Disability & STEM While Black (w/ Rose Robinson)

Zach sits down with Rose Robinson, the executive director of the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology, to talk about her personal career journey, CMD-IT’s tagline of “fostering innovation through inclusion,” and more. Check out the links in the show notes to learn more about CMD-IT and connect with Rose!

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(00:57): Whats up yall, its Zach with Living Corporate. And, its interesting, we are a platform that focuses on centering and amplifying black and brown folks at work. And if you know me personally, or if youve listened to Living Corporate for any amount of time, you know that Im one of the biggest advocates for just intersectionality. As it pertains to the idea that black and brown people are everything else too. Black and brown folks are queer; black and brown folks are fat; black and brown folks are indigenous; black and brown folks are first-generation professionals; black and brown folks are men; black and brown folks are women; black and brown folks are non-binary; black and brown folks are Republicans; black and brown folks are Democrats; black and brown folks, theyre everything. So this idea of sectoring them off, or otherizing them within the diversity, equity, and inclusion space is really harmful.

(01:49): It’s harmful. It’s also dishonest. And so, its interesting though, because Im a really hard advocate of that, but I can also say that I am not consistent. And Living Corporate as a brand, has not been consistent in amplifying the perspectives of disabled Black and brown people. We are not. We know. We have had one guest. One guest, Melissa Thompson, a couple of years ago, talking about the different treatment of black and brown people in the disability space, and just how those perspectives and experiences are very often erased. But we have not, again, really taken the time to really delve into that particular group. And so, Im really honored and Im humbled by the guest that we have today. Were gonna talk a little bit, were gonna talk about my conversation with Rose Robinson in a bit. And then, really, just the discussion that we had and just thankful for her time and really the work that she is leading there. And so, were gonna get into that.

(02:51): Were also gonna talk a bit about identity in general. Youre gonna hear us talk about it in our discussion. But youre gonna hear me even raise some questions to the common pushback she gets about the double click of disability in IT for black and brown people. So, I just really appreciate the fact that well have that conversation. Now, before we get there, were gonna go ahead and were gonna tap in with Tristan. So Ill see you in a second.

Zach (06:29): Rose, welcome to the show. How you doing?

Rose (06:32): I’m good. Thank you for having me Zach. Appreciate it.

Zach (06:35): No, thank you for being a guest. Now, I am really interested. One, we dont talk enough about people with disabilities in IT or any other industry. So Im just excited about having someone to really refocus us, or really shine a better light, or appropriate light on this, in this space. Im curious about what was journey? And what did it look like for you to become the executive director for the Center of Minorities and People With Disabilities in IT?

Rose (07:10): Well, thank you. And, I just wanna say thank you to your audience for having me, and giving me this opportunity to pass along information, but also share my own story and journey. So I started out in the tech industry as a programmer engineer, software engineer. I spent probably about 25 years in the industry, mainly with e-commerce, a large software implementation. So Ive had a wealth of experience. Ive worked for small startups. Ive worked for large companies. I got to travel. Ive probably been to six of the continents. So its been such an amazing journey for me. And one of the things like, what happened in my life was that my father passed suddenly. And I wanted to take a step back and just rethink about what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to help my own community. Where that led me is the AnitaB.org Institute. And that really is for women in tech and women in computing.

(08:26): However, I found it also, that, the organizations were not really inclusive of women of color. So with that, I had the opportunity as the only black women at the time, and I was probably number 18 of the organization, or 21. I cant remember which, but it allowed me to build affinity. When youre in a large community, which is mostly white and asian, you get lost because, sometimes you dont have the support that you need. And you really need those who look like you, but also share your experiences. So, I was able to create maybe, probably about 17 different affinity communities from black women in computing, which is not really founded by me, but I helped really start that or that community. Latinas in Computing was already in place. LBGTQ was also already in place, but a lot of the Asian women in computings as well. Theyre just thriving and it really is important to have that.

(09:48): I guess that, those that look at you, but also share those experiences. And in my probably, 10th year there, and that was a nonprofit. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And so then again, there was another challenge for me because I was like, wow, why? I helped so many other women and so many other people, why did this happen to me? But when going through all of my surgeries, and the chemos, and the radiations, and just the doctors visits, I noticed that I had to advocate for myself. And I noticed that, it just dawned on me that if I didnt have insurance, then I could have potentially just died. And that made me think a lot about what was going on at the time with black women in health.

(10:49): So, when I came out on the other side, I am cancer free as of today. And Im trying to get to my five years. I was just thinking about whats the next level for me, as well? And so, I had already been a part of the Command IT community, or the Command family, if you will. And their programs really helped me through just the isolation being in tech. And also, it allowed me to bring my own daughter and my son into the community, and theyre both thriving in tech as well.

(11:26): So thats where I was after my my breast cancer. I came out of there very successfully. But I also wanted to say, okay, heres my community. This is what I wanna do and help those, that really dont have a voice in the tech space. And really has just been struggling and challenged with a lot of the companies and individuals that have just struggled so much in the years there. Just wanted to help shift things a little bit, shift the conversation. And so, I wanted to come on board with a lot of the community members asked me to apply for this job. And then I, thats why Im here. Today.

Zach (12:19): I’d love to understand a bit, as you look at the website for the Center For Minorities And People With Disabilities In IT, and the tagline is, Fostering innovation through inclusion.And so, can we talk a little bit more about those through lines of innovation and inclusion?

Rose (12:40): Yes, absolutely. So when we talk about innovation, we always come and I mean, Command IT, we have always the perspective of diversity and inclusion. And the reason is for two folds, when we are talking about innovation of new ideas, methods, or products, it should always come from a diverse lens. Now, weve read about research in innovation, and inclusion, and diversity is really important to an organization or a company, their bottom line. Because the mere fact is, that it is important to the audience that everyone that youre trying to reach, any company that theyre trying to reach, that they have those audiences in mind. And its certainly not just the white man. So it should embody, your products should embody all of your audiences.

(13:46): Secondly, when we talk about innovation, it has to provide diverse perspectives. But that you are including also, those voices who are traditionally not being heard at the design phase, or in your features. And youre really talking about including cultural and accessibility aspects. So, we just held a a two part series, a webinar of using technology while blind. So we are talking about a blind user, as well as a visually impaired user. So what are the tools that they need to navigate? Just to navigate your website? You would be surprised, and those are posted on our website. But you would be surprised on the number of tools and the challenges that they have, just to navigate to a newsletter. So when we talk about fostering inclusion for innovation, that is exactly what were trying to do. Not just from an individuals aspect, but also from an organization, and a cultural, and society aspect, because it really is important.

Zach (15:15): What would you say to those who would question why the disabled community in IT needs to be segmented by race? What would you say rather, to those who would say, well, all disabled lives matter, why cant we just all be in one group? Why are we having this little carve out? What would your response be to that?

Rose (15:45): So, one of those speakers in that webinar series is [inaudible 00:15:49] Tyson. She is an African American woman, a tech professional, who is also visually impaired. Now, those different layers, Im not gonna sit here and tell you, Im a black woman in tech with a medical disability. However, I dont separate those two out from me as an identity. However, I know that I have a lot more challenges, probably with my race, versus my gender, and a disability. And from my own community and growing up, we still have, we had certain biases, traditional biases around what disability means for our communities as well.

(16:44): So, for us, we take on those roles of being those advocates for that. So, although our four groups, and I forgot to mention this, but our four groups that we support, African American blacks, Hispanic Latinos, Native American indigenous, and people with disabilities.

(17:07): However, we always work in the intersectionality of all four of those groups. And its number one, because we can break out, we can take a little deep dive into the challenges of black women, Latino women, native women, as well as women with disabilities. But when you are adding that extra layer from that perspective as well, you have to really look at that. Its not segregating out those features that you have or those identities. But those are really, really important from the aspect of what can we do to make sure that their voices are heard as well?

Zach (17:55): I love that. Its interesting because I believe that, especially, Im curious to get your perspective on where we are as a country on just the concept of disability? How broad, like when we use the word disability, I think theres oftentimes where folks think about visible disabilities, they think about, maybe, perhaps again, like a visible disability. Where do you feel as if, like we are in terms of the journey to really understand and grasp all of what disability really means?

Rose (18:40): So, Im glad you asked that question because thats what most of us see. See. And Im gonna use that word intentionally here. See. Is that once we see a physical disability, we already know. We can relate that and we can equate that to the term or the define meaning of disability. Even when youre talking about someone whos blind, not necessarily visually impaired, but someone who is blind. When someone is blind who may need the aid of a person to help them, or a cane, or some type of dog to help them navigate the ways, and even equipment on their computers to navigate the ways. However, visually impaired, they may have very low vision. Lets say a person has 80% low vision. Okay. but they just need assistant technology, if you will, to help them see what they need to see. Now, youre talking about someone who is deaf, can we really say, can we really tell if someone is deaf?

(20:02): And thats where the seeing part comes in. And these are things that were educating ourselves at Command IT as well. We work with organizations like Access Computing, Knowbility is spelled, K-N-O-W-B-I-L-I-T-Y. These are organizations that thats their focus. And so, we work with them to make sure that our community has the resources and education that [inaudible 00:20:34] as well as us. And then, you have, what you mentioned earlier, the hidden disabilities, the silent disabilities. So we talk about mental health, which is really raised. We saw that so revealed in the pandemic, but what about the autism spectrum?

(20:59): So let me just share a little bit of personal. My older sister is blind. I have two nephews who have muscular dystrophy, and theyre in a wheelchair. And one nephew, one of those nephew is also autistic. Doesnt mean that, theyre not capable or thriving. And I think youll see, when I say ‘see’, I think well learn more in the future. And this is already happening from the accessibility community, is that it has such a negative connotation – disability. So theyre saying different abilities. It could mean something like that.

(21:45): So theyre shifting that conversation as well, because we have to educate ourselves that we cant always see a disability, but from Command IT perspective when you sign up for an event and we do ask the accessibility questions. And if theres anything that you need, we have layers, maybe about 10 different options, where you can choose what disability that you have that you need help or assisted in. And so, we take that into consideration because its not always very obvious, seeing a disability. But the autism, being on that autism spectrum, were doing a lot of work in that in our programming right now, with the Tapia Conference. So, it is really super educational for us and as were learning, but were also sharing that out to other organizations, and individuals as well.

Zach (22:48): I love it. Id love to learn more about the specific programs that your organization has been able to stand up. That you believe have really created awareness or more direct addressing of inequities in academia and within the job force.

Rose (23:07): So let me share our Leap Program first. Ill talk about Leap, ACW, and our Tapia. So, our Lead program is leadership and professorial. So when we are talking about, Hey, lets get more students into computer science, getting them to major. Theyre probably a small portion of the student entry. But also, they dont see many of them in their faculty. So Leap is really trying to help increase the number of PhD students to go into the academic world. To get their PhD, and complete their PhDs in computer science or computing, any other computing discipline. So I wanna say that we do focus only on computing and IT. And computing has many disciplines, computer information system, data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and all of that. But, we really help focus. That Leap program is really focused, and we working with 30 different departments.

Zach (24:28): Wow.

Rose (24:29): Computer science departments and universities.

Zach (24:32): Wow.

Rose (24:32): And that was a big step. We did have 11, the first 11, but now weve gotten a grant from NSF. And that allowed us to expand to more. So if you could about it, were working with these departments to make sure that they have, and this is an alliance. Each cohort is an alliance of colleges and universities to ensure that they have advocates on campus, in their department to ensure that these students get what they need as far as the support. But also know that they have a community to help them through that and to finish their degrees. Now, thats Leap.

(25:20): And then we have what I mentioned, ACW. And Im sorry to use these short words, but Academic Careers Workshop. The Academic Careers Workshop is really for first year academics or PhD students, or [inaudible 00:25:39] that looking to go into academic. So there is a lot of process to get to that.

(25:45): Writing grants. What do you need to do in a process? What is the advancement process? So, you dont know those things. So we provide workshops specifically for our four groups to ensure that they are successful in the academic setting, but also understand what those grant writing looks like. And what does the advancement look like, or the promotion pathway looks like in the academic. So, were also preparing that as well. The one big thing that we have annually is the Command IT ACM, Richard Tapia Diversity In Computing Conference is a celebration. And we call it a celebration because we also ensure that, just like hidden figures, we have been part of this innovation for a long time. And there have been incredible contributors to the technology innovation, but of course were not mainstream.

(26:55): So we are gonna make sure that, if theyre not into the mainstream media, we can bring them out and share that because everybody needs a role model to look up to. Everybody needs to see who they can be. And so, those are the things that we have. The Tapia Conference it supports from college students, and that means undergraduate, Masters program, as well as PhD, Post Op, faculty, and academic staff. We are in industry, corporate, government, and nonprofit. So it is the most, and I know this personally, because I have been part of this community for a while. It is the most diverse conference there is.

(27:49): And we pride ourself in there because were very intentional about making sure that the four groups that we heard, that we support are heard, but were not exclusive. We invite everybody. We invite all our allies to join us and to learn and to take back what theyve learned at Tapia to their organizations as well. So, we have plenty more, but those are the main three that traditionally have been around for a while thats really making significant impact.

Zach (28:22): Well, Im so inspired. Again, I think about even myself, I dont know how much I consider disability, especially invisible disabilities. And yet, Living Corporate is a platform focused on centering, amplifying black and brown voices at work. And here you are, youre in that space specifically. Im curious to know, as you think about institutions, particularly colleges, universities, what are the things that they can do to help encourage black and brown folks, minorities in computing fields? And then, if you could, perhaps are there additional things they could do for those individuals who also happen to have disabilities?

Rose (29:01): So I think number one, what weve learned, we have a program, also additional program called, University Ward. And the ward, yes, we grant the university or the computer science department and award a $15,000 award for their retention program. And it really is a lot of programs are centered around recruiting. But when they get there, we have got to make sure that theyre successful. So, one of the things that weve learned is retention programs really help. Youve got to be very active and intentional about, even at the freshman level. So many of the many of the colleges and universities. Also freshmens bring their freshmens first. I mean, they may not be on campus even two weeks, but they do bring their freshmens to the Tapia Conference because, they may not see other black and brown folks, or either black and brown folks who have a disability in their classrooms, but they certainly will see us at Tapia. And so, that gives them a peace of mind right there. That, okay, I can always engage with Command IT, the Command IT community all year round.

(30:27): The other thing is to get involved in our programs because mostly our programs also creates this community and wealth of information. We are putting together a new resources and just really trying to post that all on our website. But we always pass a lot of information on our in our newsletter. Just to our audience who have signed up for a lot of our programs. So those are, I would say, definitely two things. Getting involved with Tapia also, not just from an attendee perspective, but also from a volunteer. We have committees for each area of the conference.

(31:16): We have a Tapia Industry Advisory Board that really focuses on the corporate content, or the industry content for technology. And those are represented directly from the four groups. [inaudible 00:31:30] Tyson is also on that on that committee as well. And so, one of the things that is important is that, with Command IT you will have access to a lot of the community that you probably dont even know of. And thats really, really important. Like I said, we are focused on computing and IT. So if thats what youre looking for at your workplace, then this is the place to be because you will always have access to students. Youll always have access to other professionals to share, collaborate. And I think thats the key. And when we talk about allyship, thats really the key that you learn, listen, and then take on some of those challenges as well, from a personal perspective.

Zach (32:25): I love that. Thank you so much. Rose, its been a phenomenal conversation. Im really excited. Yeah, no, thank you. Im really excited about folks learning more about The Center For Minorities And People With Disabilities in IT. In fact, the link is in the show notes, you can learn more about the organization, more about Rose. If youre a company organization, and you listen to this, you know, for a fact that you need to diversify your STEM areas and departments. So, why not plug into an organization specifically fostering innovation through inclusion? Rose, Ill consider you a friend of the show. And I look forward to having you back.

Rose (32:59): Thank you so much. And how do we create change? Were gonna command it. Thank you for having me.

Zach (33:05): Come on now.

Rose (33:06): Thats right.

Zach (33:15): And were back yall. I want to thank Rose. I want to thank her for all of her leadership, and her work with The Center For Minorities And People With Disabilities In Information Technology. Make sure that you click the links and the show notes. This is an entire group of people. We talk about organizations, talk about the diversity theyre looking for. And also, we talk about the pipeline, there being an issue in terms of access, and really being able to find the talent. This is a whole pool of people that are constantly developing and growing in IT. And so, if youre an organization and youre looking to diversify your pipeline, youre looking for a pool of applicants to engage. I dont understand what would stop you from engaging this particular pool of applicants. Again, the organization is called, The Center For Minorities And People With Disabilities In Information Technology.

(33:58): Again, I wanna shout out Rose Robinson. Lets make sure that as we think about, and we continue to talk around diversity, equity, and inclusion, that we push ourselves to engage spaces, that we often, even us, may overlook. Disability is one of the most overlooked diversity dimensions that we have, because so many of us do not consider. And we also have been conditioned as a culture to be hostile or resistant, or just to otherwise those with disabilities. We also have narrowed our definition of disability quite a bit. And we Im really thankful for the conversation that Rose was able to lead and provide for us on this topic. And I really want to challenge all DEI practitioners, or thought leaders, or however you want to classify yourself to really make sure that were being inclusive of those experiences and perspectives.

(34:51): Let’s see here. Yall I think thats it. Thank you so much for listening to Living Corporate. Make sure if you havent already, check out our merch – livingcorporate.shop. You know what Im saying? And then, also make sure you give us five stars on Apple Podcast. Till next time, this has been Zach. Peace.

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