Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Written By Jessica Bellamy
Why people deeply impacted by systemic oppression become community and movement scientists, researchers, data analysts and so much more!
The first thing that must be understood about how Movement Scientists¹ show up in political battlefields is that we are connectors, first-responders, and pioneers of innovative methods within the field of data science and design. We connect people to essential statistics, resources, writings, databases, impact statements, etc. We are on the frontlines of debate. Here, we are armed with the data points necessary to refute problematic ideology, support community voices, demonstrate root causes, and hold authority figures accountable. But “The facts alone will not save us.²” We are often pushed to be impeccably resourceful, tirelessly insightful, and astonishingly creative in how we tell data stories, gather data, reach audiences, and more, to have our reports witnessed. The truth of marginalized peoples within the United States is more than the amalgamation of numbers. This truth, inversely, is less valued because it is considered a threat to American ideals. That is why Movement Scientists are generally multi-disciplined, determined, and so damn resilient.
Some authors have called us fugitive scientists, rebel scientists, citizen researchers, community scholars and so on. But it is this author’s opinion that the term that best suits the urgency and necessity behind our commitment to data as a means of social impact is the term Movement Scientists.
Many of us — Ida B. Wells, Victor Hugo Green, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Sarah Mapps Douglass, Cheikh Anta Diop, Frederick Douglas, Safiya Noble, Samuel Sinyangwe, Yeshimabeit Milner, and so many others — had to become data gatherers, data scientists, data designers, research analysts, and data storytellers. Many of us were spurred by trauma to become Movement Scientists. We found our data vocation beaten and hanging from trees, poisoned by drinking water, gunned down by police, denied a vote, displaced, White-washed, incarcerated, monetized, stripped of rights and basic dignities, and so on.
From the quiet violence of public-sanctioned miseducation to the gruesome atrocities that assure our closed-casket funerals — we didn’t feel called — we were commanded to join the fight. We were commanded to gain any and all necessary skills to survive and help others like us survive.
Data gathering and storytelling are crucial practices in protecting Black bodies, reclaiming our narrative, as well as exposing covert and attacking overt racist public and private policies.
This author ardently prefers the term Movement Scientist because it best suits our aim, as a cohort of specialists, to move people to progressive social and political action. The word Scientist is also preferred because it refers to the systematic gathering of evidence, rigorous testing and experimentation, and the inevitable sharing of knowledge and insights that have the potential to irreversibly alter a whole school-of-thought. There’s diligence, innovation, and aspiration in this term. Together, the term Movement Scientist, does not have a fixed or restricted definition. The daunting complexity of social and political problems does not allow for a finite solution, approach, nor does it create a rigid, clear-cut solution-ist. Ergo, Movement Science is a spectrum of practices in which practitioners employ a wide variety of communal, cultural, political, artistic, and technical skillsets in order to gain traction against convoluted systemic oppression.
The reason that data is at the center of our impact strategy is because, centuries ago, data became the universal languages of truth amongst first-world countries.
This cultural and historical phenomenon is why so many marginalized people surviving, persisting, and resisting within the Great American Experiment³ have been — and are — compelled to develop deeply technical and investigatory skills. We use these skills to illustrate injustices, aid self-definition, and ensure our collective safety and survival with the end goal being the creation of a society in which survival is no longer the focus for our community. Thriving should be the focus. The only way to birth that kind of world into existence is by speaking it into life through countless critical conversations using truth as a means of reconciliation and healing.
The truths that Movement Scientists share through their work are generally uncomfortable truths. They are data points that challenge in order to transform.
Professor, activist, and filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara, is known for saying “Not all speed is movement.” This quote is about understanding that not all effort in the name of social change moves people to transformative conversations, progressive policy change, nor shifts in thinking. Whether intentional or no, some data storytelling efforts are shallow and reductive. Data storytellers can easily underrepresent, misrepresent, objectify, and exploit communities through how they narrate and showcase information. The severity of a data point can be diminished by the choice of data visualization, and it can be distorted by the language that defines its reality. Data stories that invoke movement are not sedated by passive language, clinical jargon, mundane imagery, nor do they avoid direct mention or exposition of a subject. Our stories are tactfully designed to show the unseen as well as give reverence to the lived-experiences that make up the data. Simplifying these stories would make us complicit in the systemic suppression, repression, and genocide of so many communities burning at the bottom of the melting pot. Hence, our data stories — though thoughtfully reported — can be uncomfortable to new audiences that are more rigid in their identity and world view.
As a Movement Scientist and information designer, I share data in visual ways that are easily digested and quickly interpreted. My design justice lens makes me vigilant in making sure that aesthetics are not prioritized over function; references are not only cited but investigated for bias and error; data portraits are mindful and sensitive to the communities they showcase; data points are fully narrated in order to better combat selective perception; representation is ALWAYS authentic; the mode of dissemination is not exclusionary; and so much more.
I often teach workshops, write, and do lectures on information design, but I never divorce that work from Movement Science. Mainly because we, as designers, are culpable in the state of our country. It is not enough to be user-centered or human-centered in our work. We need to work with both the micro-context and macro-context in mind. We all need to take responsibility for what we create and put into the public sphere. Everything we make is either complicit or in opposition to accepted stereotypes, de-humanizing stigmas, institutional racism, and so many other colonialist genres of oppression. We have so much power as designers, which is why our aspirations for our work must be braver. Some may deny it, but we all exist on the political battlefield. It’s not something that we can opt out of, but it is something that we can surmount if we are multi-disciplined, determined, and so damn resilient.
1 What is a Movement Scientist? Data for Black Lives Conference 2019 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMgjeXyINtk
2 “The facts alone will not save us…. [We] need our artists as much as we need this air we’re breathing.” — Ruha Benjamin
3 “Great American Experiment”- New-York Daily Tribune, November 27, 1860