Yeshimabeit Milner, technologist, co-founder and Executive Director of Data for Black Lives, still remembers how it felt when she was suspended from school in sixth grade. She was in a computer class at her middle school in Miami, Florida.
“I was talking out of turn because I was excited about the lesson,” she recalled. “Then out of nowhere the teacher is like, ‘You have to go to three-day suspension. That’s disrespectful.’”
So Yeshimabeit — who goes by Yeshi — missed her classes and languished in a cold room where many of the other students napped.
“We had to line up for everything: to go to the bathroom, to lunch,” she said. “I was so traumatized. I remember feeling like I was criminal, like I was really bad kid — like I had done something terribly wrong, and that there was something inherently bad about me for me to be treated like that.”
The irony was that Yeshi had always loved and excelled at school, and had a special appreciation for computers and technology. At the time of her suspension, she was in a magnet program for high achievers.
“I think that for a lot of young Black people, passion can be seen as being disruptive and can be criminalized,” Yeshi said.
Today, Yeshi realizes that her experiences were part of a trend in school disciplinary policies that civil rights activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Low-income students of color are often suspended, expelled or arrested for behaviors that their white or wealthier peers are punished less harshly for. Without her mother’s constant intervention with school administrators, Yeshi noted, she would likely have been “tracked” away from the institutions that have helped her to succeed today.
“I was placed in alternative education in elementary school, a separate class that many of the poorer, first generation immigrant students in the school were placed in. Fortunately, my mother advocated on my behalf and I stayed in the advanced class,” she said. Had she remained in that program, she added, “I wouldn’t have gone on to this really good high school program; I would have never gone to Brown University.”
As it was, in spite of the magnet program that Yeshi was enrolled in at the time of her suspension, her middle school was run “like a prison.” If you forgot your ID, Yeshi said, you would be sent home. If you wore a black t-shirt underneath your uniform, you would be suspended for wearing a “gang color,” she explained.
This was the atmosphere in Miami when one day, while Yeshi was a senior in high school, some students at a neighboring high school organized a protest after an administrator put a student in a choke hold. The young people, Yeshi remembered, had congregated peacefully in the cafeteria.
“The city and the school district sent in SWAT vans with fully armed police officers ready for combat,” she said. “I remember watching young people that I went to elementary school with getting slammed against cars, hit with batons. The headliner on CNN said, ‘Riot at Miami Senior High School.’ This was not a riot. These young people should have been recognized for their courage and leadership, but instead this happened.”
Yeshi was incensed. She joined a local group, the Power U Center for Social Change, that organized youth and fought against school-to-prison pipeline practices. Yeshi and other young people at Power U strongly suspected that their schools were disproportionately punishing its students. They wanted to find the statistics to prove it.
“We would go to the school board meeting and testify in front of the school board, and we would be totally ignored,” Yeshi said. “The superintendent would turn around and ignore us. The school board members would go on their computer or talk to their assistant.”
She remembers thinking, “This is not going to work. We need to do our own data collection.”
Working with Power U, Yeshi surveyed 600 students.
“I’m going out in front of elementary, high schools, talking to young people, going to block parties, doing outreach,” Yeshi recalled. “It was powerful, because a lot of these kids… no one has ever asked them about their experiences getting suspended.”
The results of that survey were published in a comic book titled, “Telling It Like It Is: Miami Youth Speak Out on the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
“That comic book was used in Miami to help pass restorative justice policies,” said Yeshi. “Folks all over the country have talked about how they used that comic book. It was helpful in swaying decision makers. I watched young people open the book, read it, and say, ‘I’m not a bad student because I got suspended. This is a problem that’s happening nationwide. It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline.’”
Then, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in central Florida by George Zimmerman. Yeshi remembers watching young people like herself use technology and social media to call each other to action. She saw the story of Trayvon go viral on Facebook and traveled with Power U to the state capitol, and became part of the movement for Black lives and against police brutality. She ran a live stream of the protests, she recalled, because “there were so many people who wanted to be there with us who physically couldn’t or were not in Florida.”
Soon after, Yeshi went on to Brown University, where she completed a BA in Africana Studies.
“My focus was to get skills, especially data and analytics and in research, to bring back to Miami,” she said. During summer and winter breaks, she would return home to organize with Power U. After graduating, she took a job with the organization, working on a campaign to collect data and change policies related to the high rate of Black infant mortality rates. In the US, Black babies have two times the mortality rate of white babies, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“This is a disparity that’s been the same for the past fifty years, even though the infant mortality rate has declined overall,” said Yeshi.
Yeshi got together with a group of young Black mothers to survey 300 mothers about their experiences in hospitals in Miami. She learned that breastfeeding was linked to infant health, and that for Black women, it was a political issue.
“One of the contributing factors to Black infant mortality was the ways in which hospitals discouraged Black women from breastfeeding,” she explained. “Black women wanted to breastfeed, but they go into the hospital and they’re given bags of infant formula. We found out through our research that there were all these kickbacks that Jackson Hospital was getting from these infant formula companies.”
Scholars at Loyola Marymount University helped Power U to crunch the numbers. Yeshi used the results to author a report titled, “A Call for Birth Justice in Miami.” She argued that breastfeeding and child health are racial justice issues, and called for policy changes to make hospitals more baby-friendly.
Miami’s public hospital, Jackson Memorial, had ignored Black women’s complaints for years, Yeshi said. But after Power U published its report and gained attention from the press, the hospital phoned the organization.
“Their reputation is their bread and butter, and they asked us, ‘Did you do this research yourselves?” Yeshi remembered. “And we’re like, ‘Yes. This is something that’s been really a pressing and urgent issue in the community.’ Literally, while I was doing this campaign, one of our member leaders passed away because of complications while giving birth.” The hospital responded by making “sweeping changes” to its maternal and child health ward, according to Yeshi.
“It fired the head OB-GYN and a ton of of her people, replaced them, totally revamped its program and even said, ‘Next time we do policy, we need to include Black and low-income mothers,’” she said. “That was like, wow, this is powerful. We couldn’t bring three hundred moms into the meeting with us to the hospital with the CEO and all his staff, but they couldn’t deny the data that we collected.”
Yeshi wondered, “How do we scale this? How do we include even more people?”
Several years later, Yeshi was living in New York City and working as a campaign manager for the racial justice organization, Color of Change. Her job was to support organizers around the country by training them to use digital tools, such as an online petition that was developed by Color of Change. At the same time, she was reading, researching and talking to others about racial bias in everyday technologies like algorithms and artificial intelligence.
One day, she doodled the phrase, “Data for Black Lives.” She stared at the words and pondered their implication. What if she could bring together scientists and activists who were thinking about data and racial justice?
“I didn’t really know how to start,” she recalled.
She reached out to an old college friend, Lucas Mason-Brown, a PhD mathematics candidate at MIT. Together, they decided to start an organization called Data for Black Lives, and launch it with a conference at the university.
“We wanted to bring together people who don’t believe that their work is very political, may even get defensive when we talk about algorithmic bias, or machine learning and how racism is baked in to some of these technologies,” Yeshi said.
Yeshi and Lucas reached out to Black youth organizations, service providers and MIT students. They received support from MIT’s president, the Black Student Union and Black Alumni Association.
“As we started talking about Data for Black Lives, we were just amazed at how those four words unleashed people’s imagination around what was possible,” Yeshi said. Black technologists, engineers and physicists — many of whom were women — “came out of the woodwork.”
“People talked about their experiences being a Black physicist, being a Black mathematician, how they’ve had to separate their Black identity from their identity as a scientist,” Yeshi said. “I was very surprised that there were this many Black people who are literally hiding in laboratories, keeping their heads down, trying to get their work done, but definitely paying attention to the protests, talking with their families over dinner about what’s going on all over the world.”
She added, “There were white mathematicians who said, ‘We have political conversations, too. Our conversations are just very biased, because it’s us talking in circles. We don’t know anybody who’s out here doing activism. We need to be connected to those people, because maybe we’ll have a better understanding and we’ll know how we can help.’”
“People are looking for a space where they can engage in these ideas, learn, and build with people. I think that’s why we can say we’re a movement. My real goal around Data for Black Lives is creating a political home for people who don’t have one.”
The conference sold out within a week and offered over 100 scholarships scholarships. It featured panels that discussed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education — but “not the same way that it has been talked about,” Yeshi said. “We have to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. You can put all the coding bootcamps in all the schools, but if you’re not addressing the state violence that’s happening in schools, then there are no tech initiatives that are going to fulfill whatever gaps folks are talking about.”
Yeshi and Lucas invited and worked closely with organizers who wanted to use data to expand their work. One woman heard about the Data for Black Lives conference and traveled from a small town in Virginia. She asked for help training her community’s youth to collect data to show how murders of Black people were being ignored by police. Yeshi now talks with her on the phone weekly and is developing a toolkit for survey collection. She plans on visiting Virginia and helping to knock on doors.
The conference featured a Hackathon, where five organizing groups spoke about their work and some of the data tech challenges that they had. One of the needs expressed, Yeshi said, was for a website database that could help people — especially those who are or were formerly in prison — determine whether or not they had the right to vote.
“That’s a very simple data tool to make that can have such an important impact on shaping the outcomes of this country — but most importantly, the lives of people who need to be voting and need to have their say in the decisions that are impacting their lives,” she explained.
“That’s the kind of tone that I wanted to set for the conference,” Yeshi added. “Not just the urgency of what’s happening, the realness of the suffering that’s happening in this country, and the fact that it’s going to probably get worse — but also the resilience, hope, imagination and the possibilities that we have. Even as discrimination becomes an even more high-tech enterprise, we have the tools, data, people and collective intelligence to make real change and protect our communities.”