Discover more from The BHR Group Digital Rights Careers Newsletter
The BHR Group Digital Rights Careers Newsletter - Issue 10
Welcome to the first newsletter issue of 2023. You may have noticed we’ve switched the platform to Substack from Revue. That’s because Twitter shut-down the newsletter service Revue two weeks ago, after acquiring the scrappy start-up in January of 2021. Thanks again to my colleague Rebeca Joy West who took my old-fashioned email list to former students and turned it into a careers newsletter with 1500+ subscribers ranging from students to academics to tech policy folks to human rights activists to diplomats.
Want to see previous issues and the advice from our guest practitioners or check if a position listed in last month’s newsletter is still open? You can find all previous issues, and the latest one too, on this Digital Rights Careers Newsletter landing page. We’ll continue to explore ways to make the newsletter more useful for you; suggestions welcome. Since many of you have written regarding the career advice given by our guest practitioners, we’re planning to put together some of the insight highlights periodically for you.
One of the small lessons I learned during a decade working inside a tech company is that we, as employees at least, often anthropomorphize corporations, attributing values to a singular inanimate body. Companies, through their leaders and rank-and-file, can indeed espouse, memorialize, and practice values. And we should remember that the decisions, the good ones and the bad ones, are made by people, not by a mysterious entity with a catchy brand name and cool logo and colors. People live and practice values. Sometimes we in the public know their names, most often we don’t. In a sort of publicly unitary executive model, Elon Musk is the decider on most everything inside Twitter. Other tech companies (though not nearly enough) have cross-functional teams that follow international human rights principles, create operational guidelines for day-to-day decision-making, conduct human rights impact assessments, engage with internal and external stakeholders, and establish accountability frameworks. One of our goals of the newsletter is to highlight the thinkers, do’ers, and deciders at tech companies who create and implement responsible decision-making frameworks.
One of those leaders in digital rights inside a company is this month’s guest practitioner, Fadzai Madzingira. I met Fadzai years back when brilliant friend and colleague Ebele Okobi told me that she’d hired a star thinker, writer, and team member. Oh, and Rhodes Scholar. Fadzai is all that and more and now a Director in the Office of Ethical and Human Use at Salesforce. Here’s an excellent Trust & Safety Professional Association interview with Fadzai about her work. (Note the guest appearance by her new puppy.) Read Fadzai’s answers in the Q&A and I promise you’ll learn a lot and also be inspired by her journey, values, and approach. I did and I am.
The Business and Human Rights Group
Guest Spotlight: Fadzai Madzingira
Fadzai Madzingira is a Director in the Office of Ethical and Humane Use at Salesforce. Her team is responsible for writing policies to ensure Salesforce technologies are not being used to facilitate harm and uphold basic human rights. Prior to this, she was the Global Hate Speech Content Policy Lead at Meta in the team responsible for writing and interpreting the Community Standards. Her work is shaped and led in wanting to keep people safe online, especially historically targeted communities who are often the targets of abuse. As a Rhodes Scholar from Zimbabwe, she read for a Bachelor of Civil Laws and a Master in Public Policy at Oxford University.
What are some of the most formative periods or events in your life that shaped your work in technology and human rights?
In hindsight, it's realising the impact of technology in my life then the privilege of having travelled extensively and seeing the good that people use technology for is likely why I am so committed to trying to keep these spaces safe. By that I mean watching how my mother's church group organised informal sales on WhatsApp or the fact that I have cousins who I have not seen in decades that I am connected to via social media or at the height of economic turmoil, my grandmother learnt how to receive and spend mobile money. The biggest impact of technology is often in groups that are often under-served, under-resourced or forgotten - in places where people have to be highly creative to stay connected and drive forward. Seeing that growing up and then realising there are also ways that those same groups can be harmed maybe is why I landed in Trust & Safety. I say this often but working in tech really does need you to be a tech optimist. You have seen why tech can be good so you want to protect it from infringement by anyone. So growing up Black, growing up Zimbabwean, growing up African and watching the creative and innovative way people engage online is probably the biggest reason I have ended up in my current field.
Who are some people or an individual you’ve met during your work in this field who have had a profound influence on your work? And in what way?
So so so many people that I know I am going to fail to name as I go along.
Ebele Okobi - my first boss in tech and an incredible Black woman and mentor. When she hired me I was convinced that I was going to mess up and she gave me such structured guidance and space at the same time - which is incredibly hard. I think she also showed me that there is a version of corporate engagement that can be value based and thinking about the most vulnerable. I have taken that to heart.
KICTANet (and other African based orgs) - The tech space in Kenya is electric and some of the best cross-stakeholder engagement I have seen ANYWHERE has been in Kenya. There is a lot of the continent I have not seen so someone will say I need to see more but regardless. KICTAnet is a multi-stakeholder tech forum in Kenya that is TRULY multi-stakeholder. Tech companies, govt, activists, students and the general public have equal engagement and space to ask questions, raise concerns and build trust. I spent a lot of time engaging with them early in my tech career. Engaging with activists across the continent allowed me to see what it looks like to really have honest conversations with groups who have good reason to be uncertain of your motives. It dramatically changed how I think about public engagement and transparency.
Academics in this space like Evelyn Doeuk or Daphne Keller or professionals like Charlotte Wilner at the Trust and Safety Professional Association who are building frameworks and professionalising this space. Just SO MANY WOMEN who are really trying to bring frameworks and truth to the work in this industry that I obsessively learn from and engage with.
What are some of the values that guide you in this field or in life more broadly?
I believe so strongly in protecting and positively supporting those that have been the most historically targeted systemically. This is both professionally and personally. So that means thinking actively about how I engage in the world that doesn't perpetuate harm. I know that sounds academic but it is as small as buying from small or minority owned businesses. Or supporting artists and writers of colour. It includes calling out unequal pay at work or stepping in when misgendering occurs or even deciding to stick up for yourself in a world that tells you that you shouldn't. It means voting thinking about everyone and not just your own pocket.
I also believe strongly in the value of community. Community in my personal life really kept me going and I rely on it heavily. Community at work that I could reach out to and share ideas with as well. I believe strongly in relying on others to move forward in any capacity, you can't operate otherwise. I have organised my life to have community in it and to foster it. I am so grateful to everyone who has listened to my streams of consciousness.
Lastly, I really believe in joy and rest. I know people talk about these as 'things' but I think they are values in that you have to intentionally practice them. I haven't always done so but now I prioritise surrounding myself intentionally with joy and then taking rest. If you don't already, I recommend following The Nap Ministry on social media. A brilliant Black academic who focuses her research on revolution as joy is what I needed on my timeline as a constant reminder.
What are some ways you think the technology, policy, and legal fields can become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable in composition, policy topics, and advocacy?
Of course, ideally these organisations should just hire more diversely. In this day and age, we can't be having "one and only" conversations. Otherwise, my advice is we need to draft our initial policy questions a lot more clearly and consider equity right at the beginning. By that I mean often the question is "how do we solve X" and then trampling into the forest to start fixing. Maybe we need to ask "is X actually the problem? why do we think X is the problem? who is most impacted by problem X? who is most impacted by NOT solving X? Is this actually a problem WE need to work on or should we be capacity-building some other partner at a grassroots level who may be better suited?". I think asking these questions at the beginning before doing anything means we can be more certain to engage the right communities, we can run a policy process that has the right voices included and relies on the right data to make the best decision at the end. Yes it is slower but the results will be better.
For undergraduate or graduate students reading this, what type of course or activities (e.g., internships, summer jobs) do you think might be most helpful as they contemplate careers in technology, public policy, and human rights?
I don't have any courses I can think about but I will say that people should be open to getting this experience from anywhere. Companies have human rights commitments now across the board and there is reputational risk to not doing them. You don't have to work for a big tech company to do fantastic work in public policy and human rights in tech. Find a company that wants to do good and help them do that if you are still new in the field. I think it is a great way to get experience and work on the big questions. Join networking sessions and communities that talk about these issues. Learn as much as you can.
For current practitioners in this field, what are some considerations when deciding whether to change sectors, say from civil society or academia to the private sector? Or from the private sector to government or civil society?
All your skills are transferable skills! I think the thing I find most difficult when I am interviewing people from other sectors is that they don't couch their current skills as being relevant. Our field is brand new - few people can say they have more than a decade of experience. Academics are brilliant because they are good at breaking down big questions into smaller tangible ones. They have had to project manage through the form of a dissertation or research project. I do those things. If you work in civil society you are likely well-connected to grass-root organisations or have to engage publicly on difficult issues. These are all relevant skills in tech that are framed properly. So not considerations as such. I just think we overthink transitions sometimes.
What are some of the non-mainstream sources you turn to when building knowledge or keeping informed on tech, policy, and human rights related issues?
Honestly, engage with artists. They tell us about the world. Writers, painters, playwrights and poets especially queer, women or people of colour, are often presenting on socio-political issues. I have watched beautiful plays that have given me insight into how Caribbean communities in the UK are still dealing with the effects of the Windrush scandal or how African communities are building lives for themselves in London and struggling between assimilate or stick out. Beautiful contemporary writers that gave me more insight into Asian-American communities than any academic book. I wish we all dedicated a little more time and support to the arts.
How do you continue doing what you do, pushing and advocating for digital rights?
I am a tech optimist at heart. I truly believe in the good in technology. The more you believe that the more you want to keep it a safe place. The most vulnerable people online are the same people that often benefit greatly from access to the internet. So I am driven not by the harm I see. It is watching and engaging in Black Twitter and their memes. Or African Muslim communities who use Instagram to educate the world about Ramaddan and make fun of themselves. Black women who have created support communities online. Queer communities continue to create safe spaces for themselves in a world that often does not give them that space in real life. You can't see those communities and not be impassioned to protect those spaces.
What’s an event or period professionally from which you’ve learned a great deal?
The pandemic. I realise 2020 was life-changing for everyone but March 2020 had my work in my living room in a very real way. During the day we are making policy decisions on keeping COVID misinfo offline and removing hate speech aimed wrongly at Asian communities, at night I am calling home to check on my family and to talk about the very issues I was working on. You know that joke - are you working from home or sleeping at work? It felt very overwhelming. I learnt for the first time why it is so important to have a real boundary between your work and your home. I also learnt more about burn-out and why, despite how important your work is, you have to take breaks and take care of yourself. That period - and it is still continuing - is when I started therapy, I started pushing myself to set up roots away from work and to rely on my communities. I think that has made me a better professional because I can come back everyday a full person.
What are some obstacles you’ve faced in the digital rights field? And what are some unconventional strategies you find helpful when responding?
There is such a belief that people working in the field need to have the answers given how impactful the decisions are. I believe that isn't right. The public are frustrated when mistakes happen - for good reason of course but I also think we need to have grace on all sides. Professionals have to be more open that this is a new area and mistakes WILL happen. So I have found that being honest about that really helps. I will honestly tell stakeholders - "ok, here's the thing...". Open the hood and let people see how it works inside. I will talk to people about the strategies that are in place to mitigate the mistakes and explain why mistakes happen. That helps my stakeholders trust me, come to me when mistakes happen and ask questions. My strategy is to accept mistakes will happen and let people know that. Give grace to your stakeholders - they are more understanding than you think.
What’s something you didn’t expect at work in this field?
How much I enjoy the uncertainty and newness of the work. By that I mean I am a perfectionist (I know, boring, isn't everyone in tech). I like things to be right before a project is done and to be certain about it as well. But in a field like this, there is no RIGHT. There is only 'right now' and I love that I work in an area where there are no answers and somehow I enjoy it. I feel good about that and that is unexpected. I think why I feel good about it is because hopefully I am making the world a little bit more safe and a little bit more certain for others. That makes me happy.
What are some ideas on how to find and engage regularly with mentors in this sector?
I am terrible at this and also I am really blunt. I will just ask someone "would you be open to mentoring me". My advice is remember that mentorship - like any other relationship - is reciprocal. What benefit does my mentor get from this relationship with me? That will help you find the right mentors. Is the person in a field I want to be in or are they a leader I want to emulate or would they find my work interesting? That ensures both of you are equally engaged and invested in the relationship. I realise that sounds transactional but you are entering this relationship with an agenda so no reason not to be honest. I love all my mentors because they are invested in my success, equally they will talk to me about their work and their concerns and I admire them greatly so of course I want them to be successful as well.
What are three books, podcasts, albums, poems, works of art, etc. that you’d recommend to people interested in working in this field?
This is not an ad or sponsored! My fave podcasts are Moderated Content with Evelyn Douek and Techdirt with Michael Masnick - a little more detailed but provide contemporary overview of what is happening in Trust & Safety. Disinfo Docket do a great newsletter as well compiling news stories.
People are going to be surprised but I am going to recommend Radical Candour by Kim Scott. I think both managers and people being managed should read it. It is a great book about what it means to give critique from a place of care. I go back to that book often as a reminder that I never give feedback or critique unless I can do it from a place of care and desire to improve the person - and not just to get the job done better. It changed how I manage with care and empathy. It is a slower way to critique but more thoughtful.
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