Ashley Jane Lewis, Interactive artist


Throughout #BlackHistoryMonth, our BE in Tech series highlights some of the experiences of Black women in the Canadian tech industry.

Share your own experiences using the hashtag #BeInTech and tag us @joinmovethedial!

Next, we have Ashley Jane Lewis. Ashley is an interactive artist with a focus on bioart, Afrofuturism and speculative design.

As a black woman in tech, what has been your biggest obstacle/challenge to date and if you could change one thing during your experience in tech and in the workplace what would it be?

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy encouraging my workplaces to put more intentionality towards ethics and equity. Only recently have I felt like I have seen enough error and success to recommend methodologies for greater inclusion. Sometimes this goes well and sometimes, as an agitator for change, you are met with a thick brick wall of resistance. I think that the only thing I would change is knowing when to leave the workplace. If I could speak to a younger version of myself I would tell her that, despite the way she feels, her skills are incredibly valuable and would be much better appreciated elsewhere. I would also tell her that soon the industry of tech will be pressed to address why their companies are not human-centred meaning that technologists who focus on empathy and equity will have their chance to speak. I think leaving toxic workplaces sooner, prioritizing my mental health would have been a wiser move than sticking it out. There is power in staying but even more power in knowing when to leave. 

Moving the dial is an ongoing mission we strive to do, is there someone or something that has inspired you to #movethedial in your journey. 

I was very fortunate to find my way of coding through new media art. As a result, my entry to programming was cradled by caring open source communities like Arduino (a C++ coding IDE for hardware) and the Processing Foundation (creators of a java based programming IDE). I am endlessly inspired by communities of this nature who strive to centre inclusivity and accessibility. Their mission statement drives them to attempt to reach as many non-conventional coders as possible. I’ve used these platforms to do the same in my coding workshops. Their software and community tone have been a huge motivator, empowering me to be able to teach more than three thousand young women and people of colour how to code. 

In an artistic context, I am consistently impressed and amazed by black artists who incorporate technology like Camille TurnerRasheedha Phillips and Sondra Perry. I grew up without representation for what the field of diasporic, culturally significant technological art could look like. Now, as a practicing artist, I am so grateful that they exist! Though we’ve never met, there is a feeling of solidarity online for those who are exploring and imagining new futures for black people. N. K. Jemisin, author of many science fiction books, including The Broken Earth series, is an enormous inspiration in helping me mentally move the dial forward. Not only does she dream up new literary spaces that are flush and populated by people of colour, but she is also an academic who hosts world-building exercises with university groups in order to break apathy and help people being to fathom real-life alternative futures for positive change. What an incredible contribution to the world of black technology! 

How can the industry move the dial for black women in tech?

I think there are lots of ways in which companies or the industry, in general, could move the dial for black women in technology; having a community statement of social conduct (and sticking to it!), creating skills driven mentorship programs for aspiring black technologists and company-wide diversity and equity training for all staff. I want to be clear that I think these elements should be put in place specifically to give black women a foundation to stand on when things go awry. By that, I mean that this would give black women structural elements to reference should they experience racism at work. Imagine being able to say, “that comment was unacceptable as it doesn’t align with the expressed community values of this workplace that we learned about in our staff training”. These might not seem like much to those of us who have worked in large corporations but, in my experience, most tech startups are void of all these features. It’s with this in mind that I think the most valuable thing a company could do is invest in a strong, diversity centred HR department – a place where marginalized staff can lodge issues and feel systematically supported.

Can you include a quote or piece of advice that either inspired you during any challenging times in your career or an actionable takeaway that the reader can use? 

Unbeknownst to most technologists, the world of computing has been deeply influenced and developed by black people, though we have often not received credit for it. Movies like Hidden Figures and novels like Black Software by Charlton D. McIlwain have been pulling back the curtain on these histories in a major way. For those black women in tech who are feeling isolated or lonely – I really feel you! I’ve been there. Sometimes working in tech can feel like an endless sea of tokenism but the good news is that there is a legacy of black women in tech. You just have to do a little digging and exposing. 

One quote that has helped me through challenging times over the last few years actually came from a fictitious non-technological book. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. In her novel, a professorial character outlines historical bias to the class. He says something to the extent of, “when we hear stories, we must first ask ourselves which voice is missing and then consider how we find that story. It is through this that we find the truth”. Searching for other historical black women in tech has helped me fortifying my self-worth through the most difficult times. For example, through this, I learned that caller ID, the touchtone telephone and call waiting were invented by a black woman named Dr. Shirley Jackson! 

Move the Dial