Technologists and humanists work together to end white supremacy

Professor Dalia Carballo Muller address a crowd standing at the podium.

Dalia Antonia Caraballo, associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history and creator of the Impossible Project addresses, students, judges and faculty ahead of this year's project presentations. 

By Peter Murphy

Published July 10, 2024

What would a world without white supremacy look like, and what steps do we need to take to get there? These are the questions that were answered in the latest iteration of the Impossible Project at the University at Buffalo.

Through a collaboration between the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) and the Department of History, students had the opportunity to take part in an untraditional class that merges disciplines to solve a seemingly impossible issue within one semester. This year they were asked to end white supremacy. 

The Impossible Project

“The only appropriate way to go about this is to work with those who are closest to the problems, because those people are also closest to the solutions. ”
Samiha Islam, Impossible Project alum and recent graduate in statistics and health and human services
University at Buffalo

Dalia Antonia Caraballo Muller, UB associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history, created the Impossible Project framework in 2017 to empower students to question and change societal norms and injustices.

Carballo Muller has worked with multiple academic units to implement versions of the course across UB, with students tasked with projects that range from ending poverty to ending global inequity. In 2019, she connected with School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) faculty member Atri Rudra, the Katherine Johnson Chair in Artificial Intelligence and professor in CSE, and Kenneth Joseph, assistant professor in CSE. The three faculty members worked with Kimberly Boulden, an education assessment consultant, and a team of student research assistants to bring the Impossible Project to SEAS. The first collaboration between Carballo Muller, Rudra, Joseph and Boulden ran in 2021 and involved a two-week module in the CSE 199 (first-year seminar) course, titled “Making Computing Anti-Racist.

“The point is not to arrive at a solution, but a new point of departure. The ‘deliverable’ can be found in how we shift students’ orientation to themselves, their classmates, their place in the world and their relationship to justice work,” Carballo Muller says. “Essentially, we are preparing them differently for the work that needs to be done to save our world and planet.”

Participants in this year’s iteration of the project were enrolled in either the Department of History’s “Rage Against the Machine” or CSE’s “Machine Learning and Society.” “Rage Against the Machine” explored the history of white supremacy in the United States and other countries and technologies historically used for repression, while “Machine Learning and Society” covered the use of computational tools and the interaction between algorithms and society.

“The course topics sought, in part, to emphasize that machine learning is more than just generative AI,” Joseph says. “It increasingly shapes our lives, often exacerbating inequalities, in ways that are simultaneously highly visible for affected populations and underexplored by those in power.”

Students from both classes were mixed into seven teams of three to four to combine what they learned and develop plans to end white supremacy.

The project culminated in a presentation to faculty members and a panel of external judges who would determine which team would receive $5,000 in funding from the Mozilla Foundation’s Responsible Computing Challenge and the UB Center for Information Integrity to continue pursuing their plan.

Atri Rudra stands in front of a screen with his hands outstreched speaking to the crowd.

Atri Rudra addresses the crowd

“The CSE students get to grapple with an impossible societal problem for a semester while also interacting with history students. Seeing such collaborations should make them better computing professionals in the future,” says Rudra. “On the faculty side, Dalia, Kenny and I working together shows that a deep collaboration between humanists and computing folks is possible. I wish what we were doing was so much more the norm that we would not stand out, but we are not there—at least not yet.”

Building the impossible

Once the teams of computer science and history students were formed, they began working toward the impossible. The teams focused on a solution related to health care, policing or misinformation.

Many of the students, including Zhi Guo, Christine Cherian and Lucas “Bernie” Novakovic—who named their team HS Architects—looked to collaborate with communities who have been most impacted by white supremacy.

The HS Architects plan to address the lack of access to health care in marginalized communities by visiting community centers and working directly with community groups to co-create a platform, such as an app or website, that helps facilitate resources. The proposal won the funding to continue after the course.

“The idea is to use the platform, get services from people who are in your community so you can access them easier, and have self-care tools in the platform so people could avoid going to a health care clinic altogether,” says Novakovic, a student in the UB Teach Combined BA/EdM Program.

The platform is the first step toward developing a network that can sustainably exist within the community. Workers and volunteers from the community would run the network and platform.

Another team of students, Samiha Islam, Benson Cai and Rina Zhang— named the Asian Trio—also decided to look at health care, specifically focusing on Black maternal mortality rates.

According to Islam, who recently graduated from UB with degrees in statistics and health and human services, Black women in New York State are three to five times more likely than white women to die due to pregnancy-related causes. The disparity is a result of centuries of abuse and exploitation of Black communities, says Islam.

Phase one of the team’s plan would form a study to gain data on what the actual health needs are for these patients. The second phase would connect those who have the greatest needs to resources that are immediately available. For example, if a patient has hypertension, they may sign up for a community-level art class to help manage stress levels, says Islam.

“That is kind of an idealist vision of what would happen,” Islam says. “The only appropriate way to go about this is to work with those who are closest to the problems, because those people are also closest to the solutions.”

A new point of departure

Samiha Islam gestures toward the crowd while speaking into a microphone.

Samiha Islam discusses her team's project to end white supremacy

The need for projects like these is more crucial than ever, according to faculty and students who recently participated in the Impossible Project. Carballo Muller cites the racist mass shooting that occurred in Buffalo two years ago at Tops Friendly Markets as a recent example of why ending white supremacy is imperative.

“I think white supremacy is entwined in all of our institutions, and as people’s liberation grows, white supremacy has to protect itself. It’s hidden within the institutions that were created by it,” Novakovic says.

Novakovic, Guo and Cherian’s plan to work with community members to develop a common network of resources will start in Buffalo, but, ultimately, their goal is to implement the plan in cities across the U.S. and create a counter institution, removed from the origins of white supremacy that plague current institutions.

“What matters most for me and for anyone, regardless of what you’re getting your degree in or what you plan to do with your career is to use the power that you have access to right now,” says Islam, who will pursue a master’s degree in data analytics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and plans to enter a career that examines how resource distribution has been mismanaged. “Whatever your ability to mobilize is, you have an obligation to do it, and I think everybody can.”