Interview with Oyidiya Oji from the European Network Against Racism
The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) is the only pan-European anti-racism network that combines advocacy for racial equality and facilitating cooperation among civil society anti-racism actors in Europe. This year ENAR celebrates its 25th anniversary. The European AI & Society Fund spoke to Oyidiya Oji about the latest developments in ENAR’s work on the AI and anti-racism.
Oyidiya is a Policy and Advocacy Advisor for Digital Rights. Her work focuses on the use of AI for welfare automation, migration control and the EU law enforcement. Before that, she was researching and mapping projects on resistance and reappropriation of technologies with special attention to AI.
What are some of the biggest challenges at the intersection of AI and racial equality today?
One of the biggest challenges is understanding the strong relationship that historically technology had with marginalised communities and especially with people of colour. For decades, the industry has been using a low-paid workforce from the global South to obtain innovation. Besides, now with the use of AI models we see that these models are trained and tested with what Renée Cummings calls data trauma, which is basically data that directly comes from historical pain and rejection of these groups.
At ENAR we demand racial equality at all levels, and AI cannot be an exception. AI as a concept helps to draw a picture of our past as a society, in which marginalised communities and minority religious groups have been historically ostracised. The idea of using information from the past to design our present and future lives just reinforces the idea that our past as a society was perfect, and therefore it should continue being like this.
You are vocal about the urgent need to reform criminal justice systems. What role does the AI play and what is the direction you want to see being taken?
The use of AI by different law enforcement agencies is increasing across the EU Member States. They deploy systems for the sake of efficiency and cost-effective solutions. The idea of the next generation of criminal justice is in the hands of Member States. Unfortunately, it is not taking the direction we would like to see.
We advocate for centring the resources to those who are the victims of punishable criminal justice systems. Care is one of the values that underpins the change we want to see in this system. Care towards the communities who have been historically most affected by the law enforcement agencies. Communities are the ones who, with the correct resources, can address many of the problems of our society. They know better than anybody else the problems that their communities face, and they could be able to provide solutions of how they should be addressed.
What is ENAR’s top priority in the negotiations on the EU’s AI Act?
Migration is one of the topics in which many of the 150+ organisations from our network are working on. As such, we thought that one of our priorities was to be involved in this topic and see how we could contribute. For this reason, at the end of 2022 we joined the #ProtectNotSurveil coalition. Making sure that the use of AI at our borders and other dependencies doesn’t harm the lives and experiences of people on the move, in the end, also secures the lives of the rest of the society. The securitisation of the fortress of Europe can’t be done at the expense of those who are running away from poverty, climate change or political instability.
Besides, it is crucial to review the challenges, barriers and impact of the AI from the standpoint of racialised minorities. It is no mere coincidence that the first victims of these systems are groups that historically have been discriminated.
Another meaningful step would be to redress the harm that AI models and other technologies enhance and reproduce and to do it in collaboration with the people affected. I know, at the moment, it’s a more wishful thought, but that’s the path to go if we really want to create a more people centred innovation.
Last month ENAR co-hosted the second ever EU Anti-Racism and Diversity Week at the European Parliament. What is your take-away from this event?
Between the 21st and 22nd of March, in line with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we co-hosted this event with Members of the European Parliament. 150 anti-racist activists and organisations attended from across Europe. Two days in which the different panel discussions we had with members of the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI) and civil society organisations helped us frame the current situation of racial discrimination, its different manifestations, and the policy tools we have at the moment to fight against racism in Europe.
In a moment in which the far-right ideology is spreading, the EU institutions must recognize this problem and act and condemn the hate and the narratives that the far-right movements are trying to recall. Now more than ever we need unity towards rhetoric that is only trying to polarise and jeopardise our democracy.
Your work does not only concern the European level, but spans across different European countries. Tell us more about your recent successes on AI and anti-racism advocacy on the ground.
In the last months, we have been developing national roundtables in Greece and Croatia with the collaboration of our members. Their help has been crucial to develop both events and to invite to the discussions different stakeholders who can support shaping a new advocacy trend in their own national contexts. Each activity was designed with the goal to connect and create synergies that can be transformed into the creation of working groups or coalitions to understand and advocate for a better design and deployment of AI in their countries.
At the same time, we are participating and organising in-person and online events for our members as part of our awareness raising and capacity building activities. It is difficult to reach to all of them, but we try our best to bring tailored examples of how AI may affect the communities they are trying to support.
To be honest, I can’t wait to see if the seeds we have been planting with our members can become strong trees that can provide shelter to stronger and committed AI landscapes and ecosystems in the near future.
And to close this conversation, could you share what is your current go-to book or podcast diving in the workings of the digital world?
I listen regularly to podcasts related to tech but also pop culture. One of the programmes I enjoy the most is ‘In Machines We Trust’ from MIT Technology Review. In each episode, they depict a specific use of AI and how it affects our daily lives.