J. Khadijah Abdurahman: Predictive analytics, Child Welfare, and Storytelling’s Power (Part 1 of 2)

[Cover photo credit of J. Khadijah Abdurahman by Nkozi Tiewul found on @/ Webeimagining ]

J. Khadijah Abdurahman shares her personal experiences with Administration of Children Services (ACS) in New York City and the critical work she does around archiving our own stories around power and systems. Too much of the literature about how certain automated systems marginalize folks are written by people who do not experience these systems nor know their intimacy, and oftentimes indignity. Khadijah turns that around. She is a mother, co-founder of Word2RI, an oral history archive of racial justice and gentrification on Roosevelt Island, Director of We Be Imagining, a series of public programming in collaboration with Columbia University’s INCITE Center and The American Assembly’s Democracy and Trust Program, and is a visiting researcher and lecturer at Cornell Tech in the Milstein Program. Read Part 1 of 2 of Kim M Reynolds’ interview with Khadijah below.

Let’s start with an introduction:

I’m a parent of five. I’ve lived almost my entire life in New York City. I’m biracial. My father is Ethiopian. My mother is white Irish American. I have an undying hatred for the Administration of Children Services (ACS)… [M]y personal involvement led me to do a lot of research and begin to understand the impact of predictive analytics being implemented by the administration of children services or ACS. 

As ODB, we have been looking at data driven systems and the lives of marginalized people. What brought you to the debate around fairness, accountability, transparency and these kinds of issues more broadly around technology and justice? 

I don’t have any inherent interest in privacy and predictive analysis. It really came through what I think about which is amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain is what mediates the hippocampus. What I experienced and what I observed with interacting with ACS, and I just found it to be on an interpersonal level extremely dehumanizing. Part of my process is trying to figure out that situation, was trying to figure out why is it that I’m in this community that really being decimated and policed by child welfare yet it is something so invisible to so much of New York. And what I tried to outline in that piece (on medium) is that ACS is like domestic ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements]. 

New York is anomalous to the rest of the country in that Black people are not just disproportionately represented in foster care or child welfare investigations, but are pretty much exclusively represented. There are no white people in ACS’s foster care. There are so few, that in the documents made public. They put asterisks to release the amount of people that have whatever outcome, like discharged under detention or discharged with their family would reveal their identity because there’s so few of them. 

This is one of the most destructive things you can do to a person and you can do to a community. I mean you can arrest someone. You can humiliate them. But when you come into someone’s house and take away their child, or you come in and you investigate them with some kind of amorphous allegation and force their kids to strip search multiple times unaccounted, I mean this is really the way you begin to dismantle the psyche of Black women who are experiencing a whole host of other things. 

Out of my five kids, I have four that have been in foster care that are my nieces and nephews. But I adopted them and raised them. We have a big issue that kids in foster care stay in care for a long time. The family form is really dysfunctional… 

As I was trying to advocate for [the kids], I was then accused by the agency of misconduct. 

I had them audited and began to follow the money and trying to understand. 

I was able to evade a lot of the consequences of their retaliation because I had the social and other resources to write to my local political representatives and to do outreach on my social media and ask prestigious attorneys for advice. 

This was around the time of the Allegheny pilot. I was trying to figure out, how [does ACS] target people? How do they find them? [I]t’s not like stop-and-frisk where they are just walking outside? And that impression of tracking people through technology, through public health systems, you begin to identify and make visible people who wouldn’t necessarily be under the gaze of ACS. 

When I started getting child care and I had the ability to do more things, I really love to read, and basically I was like, “I want to meet all of the authors of my favorite books.” And I found them through Twitter, and I wrote to them, and they were dope. Honestly, I think people can be intimidated or something, but they don’t write to the authors of these books. And I found mainly for people to be really accessible. What I also found was that the people talking about child welfare, the people talking about automated decision making have never experienced these systems, do not live in communities affected by these systems, and are so divorced [from these systems]. 

From there, my only interest [became]: How do you dismantle them? 

Have you been in child foster services?

No, my kids have been in foster care. For me, I’ve been investigated by ACS, and they wanted to substantiate it. In ACS, there’s only unfounded or substantiated. there’s no guilty or innocent

The other thing that had a big impact on my life was both my parents. But through a combination of different factors, my behavior, my temperament, I was perpetually expelled from school beginning from pre-K all the way through the end of high school, and I spent a lot of time—five years in total—living in this behavior modification center. 

About half of them [in the behavioral center] were in foster care, and the other half were adopted by people who thought that they were infertile. I was one of the very few who had a connection to their biological family. We were forbidden from things. We couldn’t bring in books. We had no access to the internet. We didn’t have connection to the news. I just spent a long time there and made connections with people who lost their family.

Can you take me through some of your background- where you grew up and your education and how that’s influenced the work you’re doing now

I spent in the facility really deeply informed my experience, because I know what it is to be forbidden to learn. We weren’t even allowed to write, because it was contraband to write on the pages of your notebook. They felt like it could incite a riot if you were writing something you weren’t explicitly told to write. 

The school said they had individualized learning, which meant that we basically sat most of the time in some room with a book, and we could individually go read it. All the kids were in this one-floor school house and had these rooms called quiet rooms, which are isolation rooms. They looked like a bathroom without pictures. It had a drain, a camera, and a plexiglas box in the ceiling with a handle—you hold it and crack the screen a little. And so in your crack, you’d hear kids screaming for hours, for parents, and there was no parent coming. There was actually one staff member that would sneak me in paper and told me about this thing called slam poetry and later I think she got fired for something related to this.

I feel like a big impact in my life is that I have had these challenges. But I’ve always had somebody or people that have come to help me or assist me in some way. So I feel like that was a very formative part of my experience. 

When I left when I was 17, I joined this pseudo-cult leftist thing called the Revolutionary Communist Party. They’re slightly crazy. But I actually had a very positive experience with them, because I came from this place where you weren’t allowed to do anything, and suddenly I’m working with revolutionary books and able to coordinate all these authors and meet all of these different people who never asked me what my background was and just assumed I had the right to be there 

I helped organize a bus that went on the path of the freedom riders from 125th Street in Harlem to Gina, Louisiana. And it was just crazy to be there. I went to New Orleans a year after Katrina and was in the Superdome watching the premiere of When the Levees Broke with the people who were in the movie. All these cumulative experiences had a really big impact on me. We worked a lot with professors, ‘cause they would use their own books as an independent seller for their courses. I would get the opportunity to speak about whatever latest book or event that had happened to these graduate students… I learned you could just go to office hours without being a student and sit in on classes. 

I also left and was pregnant and had a baby. I was 19, lived in a shelter, dealing with poverty, dealing with welfare, and spending a lot of time trying to understand those systems.

Basically I’ve been raising kids for my entire adult life.

photo of J. Khadijah

Who are some of the mentors in your life and help inform your work?

There are so many people. But I think a big thing for me—which is what ODB gets, which is really lacking in academia—is that we are extremely insular socially and interdependent. I think that the only way I’ve made it to this point in my life and raise five kids, some of whom have disabilities, is with the help of others and knowing that it takes a village. 

I would say Professor Tapan Parikh who I work with at Cornell Tech. 

Also Kurt Mundorff who wrote one of the best pieces of child welfare ever, he was a former ASC worker and wrote this piece called Children as Chattel: Invoking the Thirteenth Amendment to Reform Child Welfare

And my in-laws. I grew up with them. My aunt in-law Monique braids hair, and she’s an incredible, dynamic person. I’ve just learned so much from her. My daughters have kinky hair, so they always need to be getting it braided or locked or something, and while I really like the outcome, I always hate the hours it takes. And she pointed out to me on this picture of a grandmother doing the daughters’ hair, and the daughter doing her daughters’ hair and all that time is when we exchange stories and are forced to take time. And so for her braiding hair, she listens to a lot of stories from everyone. 

Can you talk to me about algorithmic accountability?

The biggest blind spot in the conversation about algorithms and automated decision making is that often the algorithms are compared to human decision making. And human decision making is conceptualized or articulated as only a cognitive process which I think is epistemic injustice or omits other ways of knowing. My kids have experienced trauma, and I am trying to understand that healing process and how the body keeps a score. Basically traumatic experiences can shape a person’s developmental trajectory and who they interact and relate with other people.

That has driven a lot of my interest in neuroscience, genetics, and biomedical engineering. [I want to understand] how these memories are encoded in our bodies in the way that we interact with people and move away from “here’s this one gene” that determines everything. To me the biggest thing is not necessarily the self, how it works, blah blah blah. It’s basically what are we ideologically buying into as a society. How do we get so easily sold on the idea that there are these five data points and this can tell you so much about society and that we should be tracked, that we should opt-in, that innovation is something that can happen with omitting all the ways in which we relate to each other and organize society? 

One of my ways of responding to that organizationally was Word2RI

That process has curated a set of experiences and events over the last academic calendar year and one of the ones that we did was in December called What Counts: Tech Rates and the Planet. We featured a non-linear academic panel and performance art and also filmed interviews at the end with audience members and put together an eight-minute trailer to showcase the ways these different stakeholders interacted and discussed the topic. The event was really cool and represents my ideas about thinking about how do you get people who have these very segregated life experiences to come together to facilitate a conversation that’s not just dope and entertaining but meaningful and enacts meaningful change. 

That’s a lot of what I’m thinking about when it comes to algorithmic decision making.