On the Rocks with Dr. Washington

Written by D’Mya Gernae Sanford

If being a professor at Duke University, an author, the first Black woman to graduate from North Carolina State University with a Ph.D in Computer Science, and a former employee at the Department of Homeland Security, Google, and Lockheed Martin doesn’t stack your resume — there is not much else that will.

Dr. Nicki Washington joined the Duke Computer Science department in 2020, equipped with an extraordinary past and a mission on her mind. After nearly fifteen years of teaching at HBCUs (Howard University and Winthrop University), Dr. Washington is bringing her expertise and lived experiences to improve the CS curriculum and create a more inclusive environment.

Before she was trailblazing in academia, Dr. Washington was working at some of the best-known names in technology Despite enjoying the work she was doing, Dr. Washington was deterred by the work environment and her colleagues. She wondered if she could affect changes in academia to better prepare students for what she was experiencing while also changing how faculty managed student differences. Since then, she’s undoubtedly worked towards doing so through her experiences shaping the K-12 CS Framework, creating Google-In-Residence programs at HBCUs, piloting the Race, Gender, Class, and Computing course at Duke, and more.

We wanted to get to know more about the woman behind such impressive accolades. This is a short glimpse into the experience of Dr. Nicki Washington, who sat down with us recently to discuss what it is like to authentically exist in the field of Computer Science as well as the differences between academia and the real world.

Q & A

While crafting my questions I have to admit there was a level of projecting because I had never had the opportunity to ask questions like this to someone who would completely understand my own personal experiences. Fully appreciating and recognizing my financial and academic privileges growing up, I would sometimes feel alienated in all Black spaces because financial and opportunistic disadvantage and triumph is still a large part of the (sometimes stereotypical and monolithic) Black American identity. Having parents who are college-educated entrepreneurs, have done their stints in corporate, and creating my first business at a young age, leads many to question the unexpected correlation between my experience and my appearance.

Many people often equate blackness to immeasurable struggle and believe in the monolith of an intersectionality disadvantaged upbringing. Dr. Washington, the daughter of a computer programmer and school administrator, started coding when she was young and defied this monolith. To learn more about her experience with this, I asked her how she’s navigated through these assumptions and pushed her own experience to the forefront when people assume that about her.

Dr. Washington: It’s been very important for me to always talk about the level of privilege that I had, even as a black woman and a black girl growing up. […] I had a rich community of Black Engineers, and doctors and attorneys, and educators who were my parents, friends, and they were the parents of my friends growing up. And so I’ve always tried to make sure, from the point that I realized that, which was probably when I got to college as a freshman, that every other student who looked like me didn’t necessarily grow up in that same kind of environment.

So through graduate school, and everyplace else, I have always tried to normalize blackness in spaces where it is not usually normalized, and make sure that the idea of blackness that they have is exactly what you said, it’s not a monolith. For me, it’s very important to not always speak “the king’s English” when I’m in public spaces. So I don’t always code switch.

People without experience around a lot of black people have this idea that everyone grew up in a 90’s John Singleton film, like Boys in the Hood or Menace II Society or something like that. We’re not all from South Central or the inner city, or the projects. There’s beauty in all of these things, whether I came from a suburban neighborhood, or whether I came from Southeast DC and Berry Farms.

Last semester I was tasked to work on a semester-long group project with someone who was heavily involved with an organization that had been linked to white supremacists. I was unable to be removed from the particular group member because “sometimes you have to work with people you don’t agree with” (per my professor). Which I understood to an extent, but that only applies if we were to, for example, have different opinions on bubble tea flavors, not different opinions on if Black people deserved rights or not.

In order to have them removed, I had to go as far as writing pages of an explanation into why it could potentially be dangerous and unnecessarily traumatizing for me (a black person, post/during George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protest era) to work long-term with this outspoken individual. I thought the reason would be self-explanatory and completely understandable, however, nothing changed until I elevated my concern to someone else in the department. The fact that I had to take time out from my project to educate my own professor almost made me so exhausted I barely wanted to complete the project anymore.

This made me think more about how companies and academic programs often look to racial and gender minorities as their “educator” on inequality. I wanted to get Dr. Washington’s perspective on this so I asked: Does assuming this role ever make you suffer from burnout? How do you focus on accomplishing your own personal goals in addition to being seen as the “go-to” person for diversity and inclusion questions?

Dr. Washington: “The answer is yes. So burnout is real […] . And I think that this is probably a lot of black women and black people, period right now, given everything that’s happened in 2020. There’s always this push pull. And I see it a lot of times with the black tech space where people really want to be recognized for their technical expertise, and don’t necessarily want to focus on these kinds of topics around DDI. And I understand and appreciate that. But I think one of the things that I realized very early on is that, for me, I really can’t separate those, because in order for me to be successful, technically, it means that this space has to be more inclusive.

Some people tend to feel like they want to lean more towards the technical side and let their presence work for them and be the representation, while other people want to lean more towards the broadening participation side. I’ve had to lean towards that [broadening participation side] because I know that as an educator, and also working at different institutions, my skill set was best at the time to educate and teach. So what I did, and what I focused on wasn’t necessarily the most theoretical, but it was equally for me, if not more important in this space.

At ECU, I attended a Women’s Entrepreneurship Panel about a year or so ago and I remember Dana Newell, a successful entrepreneur on the panel, mention creating her “own seat at the table” in an industry dominated by white men. As a Black woman and someone whose mother is very into finance and options trading, she raised me on this principle as well, giving this advice to any BIPOC woman in any white male-dominated space. So for any BIPOC person, I am always sure to ask this:

As a Black woman, have you found it easier to “ask for a seat at the table” in the tech industry or create your own?

Dr. Washington: Ah, I would say probably create […]. And that’s what I used for developing the book for Unapologetically Dope […] But because I’m a faculty member, and we have to publish, I know how to format to meet requirements for publication. So I’m gonna write this book, I’m gonna self promote it, pull a Too $hort and Master P, and that’s pretty much what I did to get the notice of the book out, which was everything by myself.

Note: I had to call my parents to ask them about the “Too $hort, Master P” reference, and once you find out it’s about selling CD’s out the back of your trunk, this portion of the interview becomes instantly iconic.

This next question is an observation into the widening separation between the reality of academia and real life. Often we are all so occupied with theory and principles we learn from books that we forget that there is a world out there. Not to say that they are not tested and proven, but once you have your first internship or first taste of on the job experience (cue wide-eyed and bushy-tailed me in Summer 2019 doing healthcare administrative work), you really begin to realize that education is very time specific and the practices, social beliefs, and folkways the workers perform are specific to the era they learned it in.

I feel like we’re especially seeing over the last year or so that academia and society at large, are very much just out of sync with each other. How can we make sure that progress in academia isn’t slowed down by kind of sort of taking a slower pace? But also how can we make sure that academia doesn’t leave behind society and become irrelevant to it?

Dr. Washington: Dr. Shaundra Daily and I put together a department culture survey to distribute across all computer science students, and we’ve asked students anonymously to complete this because we plan to take the results of this survey, code it, and present it to the faculty […] So that it starts to become a culture where students know that [with] their voices and concerns, they can express them safely, they’re being heard, and something is being done. And there’s a level of accountability where the stakeholders, i.e. the students, every semester, we have to come back and talk about, are we meeting those needs for you all? And if we’re not, how can we improve that?

Those are some of the ways in which I think academia needs to keep up with society. Computing especially, I say, we need to make sure that we are reaching across Arts and Sciences and talking to those individuals in those departments that are more social science oriented […] And I’d say as students trying making demands of the chair and the department in these spaces, making those demands known organizing if you need to, because you see that there’s power in numbers, but also speaking up and speaking out.”

Recently, my Instagram explore page algorithm has brought up critical infographics about “Why Diversity Panels Don’t Work” and mentioned certain groups created for change are just echo chambers for the same idea to bounce around with people who already agree. A while ago, I had proposed the idea to a college I’m very involved in at ECU to focus on educating the perpetrators rather than asking victims to relive their racial trauma experiences in order to convince the aggressors to change their minds about BIPOC. I am thankful there is more action being taken against racism in educational and social spaces, but I feel like there is hesitation because we all know what needs to be done but we’re afraid of the unprecedented conflict it will inevitably cause (good trouble, if you will).

What do you think some diversity and inclusion efforts get wrong?

Dr. Washington: I think the biggest problem on the faculty side is that they tend to operate from a deficit model toward whatever student group they’re trying to target based on their identity. The assumption is that that group is at a deficit. And we need to focus in on their self-advocacy. And that’s great, but that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is when you take students from a group that identifies as systemically marginalized in some way or vulnerable population, and you put them into an environment where no one else has been trained to understand how to engage with students from diverse backgrounds.

My thing has always been for faculty, to descend to the students. And to make sure that when you descend, are the students that you’re focusing primarily on the people who operate in the dominant spaces? If it’s going to be race, it’s going to be white and Asian men and white and Asian in computing, if it’s gender, it’s going to be men, if it’s sexuality is going to be heterosexual and also with gender, it’s going to be cisgender […] So you’ve got to make sure that you are targeting those people and making sure that they understand more and learn more about these topics of identity, and why they’re important and oppression so that they can start to see the ways in which they are contributing to the problem instead of the solution.

I’m curious if you’ve been involved in larger conversations surrounding the CS curriculum at Duke. Should the curriculum be modified? Can classes be adapted to this without changing the curriculum?

Dr. Washington: “I look at that race, gender class in computing courses, as just the foundational point […] One of the things that that I’ve developed was the 3C Fellows program that’s training faculty across the country on these topics. And the goal is really for them to then be able to develop these kinds of courses on their own or modules and update their curricula, and also create departmental activities that center identity inclusive computing.”

“The biggest thing is computer science faculty don’t know any of this stuff. We’re not taught this. But the one thing they always do is if ABET says we have to do it in order to sustain accreditation, we will find a way to do it. And so I started to reach out to ABET. To my surprise, they responded and they invited me to serve on a DEI committee because at the beginning of last summer, ABET was requiring all of these four commissions with coming back with updated criteria. So I worked with the computing group on that and it should be available beginning the 2022–2023 academic year as the first year that everyone will have to now update based on those new requirements.

Blue Devil or not, this was the best interview I’ve ever been a part of in my life. To be able to pry open the thoughts of someone I want to be like someday in the near future, get the answers to questions I have been Google searching for ages, and to be able to do it all from the comfort of my room, is an unexplainable opportunity I am glad to have participated in.

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