“Never underestimate your own experience and magic in the struggle for a better Artificial Intelligence”, Safia Oulmane

Safia Oulmane is a young French volunteer at the grassroot organisation GHETT’UP. She has been wearing different hats since she joined and contributed to different teams such as Education, Leadership and Media. So far, she has engaged mostly as an International Advocacy Officer working on issues related to police violence and connecting her oganisation throughout Europe. 

Her organisation is based in the suburb of Paris and has for mission to change the narrative around the French working-class neighborhoods (also called in French ‘banlieues’ or ‘quartiers populaires’) and empower the youth living int those neighborhoods, who are, most of them, from immigrant descent. The team is made up of a few staff and many volunteers who come most of them from these neighborhoods. A value that represents them best is “for us by us”. 

They make it a point to center the lived experience of their community by taking in consideration their unique needs through all the actions, programmes and projects they undertake to serve them. Their community target are youth from these quartiers populaires, and other civil society actors  who work collectively and support each other’s work.

In this interview she explains us how she started learning about artificial intelligence and her plans to add this new perspective in her collective’s agenda to help a little bit more her community from a digital perspective.

What role do you think your young people have in better developing and understanding AI?

In the long run, my goal is to support youth from marginalized communities in pursuing STEM careers. As most studies have shown, it’s no secret that discrimination is a major barrier for individuals from marginalized communities to pursue STEM majors.

And when it comes to AI, it’s now clear that what makes it discriminatory towards individuals coming from marginalized communities is the fact that it’s mainly developed by White males. Hence, it’s crucial that in the years to come we see more diversity in STEM to get more inclusive AI systems, and that starts with getting the younger generation educated on these issues and making sure they get equitable access to STEM majors so that they end up being the ones developing AI systems.

How did you become interested in Artificial Intelligence?

Ada Lovelace did this 😊 As part of my studies in Women, Gender, and Sexualities, I took a class in Gender and Technology through which I discovered the existence of Ada Lovelace (this queen!) who, in a way, originated AI as she was the pioneer of computing science (but she gets no exposure for that, of course!). This class, along with Ada’s story, is what spiked my interest in continuing to educate myself on the intersection between gender, race, and artificial intelligence.

You have been training in AI-related topics for some time now. How did you come to these topics? What materials do you rely on for your learning?

My starting point was joining the JET Table (Justice, Equity and Technology Table). As uncomfortable as it felt to me at first, I just jumped right in. One of the benefits of being a JET Table member is that, besides the fact that it makes me part of a team made up of one of the most brilliant and kindest human beings, it also allows me to stay up to date with information on antidiscrimination, policing and data-driven technologies in Europe. They also offer bi-monthly sessions with inspiring and insightful speakers from whom I’ve learned so much.

The series of workshops on artificial intelligence offered last year by ECNL (European Center for Not-for-Profit Law) have also been extremely helpful in my learning journey as they were specially built to empower and support CSOs to engage in the AI debates and policy making process.

So being part of safe spaces to ask my questions, learn, take part in conversations, and make meaningful connections has been my main way of educating myself in AI-related topics so far.

In what ways do you think the digital and anti-racist gaze can be incorporated into Ghett’up?

For GHETT’UP, after the introduction of the Global Security bill in France (a bill that was created to give more power to the police), it became evident to us that we must spend some time addressing the danger of AI and tech within our community. Many articles were concerning for our community and specific ones not only provided growing autonomy for local police to stop and search, but also allowed increased capacity to use technologies for surveillance when over-policing is already a danger within the quartiers populaires.

Centering the lived experience of marginalized communities is part of our daily work and, when we talk about fighting against the danger of AI and tech, we must also talk about the importance of including the communities that we serve in our work and think strategically of ways to do so.

So raising awareness within our community is a must and within GHETT’UP it’ll start by holding community events.

What kind of activities do you imagine can be useful for young people? What plans do you have to integrate AI into the association’s agenda? In what way?

For next academic year, our goal is to work on this collaboratively by integrating different collective activities and actions that are relevant to the community we serve. The planning is still in progress but, so far, we have been discussing ways to explaining artificial intelligence, and how it affects our community, in the easiest way possible through our social media pages. We’re also planning to conduct a research project on digital policing within the quartiers populaires thanks to a grant we’ve received from JET (Justice, Equity and Technology Table).

What would you say to people who are afraid of getting into these subjects because they have no STEM background?

That I feel them and that, if I did it, then they can too! For the first few months into this journey I honestly felt lost all the time but, as long as you’re not afraid to ask for help and questions, I promise that it gets better.

Also, when it comes to fighting for your community, never be afraid to hold the space with or without knowledge. Keep in mind that, most of the policy makers when it comes to AI regulations don’t have a STEM background either. What they have is governmental power they just combine with consulting experts and reading lots of research papers. So, what you really need is the willingness to fight and resist, not necessarily STEM knowledge. 

Plus, just thinking of the fact that policy makers take advantage of the fact that the majority of the population don’t fully understand AI to even worry about it, makes me want to fight even harder.

Finally, never underestimate your own expertise and magic in this fight. You might not be a STEM expert but maybe your expertise in community outreach, event planning, or marketing could be helpful to an organization that does research on the danger of AI and is looking to disseminate their data to impacted communities but don’t know how to. Combining forces is always a good idea 😊 In my case, as someone who comes from a social science background, I’ve realized that my presence is much needed in discussions about artificial intelligence and ethics. The truth is that, for the good of humanity, AI needs social scientists and I consider this knowledge of mine to be my superpower when I enter any AI room. 

How do you think organizations can add this perspective to their agendas?

I would say that the first step would be to spend some time identifying and understanding how artificial intelligence is a danger to the community they serve.

Then spend some time reflecting on how to center their communities’ lived experience when it comes to fighting against the danger of AI. What does it mean in their engagement and work? And how can they include the communities they serve in this fight?

If you are interested in the interview and want to listen to Safia live, we have good news! The activist will participate in the conference How to incorporate the digital perspective in an anti-racist organisation? in the framework of the JornadasDAR that we are organising together with Lafede.cat, Algorights and Algorace at the end of May. You will have a conversation with communicator Miriam Hatibi at our session held at the brand new Conciencia Afro space in Madrid. We invite you to come and meet her in person to hear more about her trajectory in AI and her anti-racist perspective.

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