Lequanne Collins-Bacchus is part of a new generation of emerging tech leaders, a woman of colour whose innovative approaches are enriching and challenging the tech industry in important ways. Her background in philosophy led her to coding, and a commitment to social change took her on a journey to founding PAERE (pronounced ‘pear’) in 2016, where she currently serves as Creative Principal and Product Manager. What initially began as a community-based tech organization, mainly serving communities of colour in Toronto, quickly evolved into a globally-minded company offering consultancy services and digital products rooted in principles of equity, accessibility, and inclusion.
Contributing writer Tendisai Cromwell spoke with Lequanne about PAERE and the fascinating 3D scanning and computer vision project AfroScanned that has been featured, among other places, at the Mozilla Festival in London, UK.
TIWT: As I discover more women of colour in Toronto doing incredible work in tech, I find myself seeing possibilities that I didn’t think were there. Your very presence has broadened my imagination and many others, I’m sure. Tell me about the personal experiences that led you to this pursuit.
LCB: My background is in philosophy, so a lot of what I was doing during my degree was coding on the side and creating products on the side. I made Chrome extensions, websites, but I didn’t do it formally. I didn’t study it formally not realizing that I could get paid or employed within the tech field. Philosophy logic is the basis upon which a lot of coding is developed. Boolean logic, which is used extensively in every [programming] language, is one of the key notations in philosophy logic. It wasn’t a stretch for me to fix a problem on a website for someone. It was the same structure as what I did in class.
I definitely fell into it and I’ve always balanced working in tech with working in customer service.I’ve always enjoyed working in different fields. A lot of people in tech are—not closed minded—but very technical in nature. They can’t make connections beyond the code to other fields. So with community-based initiatives in tech, it’s very uncommon to see someone who can balance those two kinds of mentalities or approaches to working on a team. And in addition to that, I’m hard of hearing, so with a lot of my work, I’ve had to be accessible, I’ve had to be inclusive.
TIWT: Through PAERE, you and your team advocate for social change and inclusion, and the AfroScanned project seems to highlight exclusion related to search engine algorithms not adequately identifying dark skin. What do you hope the AfroScanned project can lead to?
LCB: AfroScanned was one of our projects that grew out of a contract with the City of Toronto to develop workshops for vulnerable communities. The project is meant to bring about awareness on an issue many are not aware of, yet are engaged with everyday whether through surveillance or searching everyday images on Google. Our approach is community-based and participatory specifically so that we can reach and engage vulnerable communities who may not be versed on these topics. The hope is to engage communities through technology both by learning about this issue in a critical way and by teaching the basics of computer vision as it relates to algorithmic bias.
TIWT: I want to go deeper into AfroScanned. I think it’s an interesting project. I see identity-based creative projects as conversations with society. To me AfroScanned is a conversation that asks the question what it means to exist virtually as diverse people, Can you share how this project answered that question and also how workshops participants engaged with AfroScanned process to answer this question themselves?
LCB: Everybody has their own interpretation of it. For example, concerns with data being collected. Some people are concerned with images and having their selfies online or understanding the ways that we can monetize our online presence or be hacked and stalked. So the question was asked as way for people to engage and think critically about what it means to exist online. The conversation is always evolving. I think that’s part of the reason why it’s a moving workshop. Everybody that comes to the workshop has a different perspective. The idea of asking that question is about finding different answers and making people understand that there isn’t an answer that is consistent, especially as many emerging technologies are always growing and changing. Just 10 years ago, we didn’t have virtual reality, we didn’t have the Internet of Things, we didn’t have artificial intelligence on such a wide scale.
TIWT: What happens in an AfroScanned workshop?
LCB: The workshop goes over how machine learning works. So for example, in Google when you search an image or search a keyword to find an image, the images you see are pretty consistent. But those results are curated by algorithms, which can have biases when referring to images and classifying images.The machine learning that I focused on when I was doing research at OCAD was convolutional neural networks [applied in image recognition and classification]. And so [the project] basically critiques the process of the algorithm that was used for image processing. In the last workshop we did some 3D selfies. We scanned different people—that was at Mozilla—and then [at another workshop], we did the same thing, but we scanned a cinnamon bun and bag of chips *laughter*.
TIWT: From an equity perspective, what are some of the biggest and most important conversations taking place in Toronto’s tech community right now?
LCB: I’m always learning about what’s happening, but there is a trend toward representative equity and enforcing codes of conduct. By this, I mean attempting to hire people of colour for positions in the technology industry. For example, Google recently started their BOLD internship program for underrepresented communities and Mozilla actively ensures everyone who participates in their events complies with their code of conduct and/or undergoes code of conduct training. I’m now seeing all women panels, all Black panels, so there are significant efforts being made. But there’s definitely still a long way to go when it comes to equity in the tech sector, as many women and many people of colour in the industry, statistically, are not retained in these companies.
TIWT: Do you have any words of wisdom for young, women of colour considering going into tech?
LCB: Build your portfolio! Create what you want to create first while you are studying, build your skills–this matters more than your degree and it will take you to amazing places that your degree won’t.
TIWT: What’s the future of PAERE?
LCB: What I want to do with PAERE doesn’t exist yet, but, given the speed at which technology evolves, I’m sure the infrastructure will exist in the coming years. We’ll see!
Some answers have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Tendisai Cromwell is writer, filmmaker, and founding Creative Director of New Narrative Films. Follow her: @Tendisai