Heeding the call for action

Authors: Sarah Fox
Posted: Thu, July 02, 2020 - 10:40:23

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground.
— Frederick Douglass [1]

It's time to implement the immensely clear action items Christina N. Harrington, Yolanda Rankin, Jasmine Jones, Robin Brewer, Sheena Erete, Tawanna Dillahunt, Quincy Brown, and others list in their “Call to Action for the ACM” and “Open Letter” [2,3]. Embedded in the authors’ urgent appeal is the “opportunity for our entire association to reflect on our practices and ways we can advance computing as a science, profession, and a catalyst for change in an ever-changing society” [4]. Heed this call, take these action items to your department heads and campus administrators. Gather your voice with others in the SIGCHI community pushing the Executive Committee to respond to repeated reports of institutional racism and ableism from colleagues and peers [4,5]. Contest the endemic problem of computing research rooted in racial hierarchies of difference, and actively oppose the tech to prison pipeline [6]. This is the dismantling work necessary to build the anti-racist institutional cultures we need. 

It is not about being quick to write statements of allyship devoid of specific commitments, but rather doing the ongoing work to make substantive and long-lasting change. For predominantly white institutions, this involves ceding space and committing material resources. Placing value on the service labor disproportionately performed by Black and brown scholars, through adequate funding, tenure considerations, and by sharing its burdens. For white, cisgender faculty members like myself, this means calling-in and calling-out those within our immediate environments who reproduce racism through their policies and actions, and remedying harms caused by our own misaligned efforts. It involves examining how we attribute the knowledge work that forms the basis of much of our critical consciousness as a field, and correcting the citational practices that have erased Black women's intellectual leadership and ongoing contributions [7]. 

If there’s one thing that we learn in volunteering for the ACM (myself, as an associate chair, workshop organizer, etc.), it’s the skill of agitation. Agitating peers to accept review requests, finish them by the deadline, respond to rebuttals, submit position papers, and register for conferences in time for the early bird rate. It’s the work of bothering colleagues in order to grow and enrich the community. Agitation is neither gentle nor harsh, but necessarily unrelenting. Materially, it is a mixing up; it refuses for things to sediment back into the status quo. 

It seems about time we collectively use this skill the ACM has taught us and put it to good use. Let’s agitate where we stand for the vital changes Harrington, Rankin, Jones, Brewer, Erete, Dillahunt, and Brown call for in their letter. As focus shifts under the compounding crises of this time, persistent work is crucial in order to ensure that such actions are realized. Let’s insist on the transformation required for these changes to last—in our labs, at our home institutions, within the ACM. 

The thing about action items is they have to be done. Now’s the time. Agitate! 


1. Douglass, F. Two Speeches, by Frederick Douglass: One on West India Emancipation, Delivered at Canandaigua, Aug. 4th, and the Other on the Dred Scott Decision, Delivered in New York, on the Occasion of the Anniversary of the American Abolition Society, May, 1857. C.P. Dewey, printer, American Office, 1857.

2. Harrington, C., Rankin, Y., Jones, J., Brewer, R., Erete, S., Dillahunt, T., and Brown, Q. A call to action for the ACM. ACM Interactions blog. Jun. 22, 2020;

3. Black in Computing Collective. An open letter & call to action to the computing community from Black computer scientists and our allies. Black in Computing. Jun. 8, 2020;

4. Grady, S.D., Wisniewski, P., Metoyer, R., Gibbs, P., Badillo-Urquiola, K., Elsayed-Ali, S., and Yafi, E. Addressing institutional racism within initiatives for SIGCHI’s diversity and inclusion. ACM Interactions blog. Jun. 11, 2020;

5. Mankoff, J. 2020. A challenging response. ACM Interactions blog. Jun. 17, 2020;

6. Coalition for Critical Technology. Abolish the #TechToPrisonPipeline. Medium. Jun. 22, 2020;

7. Rankin, Y. and Thomas, J. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. ACM Interactions 26, 6 (2019), 64.

Posted in: on Thu, July 02, 2020 - 10:40:23

Sarah Fox

Sarah Fox is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the Human Computer Interaction Institute, where she directs the Tech Solidarity Lab. Her research focuses on how technological artifacts challenge or propagate social exclusions by examining existing systems and building alternatives. [email protected]
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