Black Techie Disrupts Downtown Jackson, MS, with Her New Tech Hub Plans

Black Techie Disrupts Downtown Jackson, MS, with Her New Tech Hub Plans

Landscapers Charles Harvey (left) and Louis Charleston, both with Big Oak Lawn Maintenance, remove vines and other debris from an abandoned Gallatin Street property in Jackson. The property will be renovated into a WiFi hotspot/event space and part of a new development, The Jackson Tech District.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Today.

Nashlie Sephus/photo by Terrence Wells, 242 Creative

Driving through the edges of downtown Jackson, Mississippi, as a kid, Nashlie Sephus was fascinated with a particular abandoned factory warehouse she called “the barn.”

The barn is still stark in size and stature, towering over a major thoroughfare that’s more highly trafficked than nearly every other street in the city, but has suffered from decades of divestment despite being flanked by Jackson State University and the city’s business district. Dissected by the state’s main railroad corridor that houses Jackson’s Amtrak station and Town Creek that winds through downtown to feed the Pearl River, Sephus says North Gallatin Street is the perfect spot for the city to re-envision its future and to invest in her home.

But until recently, the property sat abandoned like much of the street and surrounding area. Sephus, 35, bought it in September along with 12 accompanying acres to create what she’s dubbed the “Jackson Tech District” — a block of now-unused industrial property she’s morphing into a technology district, mixing non- and for-profit space to create a resource, playground and potential development anchor for the community.

“I believe in all the benefits of having come from a place like Jackson and being born in Mississippi. There’s not a person who knows me who doesn’t know that I’m from Mississippi and I love to brag on it and help change people’s stereotypes,” she said. Having lived on both coasts and worked with people all over the world in the tech industry, “I like to put that front and center.”

Sephus has dedicated her career to technology equity. A Mississippi State University graduate in computer engineering, she now works for Amazon reconfiguring data patterns that show implicit bias. She also launched a non-profit in Jackson two years ago called The Bean Path, dedicated to helping everyone from children to small business owners access tech tools they need through coding and engineering programing, “tech hours” at local libraries and grant-making to encourage STEM growth in schools.

The Bean Path will own and operate arts and culture programming, tech classes and events in two of the seven buildings across the tech hub’s new district. Mixed-use development comprising housing, offices, restaurants and collaborative work spaces are planned for the other buildings, all revolving around the idea of leveling the playing field with dedicated space for and open access to tech tools.

“This (technology) is such a huge infrastructure and a part of our daily lives, it’s very important for us to keep up and not be left behind,” she said. “I think it’s really important for me to make sure I’m doing everything I can, being that I’m an expert in this industry, to make sure that other people like me have opportunities to be successful in this field and also to bridge the gap to help people with their everyday lives.”

In Jackson, classes are still virtual but resources are scarce and COVID-19 emotional and physical tolls are high, exacerbated by longstanding housing and health inequities. “(We were) thinking about kids that may need somewhere to access the internet, they need to rent laptops for a day and access a tutor, because not all parents are about that tutoring life,” Sephus said.

She added this type of strategic community planning and investment in the community has traditionally been missing from big Jackson development projects. “We can provide them a space for them to come, this belongs to the community just as much as it belongs to me. I want to make everybody a part of that, I think engaging the community is one of the biggest pieces that might be missing from that downtown area.”

As a computer engineer focused on machine learning, she looks for patterns and, often more importantly, diversions from those patterns to help artificial intelligence course-correct for bias. For AI, patterns determine everything, like the types of ads you see on social media, what kind of music and TV shows streaming services suggest for you and which routes self-driving cars pick.

But patterns meant to teach AI can also be deceiving and discriminatory if they only reflect certain groups — and it all revolves around what dataset the tech pulls from. Research shows facial recognition software works best for white men and misidentifies Black faces more often.

For AI to recognize and learn from situations, it uses information from previous datasets — when it encounters something new, the bias defaults to reject or mis-categorize it unless it fits in with pre-existing patterns. AI can be biased because the information it has to learn from is biased, particularly when it comes to race, gender and social inequity.

Sephus works on Amazon Web Services’ AI team to detect inequities in algorithms and retrain them to discern differences. Essentially, her team works to identify and recalibrate fairness within data patterns, such as facial recognition and how bank loans are awarded.

“Anything outside of those patterns shows up as an anomaly and so we’re looking at things to detect faces, even to detect my voice. If you haven’t ‘trained your algorithm’ on voices of people from the South, it probably won’t work as well for people who sound like us,” she said.

Sephus experienced the bias inherent to bank loan algorithms firsthand over the last 18 months when she fought for, and was ultimately denied, financing to buy up the now-abandoned property in downtown Jackson that she plans to develop into the tech hub.

“For me having come from Amazon, I had a startup successful acquisition, I have access to a lot of capital, a lot of it is my own — I just realized sometimes it doesn’t matter how much money you have. The banks don’t care, they’re looking for certain trends and patterns,” she said.

It took the then-landowner agreeing to owner financing and Ridgeland-based Butler Snow law firm committing to pro-bono representation to close the deal, she says. A year and half after deciding to make the tech hub reality, Sephus is breaking ground on the new project. She says it stands to not only revolutionize the community and its capital, but also transform Jackson’s infrastructure and development to be from a community, rather than just for it — issues the nearby Farish Street has been plagued with.

“I am a fairly young person, I’m a Black female. I don’t know many other people who look like me who are similar to me, who own property and are doing the same thing in the downtown area,” she said. “I think that’s kind of what it takes — for somebody who thinks differently with a different background to come in and, as we say in the start-up world, disrupt … I’m crazy enough to believe that we can pull this off.”

She lives and works in Atlanta, but is spending a lot of time home in Jackson to get the project going and funded, and is not new to homegrown non-profit work, like The Bean Path that will spearhead community programming for the new tech district. She says she hopes more infrastructure recognizes that tech equity is more than just the biases in technology itself, but access to it, like universal high speed internet access.

Jackson Tech District design/ rendering by Sophia Parker with Dragonfly Design Center

She sees the tech hub as an inflection point for the area that will not only bring economic development and impact for kids who benefit from the tech resources, but with classes, trainings and tutoring she thinks it will bring workforce skills development for people going to work within the tech industry, and increase the area’s property value and infrastructure along the way. One of her more-pressing goals is to turn the barn event space into a safe WiFi hotspot for students’ virtual learning needs.

“Especially given the things that have happened this year in terms of COVID, in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, I think the time is now,” she said. “I just want people to understand that it shouldn’t be this hard and that I am dedicated to making sure that I bring the community along in this process and educating them on how I’m going about it and how they can also do the same thing …  you can do it. Get a good support system. I definitely have more than my fair share of people that are supporting me, and that I attribute my success to. I want to be that person for the next generation.”

Racial justice giving is booming: 4 trends

Racial justice giving is booming: 4 trends

There’s been an outpouring of giving in honor of Ahmaud Arbery and other victims of racial injustice.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

The tragic, high-profile killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans in 2020 have sparked a reckoning on race. As researchers of philanthropy, we’re keeping an eye on how this national awakening is affecting charitable giving across the nation.

We are seeing an outpouring of donations from individuals, corporations and foundations that began to grow as soon as protests and other activities in support of racial and social justice started to spread across the country.

Much of this funding will likely support Black-led groups engaged in criminal justice reform and fighting for education equality. Wealthy donors in the first half of the year gave nearly US$6 billion in donations of $1 million or more, but people of at various income and wealth levels are also increasingly supporting racial equity causes and organizations.

1. Crowdfunding related to victims of racial injustice

The GoFundMe pages crowdfunding to seek justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake have all attracted at least $1 million so far.

Floyd’s GoFundMe memorial campaign has garnered more donations than any other campaign in the online platform’s history, raising over $14 million with 500,000 individual donors from 140 countries worldwide. Many of these gifts to the impacted families of police violence were for $5 and few were for $50,000 or more.

2. Direct support for grassroots organizations

After Memorial Day weekend, when Floyd died while in custody of the Minneapolis police, many Black-led grassroots organizations began to draw much higher levels of support as the protests garnered more participation and attention.

For example, when protests erupted, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which advocates for a more equitable system of cash bail, turned its attention to bailing out arrested protesters. Once the fund reached a total of $20 million in donations, its organizers urged donors to support Black-led organizations.
Other grassroots organizations and networks also received support, such as the National Bail Fund Network, which received $80 million in donations in late spring.

Even before the protests erupted, the Movement for Black Lives had received $5 million in the first five months of 2020 to support Black communities affected by the pandemic and to address broader issues of racial equity. This was nearly double the $2.7 million the group, founded in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, raised in all of 2019, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Libra Foundation announced that a dozen grant-making organizations were joining together to give a total of $36 million to Black-led organizations and social movements like The Black Youth Project and the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.

These numbers provide only a partial estimate of total giving to these causes, and it will take at least until mid-2021 for the IRS to begin to release the official records and statistics needed for a fuller picture of giving to these groups. Based on data from Candid, a research group, institutional funders and large donors have contributed $5.9 billion for organizations primarily engaged in in racial equity work to date.

3. Shoring up HBCUs

Historically Black colleges and universities, often called HBCUs, and related groups that fund scholarships for the students who attend them, are getting more donations in 2020.

HBCUs in the past received fewer donations of $1 million or more than other institutions, a pattern our colleague Tyrone Freeman has been studying for years. As a result, HBCU endowments are relatively small.

All told, the roughly 100 HBCUs have a total of only $2 billion in their endowments. By comparison, 54 predominantly white colleges and universities have $2 billion or more in their own endowment.

In 2018, for example, there were seven of these major gifts totaling $48 million. In contrast, there were at least 33 of these donations by mid-September of 2020, totaling $347 million, according a list of these donations of $1 million or more compiled by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and tracking by statistician Xiao Han of additional news reports and public information disclosed by donors and the schools.

These philanthropic lifelines for Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and other schools have totaled in the hundreds of millions of dollars from donors like MacKenzie Scott – Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife – Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Corporate giving for Black colleges and other causes is also on the rise. In early June, the Financial Times reported that Microsoft, Google, Amazon and other large corporations had recently pledged at least $458 million to support progress toward racial equity, including support for higher education. All told, Apple has said it donated $100 million or more to assorted racial equity initiatives.

4. Black philanthropists are leading the way

Donors from all backgrounds have turned their attention to increasing calls for racial equity. While new donors are turning their giving to racial equity issues, wealthy African Americans have contributed to causes that support racial justice and equity.

In recent years, we have continued to see affluent Black people, such as the entertainer and fashion icon Rihanna and basketball great Michael Jordan, make significant philanthropic commitments.

Along with other colleagues at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and in partnership with the Bank of America, we are conducting a long-term research project regarding affluent donors. Based on our findings in our 2018 report, at least half of all wealthy Black donors supported African American causes, compared to 6.5% overall of all surveyed donors.

Additionally, 43.8% of the wealthy Black donors surveyed indicated that they made giving to groups that aim to improve race relations a high priority, as opposed to an average of 5.7% all donors.

A diverse range of donors are also increasingly participating in providing large racial justice gifts. These gifts include Kroger supermarket chain CEO Rodney McMullen and the hedge fund investor George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

In mid-September, philanthropist Susan Sandler announced that she was giving a total of $200 million to an array of racial justice groups. Sandler’s disclosure echoed Scott’s announcement, in July 2020, that she was giving $587 million to HBCUs and racial justice organizations.

That means established civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League, and newer racial justice groups like the Equal Justice Initiative, which aims to end mass incarceration and advance racial equity, and the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank focused on improving racial equity within police departments, are all getting a boost.The Conversation

Kim Williams-Pulfer, Postdoctoral Research Appointee-Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, IUPUI and Una Osili, Professor, Economics and Philanthropic Studies; Associate Dean for Research and International Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.