Arab Spring. That was driven, I believe on Facebook and then conversations again, around Black Lives Matter because of live video that we now have, we're able to capture the experiences in real time.

So I think that the first thing that I would say is how can we actually educate people around being empowered online? You have a voice, but it's not just the voice to repeat what you have heard, but really to lend your own voice, your own vulnerability, your own story to what's happening in these forms.

I think the second thing really is it comes down to the companies. I think that a lot of my conversations, when it comes to disinformation and misinformation, really comes back to values. Many companies, particularly ones that are community-focused and saying that our users are a part of an ecosystem, have to really ask themselves about what ecosystem are you actually trying to build? Because at a certain point, particularly if you are a private company, there are good ecosystems and there are destructive ecosystems.

So it can't be a libertarian view of the technology is just a tool and it will all sort itself out. It actually has to be maybe more curated than that and that might not have been the initial approach of technology. Certainly, wasn't the approach to the world wide web either when it first started out. It was just like, anybody could create a geo site, anybody could do anything on the internet, but in some ways, I think that view of technology maybe has to change. It helps lends itself very well to innovation, but the challenge is that it creates a lot of loopholes for abuse.

So then I think companies, as they start curating their experiences more, it has to be centered on very clear community values. What is your ideal world and your ideal state that you want to be contributing to as a part of this broader conversation around information and sharing data for the benefit of others? Most of these companies have that in their mission somewhere. They believe that they're doing a public good, even if they're also profiting in the process. Well, if that's true, then what values get you there and keep you there?

So I think that that's how the disinformation and misinformation is allowed to persist, because there's just questions that you have to ask around are some things allowable within this ecosystem? Are we willing to take a hard line on some things for the benefit of the greater good?

Then it’s also acknowledging that it is hard being in technology and now it's like, even if you're 99% effective at something, if you have a billion users, that's still millions of people, or millions of cases. You have to then also acknowledge that you're always working and it never will be good enough, but you can try to close that gap and be consistent on what you actually value and believe and that at least shows a bit of sincerity over time around what you're trying to do.

CHANTÉ: I appreciate your take on that.

One thing I might imagine to be true, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think from what I've seen is that the tech policy space is not Black enough. It is not; I don't see enough BIPOC folks. I don't see people really, outside of cis able-bodied white guys in that space. Is there anything that you recommend in terms of trying to change that so that in the future where we're going to have, for sure, undoubtedly more mixed-race people, just given the trends that we're on, how do we address that, or how do we curate for that?

COREY: Yeah. I mean, so much of – it reminds me of the story I was telling about biology and going into lab is that I think so much of it is about really understanding the possibilities of what is actually out there and having someone tell you, or exposing you to what those possibilities are. Some of that is pipeline development.

So I think we're many of these companies and also, just not even tech companies, but policy in general. This base is about how do you invest back in these communities, knowing that it might pay dividends in 10, or 15 years down the road to have this more diverse ecosystem of policy people, or practitioners, or technologists. Even if you're not developing them particularly for a job today, but down the road. I mean, I think some of that is pipeline investment and actually just telling people at a young age, “I see you, here's the three things you need to get started,” and then the sky's the limit.

I know there are some programs around coding that have taken off where people go into the community and do that. It will be interesting to see how, if we were to look over time, whether that's really changing the overall dynamics of actual Black engineers, or BIPOC engineers, or a diverse representation of engineers. But I think that that would be the same for policy and the other thing that I would say is it would seem that many companies, in the tech space in particular, did not actually have – whether they should have, or shouldn’t have, they didn't necessarily have to focus on these types of questions for their growth and success in the early stages.

So I think that that also meant that there just wasn't an investment in the broader, we need a policy team. Maybe there were people there to focus on policy and ask these questions. But I think as we continue to see the growth and the impact of companies on just everything like our economic systems, the way we behave, and the way we think about different issues.

Now, it is really important to think not just about whether building this product is going to net an additional 100,000 users, at the expense of so many other things, will it affect the political conversation happening in this country? Will it affect the access to resources in this place?

Now we're seeing the investment in those communities and spaces, for companies that are growing, or building now, I think it's about really investing in there early and make sure you have the right team and the right representation of the team to address the issues that you could foresee being a challenge, or being a space that your product will exist in.

But I think policy is certainly one of many professional spaces where you do see underrepresentation really because of access, or knowledge about the opportunity.

I'll just say, because this is a long, long way of saying, but I want to end with a personal story where it's just even for myself going into the technology space, I was always interested in policy, but really from the lens of how you can go directly into government as a civil servant and I try to push the machine, or move through the bureaucracy to actually make effective rules, or regulations that mattered, or meant something to different communities and I think government can still be that thing. There's a lot of challenges there, but it still can be that force.

What I didn't realize was that this existed in the tech world, that these were conversations that were happening, that companies were having an influence on the way we legislate, or the way we behave, or the way we think about all sorts of issues that would “fit squarely” in the policy world.

It was only through my kind of exploration, but also, connecting with people who had gone over to these companies, in these spaces and the privilege that I had of being able to go to different institutions, where I had access to people who could have these conversations with me, where I realized hey, I could be in this space. But it was something that I didn't even realize was a thing and would never have explored, otherwise. So I think that that also for me, recognizing that I had access to resources and tools that helped me even see it as a possibility and so, I think that has to be the thing that we're in the companies that anybody who has the privilege, or capacity to do so should be investing in.


ARTY: I feel like there's some things that we could do in terms of new precedent setting, that we could do as a broader tech community, that could help drive change of adopting cultural practices within the context of organizations and everything that flows from there.

So one of the key threads you brought up was that it comes down to values and we ought to start with having a clear set of things that we want to value as a community and build as organizations and build around that.

I started thinking back to you mentioned early days of the internet when anybody could do anything and spin stuff up on the internet and I think about some of the early tech interfaces and stuff we had and I feel like there was a lot more community and curation type things, too. We had message boards and I think about AOL days where you have little chatrooms that you join and stuff that were topic-focused.

It seems like, as opposed to being these topic-focused finding each other kind of things by having similar shared interests, we've shifted to this follower type model where it's just about networking and connecting with the people and not necessarily being connected for any other purpose other than getting the most followers.

So the purpose becomes the network and then the identity stuff is associated with how many followers you have and how many retweets you get. The dynamics of how we've framed identity dynamics and communication dynamics in tech has shifted quite dramatically. Tech has shifted the internet and then the people seem to have kind of shifted a mirror of the technology that we built.

So I'm thinking if we take a step back and start with what you're saying in terms of community values and what a reflection of that would look like technology wise, but what if we started with a manifesto and some vision, even if it's rough vision, of what that might look like? Do you have any thoughts on, if you were to write some of those things down, what you would say?

COREY: Yeah. This is making me – and I don't know them off the top of my head, but it's making me think of some of the AI ethics work, artificial intelligence work that several people are working on right now. I think of Dr. Ruha Benjamin, it was Dr. Tim McGraw, I think of a few other contemporaries of them, but there's actually, I think an Algorithmic Justice League where they are actually thinking of that. There's a manifesto of sorts, or a thing that we should be believing and that underpins the ethics that we should have as it relates to that technology.

If I were to think of just a couple of things, the first would really be around the empowerment piece and I think I mentioned that before that we're promoting people to feel not just that they can speak, or be on a platform, or they can have access, but that they are empowered with the information, which in my mind, when I say empowered means that they can actually, it's a call to action. They believe that they can do more of the thing that they want to do.

I think that is important because then it helps you actually center, it makes you actually have to question all of the communities that are on the platform and what you want them to actually be able to be called to do. Right now, not saying empowerment means that I feel like you're removed from the actual impact of what you are allowing to be shared, or allowing to be set on the platform.

I think the second is while there are a lot of companies that would say they do this; it is important to call out safety and authenticity as maybe two and three. The idea is to really root in vulnerability, the idea is really to root in this idea of safety, psychological safety, but also physical, depending on whatever the product is. Because again, I think that those two things require you to then center the user and actually really think about well, what does it mean to actually build a safe community where most of all people feel safe psychologically and while also being their truest selves.

Those were the three values, or the three areas where I feel like you would shape some type of principles around, but I also just want to say, I love your point because I do think that in some ways, the way in which we consume technology, or consume information now has really centered on this viral nature. I think in some ways, virality motivates the way that information is even propagated. Whereas before, when you're talking about these interests, it may have really been just genuinely about the interest and then it coalesced around that chatroom.

But now virality, because that is the name of the game in so many ways, it almost requires people who have figured out the model of how to make things viral as opposed to people who have figured out something to say that is substantive, or something to say that is empowering to our broader community. Those two things are not always overlapping and so, you have people who will influence and then systems that might reinforce that influence when the influence is not necessarily earned on the merits of actually being empowering, or safe, or authentic dialogue.

So I think you're absolutely spot on that like, the way that we consume has shifted to maybe wanting things to be viral and virality being almost the barometer of truth and value when that's not always the case.

CHANTÉ: It makes me think that perhaps we've been focusing so much on the tech and the product space, that nobody is—I shouldn't say nobody—but we probably haven't focused enough on the actual consumer and making sure that we stand up resources, or a hub to inform them and make them smarter consumers. Because as we know, every click leads to a dollar, or every like leads to something. So I think we reinforce the system unknowingly.

COREY: Yeah.

CHANTÉ: I often feel this sort of pull, I don't know about you, but I've been watching versus on Instagram. Are you familiar with versus?

COREY: Yes, yes. There have been some good ones. There also have been some duds, but yes.

CHANTÉ: Duds, I know. Don't get me started, but #BlackTwitter, right? I'm like, “Oh wow.” So where I was getting excited and I was online early for the pandemic, but there was this part of me that just couldn't. I didn't want to get too attached, or too into it because I was like, “Man, look, we're on somebody else's platform making them money.” I know that there's some stuff being done to shift that and I see this a lot with the Black culture specifically, I feel like sometimes we're online and we're making this tech space, or this product really dope and nobody's there to protect us as consumers.

I get really upset about that and I just want so badly to make sure that the consumers are educated, that they are informed and understanding how they should, or shouldn't be using their social capital. How they should, or shouldn't be supporting something that probably doesn't always have their best interests at heart. I don't know, it's not like there's one or two of us who have to be responsible, there's a whole – it's everyone's job. Do you of any collectives, or projects, or are you a part of anything that is aiming to do that?

COREY: Yeah. Again, a really, really good point. That really resonates because, I'll just say before I answer the question, I've had that conversation around memes because I feel like memes are such a way that we communicate now as a part of popular culture, but I don't have the tools necessary to trace the lineage of the first meme, but I would bet again, going back to the virality of means that there was something that was also infused with Black youth culture in America that made memes popular and then made them more ubiquitous. So this idea of making technology cool is because there is a culture that is infused in again, making it cool. It's a tool that then you have a community, it feels empowered to do something a certain way, but then that empowerment is not protected.

I would say that just in my experience in tech, I have seen companies that have made investments in this conversation on equity and well-being where really, the goal is to how do you work more closely with and partner with creators? How do you work more closely with users of the platform, either through research, or actually through direct partnerships to understand how the tool is actually being used and what are ways that actually supplement the way in which they are using it today?

I know in the very, very beginning stages of Twitter, that was one reason why Twitter took off was because Twitter was just – I think it might've started, was it a 100 characters? I don't even know now is way more, maybe it started with the 140 characters, but other than just being that platform tweet 140 characters, everything else was community generated RTs, the idea of having a retweet button, these different features very early on were all things that had organically risen out from the community and they just listened.

So I think in many ways, it was cool to see our product at that early stage just say we've created a tool where they were just going to see how people use it and then build on top of that. I think that that work's still happening. Companies should continue to invest in it, of course, but really listening to your creators and rather than saying, “Here's what we need you to fit, we are going to start doing that,” doing more of learning how you're using it is either about talking to you directly, or analyzing or examining it and really understanding what will matter to you and now we're augmenting that with this feature that we have listened to you and heard that you need.

And then on the reverse side, proactively thinking about these are the issues that people are citing that they have, then make them feel unsafe, make them feel like they can actually have a voice on this platform and we are listening to that and we are actively going address that even if it's not going to necessarily net us an additional dollar spent, or an additional user earn. This is important because this is preventing you from using a platform to the fullest.

So I've seen some things since I have been in the space, I think much of it is going to have to be a continued investment. I can't think of any one product, or any one area where I feel like it's like really landed. But I also think that that speaks to the broader point, which is that it's a journey and then as you continue to grow as companies, you're going to have more challenges. But also, I see opportunities because you're bringing more communities and more people onto the platform and as you scale, that has to be a part of the conversation. It's not just going to be a monolith, or one trigger response to a collective user, but actually many different types of users on your platform.

CHANTÉ: No doubt. I’m trying to remember when it was specifically, it was probably three, four weeks ago when there was all this big announcement about Clubhouse, for example, going and people specifically felt some kind of way because here you had a situation where there was a bunch of Black users who were early on joining and you even had a Black man who was the representative of the icon and people were like, “Wait a minute. We're not being involved in this whole opportunity for more funding and what does that mean for us?”

I listened in that week to a bunch of conversations and folks were incensed; they felt left out, they felt overlooked, taken advantage of. I think we've seen some action spur out of that, but it just reminded me of that moment that we have a lot of power collectively as a community. But you have to have times and spaces where people can organize and communicate that are not dependent upon somebody else's online community that looks free, but maybe it's not and my feeling is that it has to be a multi-stakeholder groups that are holding these technology companies and even the investor community accountable, but also at the same time, there's got to be people who are thinking about just consumer education and consumer engagement period, because we're only going to see more of this, not less of it.

COREY: Yes, on multiple points. Having worked in privacy for some time as well doing policy work, that is something that comes up continually is that even as you build out more mechanisms to keep people's data safe, or you're like, “Hey, we actually are committed to the cause and this is all the work that we're going to do to protect your data,” the number of choices become unwieldy if you don't also have an education around all the things that a company can do with your data. So then it almost feels insincere if all of these things are offered without the education, or the continual reinforcement in different ways throughout their product, or their company's values.

And then your point about Clubhouse. Actually, I remember reading that and I agree. Again, it really speaks to what I was saying about the meme piece where it’s like there is something that becomes really, really cool and it helps the technology take off and then it suddenly comes ubiquitous in this different way and it's like, “Whoa, wow, did we really think about the core experience?” How the course readings was shaped by a smaller community, but a very important one.

But then the other thing I think about with Clubhouse, but I think a lot of apps are guilty of this in the US is, also just from a tech equity perspective, leaning into the iPhone development space in and of itself often, I feel like creates its own barriers around elitism and privilege.

Not because iPhone, or Apple is uniquely trying to say, “Here's our image and here's who the customers are that we have.” But actually, that just even being on Clubhouse in and of itself, or iPhone only products often leave out an entire demographic of people when you think even in the US, I think 50 something percent of people are still are Android users and then you think globally, Android actually has a ridiculous market share of way more than Apple globally.

So I was just what you're also thinking about the equity perspective and inclusion, I often think about that as well. Even at the outset, you're already narrowing the lens a little bit, and I get some of that as developmental challenges, but given all the success—I remember reading this article about Clubhouse and what they're worth, I'm like, “Wow, it's all of that.” It would seem like for me, the next step would be now invest in the development of an Android app in order to really see us reach that community, a broader community of which some of the people who help shape the core experience are representative sample of, but we could probably get so much more from this broader community.

CHANTÉ: Yes like, I wish I had a lot of snap effects going right now. I agree with that, obviously. So thank you.

ARTY: We're getting to the end of the show where we finish up with reflections.

So the thing that—I mean, there's so many things in the show—I've been thinking about this idea of what it means to center around core values and community and what type of communities we want to build and everything that follows from those core values and especially this idea of centering around empowerment. I feel like that makes a lot of sense: centering around empowerment. If our goal in building these spaces is to empower people, then what are all the systems and policies and things that follow with that goal of empowerment in mind, how do we raise and lift up people, and create supportive spaces that do that?

I think back to one of the things you said at the beginning around authenticity and the ability to, or this conversation that you had, where I think it was your manager, Corey, that asked you, “How are you?” which is normally this plain old question that you just reply with, “Oh, good.” There's an expectation that it's almost rhetorical like, we're just moving on and touching base and not really saying anything of substance. But there's something fundamentally different there with, “No, how are you?” and it's not about the words you're saying, it's about the intention to actually listen. The intention of giving someone the space to let their guard down, to be their authentic self, to tell you what's real.

With this goal of empowerment, I feel like that's another aspect that's really important is being able to create spaces where we can drop our guard and be real. We can say what's really going on. In order to learn, we’ve got to be able to be ourselves, too and I feel like there's a lesson in the small in that of something that we can all make an effort to do when we interact with people to really ask them, “How are you really doing? What's really going on?” As opposed to trying to fix it, to change anything, to just listen, to really listen to what's going on with them, to finding those commonalities of, “Oh, I guess we all just want to be safe.”

Seeing those things that are the same, as opposed to trying to fix, or change someone else, just focusing on listening and hearing where they're coming from. I feel like if we move toward those combination of things with that intention, with that goal in mind, with that being our why, that how we design the technology, how we design the policies that follow from that will help move us in the right direction.

CHANTÉ: For me, I'm thinking a lot about this empathy piece, because it makes me pause and say, “While I prioritize it, I value it,” I just don't know how many hiring managers out there are actually looking for and building empathy into one of their core values that they're prioritizing on their hiring rubric. But as we move to this next fourth industrial revolution where we're automating and people are losing their jobs, we can't outsource empathy.

So it's something that we definitely need to make sure we are working on individually and if you have children, I hope that people are thinking about ways that they can cultivate that early in young and teachers and educators, and especially folks who want to be a founder, or they want to be an investor. I think this is something that takes a community effort and I want to hear more people talking about empathy.

So I'm really happy, Corey, that that's one of the core things you're focusing on with your strategy and your consulting firm. Really looking forward to connecting with you after this, about that because I think let's celebrate it and make sure that we get more people knowing who you are so that we can see a better future.

COREY: Thank you. No, I appreciate you saying that and absolutely. I was looking at your background as well and also, just Greater Than Code. I just thought, “Wow, this is a great model, generally.” This idea of voice because really that's what I connected to when I saw the podcast, this idea of, we all have a story and oftentimes, either because on a micro level on a day-to-day, we're not asked to share our story, or in the broader society, or broader infrastructure or whatever it is, technology. We're not invited to share our story in a way that others are. I think it's just so important to have vehicles like this podcast. Again, I saw your work as well. So I hope to continue to be involved in whatever way I can and also, support in whatever way I can.

I think there's been so much has come up today is iterative, which is also why I love these conversations because I feel like I literally want to go back through and dissect some of these points. But the one thing that really is still very top of mind for me is this idea of that came up, or we talked about how the model of technology has shifted away from interest-based almost to this follower-based. I think Arty, it was something that you said. The idea that now we're focused on following, influencing, and how that shifts the conversation and it's something that I had not really thought about until this call, but I think it's like a very important thing to think about.

Again, we talked about Clubhouse, but I think one of the reasons why Clubhouse may have taken off was because it really seems like it centers the idea of, “I just join a room and just come together around an interest,” and that is enough. I think that that idea, however, the model ultimately works, maybe that's a sign that people have an appetite for really finding that type of space again and maybe that means that virality is not – it might be entertaining and there's going to be echoes of it, but maybe that's where we're shifting, or we need to be thinking about shifting.

Maybe if there were companies proactively trying to do more, when it comes to helping stories be told or helping to empower people, maybe that's something that we're thinking about, or that we're investing in more as technologists on the call, but also, as people who use technology and consume technology. So that really stood out to me and that's something I really want to think about more.

CHANTÉ: Those are great reflections. Thank you so much. That was such a good note to end on, Corey. It's been a pleasure to have you on our show. Let's make sure that we definitely stay connected.

COREY: Yeah, absolutely. It has been an absolute pleasure. I'm excited about this and also thank you for giving me a reason to talk about superpowers and superheroes at different points throughout the show.

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