How can technology create an equitable world?

Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. I’m delighted today to have a new guest and a repeat guest, Afua Bruce and Amy Sample Ward. This is Amy’s, I think, third time being on the podcast. We recently had a conversation all about succession and continuity planning, which we’ll link to if you haven’t listened to that yet, but Afua and Amy have written a new book, and that is what we’re going to talk about today. The focus of their book and the focus of our conversation will be how can technology create an equitable world? Let me first tell you a bit about them. Afua Bruce is a leading public interest technologist who has spent her career working at the intersection of technology, policy, and society. Her career has spanned the government, nonprofit, private, and academic sectors as she has held several senior science and technology positions at DataKind, the White House, the FBI, and IBM. Afua has a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering as well as an MBA. Welcome, Afua.

Afua Bruce: Hello, I’m so glad to be here today.

Farra Trompeter: Glad to have you. And Amy Sample Ward believes that technology should be accessible and accountable to everyone, especially communities historically and systemically excluded from the digital world. They are the CEO of NTEN, a nonprofit creating a world where missions and movements are more successful through the skillful and equitable use of technology. Amy’s second book, Social Change, Anytime Everywhere was a Terry McAdam Book Award finalist. Amy, welcome back.

Amy Sample Ward: Thank you for having me. I know that I wrote the book with Afua, but listening to Afua’s bio every time, I’m like, “Oh my god, y’all, I wrote a book with Afua Bruce. Like, how famous and cool is this person?”

Farra Trompeter: I mean, very famous and cool.

Amy Sample Ward: I’m a tag along.

Afua Bruce: Well, it was so great for me to have written a book with Amy Sample Ward. So, here we are.

Farra Trompeter: Well, I’m jealous. I haven’t written a book with either of you, so maybe the next one. Maybe we can find something to collaborate on.

Amy Sample Ward: Okay.

Farra Trompeter: By the way, the elusive book we’re mentioning is called The Tech That Comes Next, How Changemakers, Philanthropists, and Technologists can Build an Equitable World. We’re going to link to the website for where you can get that book, but in case you’re wondering right now, it’s Alright, let’s get into it. So, technology. We all have different relationships to it. We use it. We fund it. Maybe we make it and create it. Maybe we write policies that are connected to access and connectivity. How do you both define tech, and how can it better meet community needs? Just an easy question. Let’s start with you, Amy.

Amy Sample Ward: Okay. Yeah, simple question. Just to acknowledge, there are lots of definitions of what technology is. You know, there’s folks who would argue that, like, food is technology. That anything we are cultivating and creating and using is technology. For the sake of this book, our definition is not that broad. We are not talking about every material substance that there is. We are talking about the things that folks usually associate as digital tools. So, your computer, your monitor, your mouse, but also the tools that you’re using on those products. So your website, social media, your CRM, your database. When we are talking about technology investment or technology management or technology decisions in the book, what we’re often talking about is bigger than any single one of those products. It’s not just a book about, you know, how one person might use their one laptop, but really about how is an entire organization, an entire nonprofit thinking about what training do folks need to be successful with the tools that we have, or a funder thinking about how they’re really covering the full, actual cost of organizations being successful in their programs, including technology costs.

Amy Sample Ward: So while we do have maybe a broader, more inclusive definition of technology, it’s not because we’re trying to include lots more types of technology, but really understanding that it is more than just purchasing, you know, a product to be successful with that product.

Afua Bruce: And I would echo everything Amy said, and maybe add to that, that I also think a lot about technology in the relationship that communities who are both users impacted by technology have with the technology themselves. And so thinking through, what is the impact, both the intended consequences and unintended consequences of technology on communities? So, how are people able to access the community with a number of the digital tools that Amy mentioned. Can people actually access them, can they access them reliably, and can they engage with them in ways that actually do support their lifestyle and their livelihoods? As well as how can we use technology to really strengthen the ability to communicate across society, across communities, across families, across individuals? As well as how can we dream new things? How do people get to have dreams about what they want and how they want to live and see how the technology can be really used to expand those and to make those dreams happen.

Farra Trompeter: I forgot to ask you all of this before. Did you start writing this book before COVID happened? Obviously, it was during because the book has recently come out, but did you have this idea before COVID? Because I feel like individual and family to everything, what you were just saying, Afua, community associations to technology has certainly shifted, or maybe people have a deeper understanding or a wider understanding of the role of tech now in 2022 than maybe they did in 2019.

Afua Bruce: Yeah, we started writing the book during COVID, although the idea of what it means to be in community, what it means to be as a part of a society is definitely something, I think, Amy and I have thought deeply about just over the course of our careers and the work that we do. One of the reasons I know that I first was so excited to collaborate with Amy was because of the NTEN conference and just how intentional the NTEN conference is about building community and making sure that people feel seen and that they can feel included and not designed around, unintentionally, but can really intentionally feel included.

Amy Sample Ward: Yeah, we did write the book during COVID. We actually wrote the book not that long ago, at the end of 2021. Of course, both of us, this has been work that we’ve done with our careers, is this intersection of community and technology and social change. But I think what’s interesting about the pandemic question is this is something that we have done even before the pandemic, and the willingness for people to hear our thoughts on this as well as the number of different people and institutions and groups that were, like, already nodding their head and like, “Yes, okay, we can be in this conversation,” really changed once the pandemic happened, and I think every single industry, every single type of organization was like, “Whether or not I want to have this conversation, we’re having this conversation.” And so it became a different kind of timely opportunity to say these things that we have thought about and said to each other for a long time, into a moment where people were like, “Okay, ask me the hard question. Let’s go. Like, let’s figure this out.” So, I think it’s an interesting and exciting moment to get to, like, launch all of these big questions into the world.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, definitely. Well, you just touched on, there are big questions, particularly around ethics, that come up around technology. And again, as you mentioned, both of you have been people who’ve tried and worked hard to look deeper and examine all the different systems out there that hold people back and you’ve been working in your lives and in your careers to challenge systems of oppression, including white supremacy, racism, capitalism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. And that’s a lot, obviously, to deal with and to think about all of those different systems and what they do to us, but I’m wondering if you can talk about how power shows up in all of this, particularly in the nonprofit sector. How can individuals within their organizations become champions for change and shift those power imbalances that often exist in connection to tech?

Amy Sample Ward: Yeah, I’ll share a little, like, BTS from the book writing as part of this answer, too. So, the book’s premise is really that community-centered values, community-centered practices are required for how we make decisions around technology, how we build technology, how we get anywhere better than the world, you know, in 2022, right? And from that, obviously means we knew we were going to talk about community a lot in the book, but we didn’t know, like, structurally, what does that mean? Like, is community a column or a row, right? Is community in every chapter or is community itself a chapter? Like, what do we do when community is the center and the heart of all of this? And in the end we made it both, of course, because that’s the logical answer is to do all of the options. But for us, I think, and going back to your question, to address power and to say, actually, even though a VC funder holds so much power over which technologies are being funded and then which technologies can grow and be used, communities still have always and will always hold the power on whether they’re adopted. And that is really important to think about. And so, can we refocus in every one of these chapters.

Amy Sample Ward: Policymakers, hugely powerful figures and group of people, right? But the whole chapter is about, actually, you are accountable to us. You are accountable to our communities, and we have a list, you know, like, we have some feedback for you. And technology can help you get that feedback from us and can help you even report back to us when you’ve done something, right? Like, technology is in service to all of that, but it’s really so that community can be more visibly and practically in all of these processes with all of these other groups, because I think that’s one really big and actionable way that we disrupt some of the power. No nonprofit is going to overnight not have any power. There’s still an organization that the IRS recognizes that is still able to receive funds from philanthropy that the community can’t get, right? Like that power isn’t going away so instead, how do you bring the community into those processes that directly interrupts where you could take more power in a situation?

Sponsored by Bloomerang: Steven from Bloomerang here. One of the reasons why we’re so excited to sponsor this episode is because we are also passionate about creating a more diverse and equitable nonprofit sector. To learn more visit And now, back to the convo.

Farra Trompeter: Afua, you’ve worked in all the sectors, as we were talking about…government nonprofit, private, academics. So I’m sure you see this a lot of different ways, but again, I’m particularly keyed into the nonprofit sector because that is where we do our work at Big Duck, where most of our listeners are connected to. So I’m curious what comes up for you in this conversation?

Afua Bruce: Yeah, absolutely. And actually, one of the examples that we use in the book is this example of work that DataKind did with John Jay College. And John Jay College is an academic institution designed to help people graduate with degrees, as most academic institutions do. And DataKind worked with them to identify people who are at risk of getting three quarters of the way done with their degrees. So, understanding how to take classes and pass tests, but then not graduating. So, how to identify those students and then partner with the John Jay College staff on the specific interventions that would be done to support people through graduation. It ended up being extremely successful in graduating an additional 900 students through that program over two years.

Afua Bruce: But what’s exciting and, speaking to shifting the power imbalance, is that when we spoke with the John Jay College staff, what they described was that the partnership with DataKind and, sort of, the intentional way that DataKind, as an organization filled with social sector technologists, took the time to explain the technology, took the time to explain the algorithms, is now the John Jay College staff had a better understanding of how the technology worked. They, therefore, felt more confident in understanding and articulating requirements of other vendors. And so now, when other tech companies come to John Jay College and say, we want to sell you this, the John Jay College staff now says, “Well, you need to be able to answer these questions for us.” And if they can’t, if the vendor can’t answer those questions, then John Jay College says, “Well, we know we are capable of understanding this. We know we’re capable of making these sort of informed technology decisions that will affect our staff, that will affect the community we serve. And so we really should be able to engage.”

Afua Bruce: The John Jay College staff also has described that when they go to funders now, their request of funders is a lot more specific for the type of funding they need to support the technology, that it does extend their mission, it’s not just an overhead cost, that they do need some time built in for experimentation, and they do need to think about what the long tail or maintenance cost to the technology is, and to really have those conversations. I think the dean that we spoke with at John Jay College put it something like, “I didn’t even know what I could ask for until we had this interaction with DataKind.” And, so, I think when we look at changing some of the power structures and changing some of the power balances, it also is just really, how are we really equipping the leaders of these social impact organizations to be able to make those decisions, to be able to engage in the conversations, and to really take ownership and have agency over the technology that can really help their organizations?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, that’s great. And that story really illustrates that technology isn’t just tools and software. Which, I think many people hear that word and they think about the printers, using email, whatever it may be, but clearly, as you’re talking about it, and, I think, a good point that your book makes throughout, is that it’s really about culture. And I’m just curious, you know, this is actually a question you ask readers, and I’m going to ask you as the authors, but hopefully people will read this book and ask this question of themselves or listen to this podcast and do that, which is, what concrete actions can social impact organizations take to create a culture that embraces technology?

Afua Bruce: Well, we asked readers because we really wanted to hear what readers were thinking on this and didn’t want to have to answer it ourselves. But I think there are a number of actions that organizations can take. I think, one, just being explicit in the fact that technology will matter at their organization. And so, as organizations are making strategic plans, sort of, where they want to see themselves five years from now, the type of work they want to be doing, the types of people or numbers of people they want to be serving. To build technology into those strategic plans as well. What it’s going to look like to build a new software, to acquire some type of new software, to integrate a new software into their expectations. They’re probably going to have to refresh computers at some point and other forms of communication. So really just being explicit that technology is part of their overall organizational strategy, I think is one.

Afua Bruce: And then another point, I think, is even down to, sort of, job descriptions and accountability. Making sure that organizations are explicit in different job descriptions, that it is a requirement of the job to engage with technology, whether that’s using a particular type of CRM software, whether that’s using a particular type of project management software, whether that is some type of design process that people who are interacting with community members must go through before rolling out new programs. I think being explicit about that, putting in job descriptions and holding folks accountable is another way that nonprofits can really embrace technology.

Amy Sample Ward: Yeah, I agree with Afua and would add, obviously, NTEN has seen this for 22 years in the organization’s existence and research, but we talked about this in the book and even talked to lots of nonprofit staff about this and what it looks like in their work, and that is great. Okay, you finally got tech technology acknowledged in your job description, your organization has got it acknowledged in your strategic plan, but your expectations and needs for the technology will change, obviously, over time as the work changes as the entire world changes, and what we are providing for our staff around technology can’t just be, we provided the tools, please go use them. It needs to be constant training and learning and adapting. Sometimes you don’t need a new tool, you just need to know that that new update rolled out a feature you all could use now, but no one knows that it’s available, right, or no one’s turned it on.

Amy Sample Ward: So, really making sure, as an organization, especially a department or a team or a full organization leader, you are the one that could say, Hey, everybody on this team, everybody in this organization, I’m making sure that you’re getting trained, you know, what are your training goals? What do you want to learn about? What’s bothering you so much, you know, every time you have to do it? Okay, let’s go figure out a better way to do it, then. I know this isn’t your question, but that is, I think, the source of a lot of “actual tech innovation.” That is the place where people say, “Oh, this process. Oh, I could not bear to run this report like this again, you know, let’s find a different way to do it.” That was innovation. That was finding a better way to do a thing you need to get done that’s now going to probably catalyze other actions, it’s going to allow you to have more time. You know, all of these other pieces that folks, I think, usually associate with innovation, and that idea of innovation isn’t something that we talk about in the book as, like, a shiny sparkly thing, but innovation, especially tech innovation is like, “Oh, so you finally did the thing that the community needs most. Great. Let’s move on that.”

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and in addition to innovation, one of the things that I love about your book is you also talk about imagination. I feel like the past few years, as I talked to more and more people passionate about social change, I have discovered the venn diagram overlap with the love of sci-fi seems to be really growing, and in that is almost a universal love for Octavia Butler. And I really appreciated the quote you included in the book, “There is no single answer that will solve all of our future answers. There is no magic bullet. There are thousands of answers, and you could be one of them if you choose to be.” So I’m curious, what do you two dream of as you’re there imagining and thinking about the next iteration of our world, of our culture, you know, and with thinking about how tech can be used for equity. What are you dreaming of and imagining?

Amy Sample Ward: Oftentimes when I think of this and have to articulate it, I think about accessibility. And I think part of what we talk about in the book, you know, is our relationship to technology, and while I work in technology and think it is great, technology isn’t the end for me, technology is a tool, and it’s only a tool for as long as we need it for the purposes we need it for, right? Like, we don’t need to be invested in, like, making sure some random app continues to exist into infinity if we don’t need it anymore. That’s fine, it did its purpose, right? So, for me, I really think about the future of technology in an equitable world is that it is deeply connected to the accessibility of every person being able to do what they want to do, communicate in the ways that are best for them, you know, get their groceries in the way that are best for them from the store that’s best for them, you know, on the delivery time that’s best for them. Whatever it is that, I think, sometimes folks are thinking about that same spirit and they rely on these ideas of, like, tech is a democratizing force, and that’s really not what I mean. I’m not trying to say that there’s some sort of everyone is doing it together because I think the real heart of accessibility is that everyone is getting their goals met even if it is not with or in the same way that other people are having those same goals met. That we’re able to have technology adapt and serve our needs, and that we’re not worried about every single person in the world buying groceries in the same way or taking an online class in the same way. Because that’s not the goal, the goal is that people are able to do it the way they need it to be done.

Afua Bruce: Definitely like Amy’s point of people need to be able to do what they want to do in the way they need it to be done. Yeah. Completely resonates with me. I think one of the things I think about in a more equitable world is just what true inclusion looks like. And so, I imagine not reading a story once a week, once a day about a new, great technology that didn’t recognize that black women existed or didn’t recognize that a Hispanic person existed. I imagine not reading headlines every day that we’ve rolled out some new policy that just, again, further disenfranchises communities that have been historically overlooked. And, so, really thinking about what does it mean to more intentionally design to include more people and to include people into our processes, into our technologies, into our policies, and into our organizations.

Farra Trompeter: I love that. Well, I’m going to ride the high of this world that you both are imagining because I want to go there now, but we’ll get there together. So, if you are excited to join us on the journey, dig into the book, you can get resources, guides, videos, the book itself, and more at You can connect with Afua on LinkedIn and on Twitter, @afua_bruce. Amy’s also on LinkedIn and on Twitter, @amyrsward. Afua and Amy, anything else you want to say before we go?

Amy Sample Ward: We’re excited to hear what people have to say when they read it. And we really do hope that you’ll tell us. So, don’t be shy. You know, whether it’s LinkedIn or Twitter or email or anything else, we didn’t write the book because we wanted it to just be like our final word, mic drop, period, walk away. The book is filled with questions because we are really excited for what those questions could open up in conversation with lots of different people.

Afua Bruce: Yeah, building a more equitable world really does take everyone, and so there’s a place for everyone in it. And so, I’m just super excited to hear how folks think about engaging and getting involved and how they might do their own work differently.

Farra Trompeter: And I hope they do. So, thank you both for being here and, everyone, have a great day.

This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang