Growing up in Bangladesh, technologist and social movement trainer, Aliya Rahman, remembers the “revolutionary energy” of her childhood.
“I grew up as the first generation after independence in Bangladesh,” she said. “You saw what happens after you get free, where you have to govern, and people need water, food. I got to see a country being put together. I grew up seeing garment workers, who were almost all women, protesting on the street.”
Aliya also watched scientists in Bangladesh build the infrastructure of their newly-independent country, working to alleviate the effects of mass poverty and harsh climate conditions.
“That was really my background,” said Aliya, who went on to pursue aeronautical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana. “That’s how I understood the role of science and tech.”
Aliya was born in the US to a mother from a rural, farming community in Wisconsin, and a Bengali father who had fled the 1971 genocide in his home country. When things calmed down in Bangladesh following the liberation war, Aliya’s family moved to Dhaka. Aliya was only a few months old. By the time she was six years old, she realized that she was “definitely different.”
“If I had the language, I would have known I was queer as hell, even as a little child,” Aliya said. “Really genderqueer. But people did not have the language for stuff at that time in that country. Homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment in Bangladesh, and I thought I probably shouldn’t stay there.”
Aliya also realized her proclivity for mechanical thinking early on.
“I used to just love watching machines,” she said. “This dude in Bangladesh invented an irrigation pump that would help farmers get through famine without having to buy gasoline. They could just use cow dung instead. I had this love for science, and there are all kind of avenues for people with American passports who are women of color, having public university interests and first-generation college stuff. I caught wind of that, and I ended up applying to college.”
At her first semester in college, Aliya was introduced to computer programming in a coding class. She “really took to it” and was asked to help teach the next term.
“I started teaching security, Excel applications, math and basics of coding for first-generation, incoming college students at Purdue… all these public school students,” she said. “Folks who were from farms and shit who were like, ‘Computers?’ You know, who had similar experiences to me in Bangladesh. We didn’t have broadband, we didn’t have electricity a lot of the time.”
During her junior year, Aliya was organizing a job fair at Purdue and growing increasingly disillusioned with the careers offered in the science field — most of which were in weapons design. Then, 9-11 happened.
“Two of my cousins, who were Muslims, died in the towers,” she said. “All kinds of stuff happened that literally just threw my identity and my background as an activist and engineer into this fucking shit pile. For me, that was a really important moment in starting to dig deeply into US social movements and understanding what race means here that it doesn’t in Bangladesh, and understanding that I stepped into rural Indiana — where brown folks are used against Black people. I was also dating a trans man at the time, and we were in rural Indiana, so just by necessity I became pretty involved in organizing.”
Meanwhile, the aeronautics industry changed overnight.
“Everyone who was formerly a Star Trek nerd was having to work on missiles, and I didn’t want to do that shit,” Aliya recalled. “I switched out of an engineering program and finished with a teaching degree in Chemistry.”
After graduation, Aliya spent several years teaching at public high schools on reservations in Arizona. She found herself increasingly drawn into activism and organizing. Since college, Aliya had taken part-time positions with and volunteer roles for LGBT and racial justice organizations — but she hadn’t previously considered organizing as paid work.
“I had never seen someone who was a paid organizer in Bangladesh,” she said. “That would be a good way to die, you know?”
Aliya became a field organizer at the Center for Community Change in Ohio, working with people returning home from prison, and with immigrant organizers. Afterward, at Equality Ohio, a nonprofit LGBT advocacy group, she worked on policies that affected trans prisoners, and healthcare and poverty issues.
“I was a field director, which means I was expected to be moving people around and making sure we were talking to the right folks,” Aliya explained. She also had the sensibility of an engineer and coder.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, we have stuff on zip disks, guys,’” she recalled of the Equality Ohio office. “There was like spreadsheets here, and paper there. So I ended up having to write a bunch of software to help us do our work, right? I called it the Gaytabase, and it was this Django app that helped our ED to know what district she was in, when her flight arrived, or where we’re at with a certain bill in a district, and all that kind of stuff, right?”
That was 2012.
“Basically, since then it has been a combination of organizing, teaching, and software or hardware,” Aliya, who considers herself a “para-political organizer,” said. “That mix has kind of been my life, and I feel good about it. You can lose campaigns, but when I have invested in a person, or I’ve done good program design — so someone was able to leave one of our programs really with job skills and shit — you can’t take that away. That’s meaningful to me right now when I’m like, ‘Okay, so what the fuck that we’re doing is going to work right now.’”
Aliya took a job with Code for Progress in DC in 2013, where she developed their fellowship program that paid people of color, women, and low-income activists to learn coding.
“They could go back into the organizations and movements they were working in with some kind of capacity, and we paid them stipends in order to do that, live in DC and get connected to the movement, and so on,” Aliya explained.
Aliya worked intermittently with then-White House Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, “mostly around making sure that we actually had folks who were doing grassroots technology coming to the events where we’re discussing the work of those people.” But Washington, DC, wasn’t Aliya’s kind of town.
“I honestly got tired of it and came back to the movement to work at Wellstone,” she said.
Wellstone is a Minnesota-based, nonprofit advocacy organization that trains the community activists and political leaders that broadly make up the progressive Left to create change using a combination of electoral politics, public policy, and grassroots organizing. Aliya is their Director of Movement Technology. On a typical day, she fields queries from partner organizations like the Sierra Club, Center for Media Justice or Ella Baker Center, on issues like how to identify malware or secure a cell phone before an international flight. She might travel to coach trainers, develop curriculum on social media messaging or data-driven campaigning, write code to track how trainees talk about organizing concepts on Twitter after participating in Wellstone workshops, and provide emotional support to organizers of color struggling with workplace racism and patriarchy.
“Wellstone has gone from being a nice, white people-run organization to an organization run by people of color who are mostly queer, largely immigrant and overwhelmingly femme-identified or gender nonconforming,” Aliya explained. “It has meant a really dramatic shift in our curriculum and how we talk about technology.”
To that end, Wellstone seeks out and prioritizes hiring people of color, and especially Black women, to lead technology trainings.
“White folks need to be taught to learn how to respect the intellectual ability of people of color,” said Aliya. “We didn’t drop out with this shit in our DNA, right? This is a practice thing. Every data training that we do which is led by Black women, by the end of the training some trainee will come up to them and say — and it’s every year — ‘I have literally never seen another Black woman at this. It was really meaningful for me to be here because of this.’”
Barriers to technical training for people of color exist on multiple levels, Aliya noted. Once, as an experiment, Wellstone offered its tech workshop without any scholarship seats.
“It was literally all white people,” Aliya said.
Aliya’s work at Wellstone includes hosting movement technology and data workshops. She encourages organizations to send staff to her trainings who don’t have the word “tech” in their titles.
“A lot of the training we ended up creating was for folks who would probably say, ‘I’m not a tech person,’ who are either in fundraising, or community organizing,” she said. “They’re folks who are working with lists of people all day long, crafting survey numbers. They are the people actually collecting the data when they’re door knocking, having community meetings or doing direct action. Those people absolutely deserve tech training.”
However, the tech industry is so deeply segregated, Aliya said, that teaching technology skills to students of color can be a challenge.
“Because so many people talk about diversity in tech, I don’t use that word,” Aliya explained. “I say ‘desegregation,’ because it’s so structural. I want people to talk about power and policy as well as everything else. The retention numbers are almost worse than the hiring numbers. That’s where you know you fucked up. If someone fell out of your workforce, that was your fault, most of the time. I used to be a bartender, right? Nobody tried to stop me from making a drink. This is a job where you wake up every day, and there’s a giant machine hoping you fail or disappear.”
What Aliya tries to do in her classes, she said, is intervene at the beginning of a student’s downward spiral: “If I teach folks who have been coding since they’re in middle school or whatever and they make an error, their computer gives them an error message. You’ll see them be like, ‘I wonder what’s wrong with the program.’
I swear, when I look at our folks, when they get their first error messages when they start to code, you’re gonna see people’s brains and whole body language start shutting down, because their assumption is, ‘Something’s broken with me.’ It’s really just a comma out of place in a line somewhere, but you’re watching a spiral happen and people going, ‘Oh, my god, it’s broken. I got the program wrong. Maybe this isn’t for me. People always say this to me. I’m gonna go find another job.’ Boom.”
In one instance, Aliya was leading a coding class when she noticed that one of the students, a queer Native woman, was beginning to falter.
“She was starting to do the different breathing stuff, where you can see people kind of sighing. I just went and sat and talked to her, right?” Aliya recalled. “I was like, ‘Talk me through what you did.’
We have some very intentional teaching around the trainers who teach any kind of tech or something that’s on a computer. There are rules: you don’t touch the student’s keyboard. You’re not gonna say, ‘What’s wrong? Where are you stuck?’ Because they don’t know the answer, or they wouldn’t be stuck. You can ask them, ‘Show me what you did.’ Super relational conversations are really helpful. Sometimes it literally is just remembering trauma-centered body positioning and having a seat next to somebody and having a calm conversation with them.”
Another time, during a week-long Data and Analytics Camp in Minneapolis, Aliya stepped away. When she returned, one of the participants, a hotel worker organizer and woman of color, was “fuming.”
“I hadn’t even been gone even ninety seconds, right?” Aliya said. “She was like, ‘This dude keeps explaining at me. I can’t with the whitesplaining; I can’t with the mansplaining, and I’m so angry I want to flip a table.’”
Aliya’s response to her was, “‘It’s cool, you are supposed to be here. You got that shit right; you’re doing a good job. I’m going to talk to him at lunch. You’re actually the second person who’s brought this up to me this week.’”
“Ninety seconds,” Aliya repeated. “I was away for ninety seconds, and that was enough time for this dude to basically reinvoke probably what has been many years of this shit in the movement. That’s how people got to that state of imposter syndrome. You’re feeling no ownership, right? It’s just repeated incidents of this stuff happening.”
“It’s not all about individual stuff in the classroom, but I will say that in order to do that well, you need a lot of coaches at the table. You can’t have one trainer, fifty people. Give a lecture, goodnight. You actually need staff. I have been asked to do volunteer training for most of my life. Let me tell you what the difference is in quality when you can pay somebody for a day of work. If we had more adjuncts, we really could do a lot more training. We never have enough sponsor scholarships for the number of applicants we have. We’ll have thirty spots for 600 applicants sometimes, right? People aren’t necessarily gonna apply again once they get turned away, because they all have kinds of shame or whatever, right? I want to change that.”