Conversations on Tech & Social Justice: Ann Wright of echoX.org

Ann Wright with the beta version of the echoX site, a cross-cultural online hub that leverages the power and ubiquity of digital media to amplify our region’s ethnic communities’ voices. (Photo by Rachel Wright Lam)

As a child of a Cherokee father and a European American mother, Ann Wright says raising three multiracial children in Seattle hasn’t been easy.

She’s watched her kids dealing with a lack of awareness of who they are in their own city.

Like other students of color, they’ve faced micro-aggressions, cultural misunderstandings, negative racial biases, and feelings of rejection. There have been frequent visits to meet with teachers and administrators, where she’d end up educating them about her family’s cultural backgrounds. Wright says she’s fought to change middle school student posters that used past tense to describe tribal nations, objected to curriculum that erased the oral tradition in Native America, and even intervened when other students excluded her daughter from play based upon her skin color.

In wanting to challenge such racial inequalities, Ann spent much of her early career working with organizations that promoted the most overlooked voices. Her lived experiences culminated in an interest in further building healthy communities, which led her to pursue Seattle University’s Digital Technology and Cultures (DICE) Bachelor’s program.

She now serves as the executive director and co-creator of Ethnic Cultural Heritage Online Exchange (echoX), a cross-cultural online hub that leverages the power and ubiquity of digital media to amplify our region’s ethnic communities’ voices.  

As an alum of Seattle University, I was first introduced to Ann by Dr. Miles Coleman, a mutual professor, who like me was intrigued by echoX’s vision of strengthening community dialogue and understanding through the use of technology.

It’s been a privilege to get to know Ann over the past year. It’s evident in her work that she is passionate about creating safe digital spaces that challenge our current perceptions about ethnic cultural heritage — allowing for community dialogue and bringing people together. 

I recently sat down with Ann to discuss her vision of bridging cultures through digital access and creating mutual understanding across generations. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Marisol Morales: What has it been like living and raising a multiracial family in Seattle?

Ann Wright:  My kids are multi-racial (my husband is Chinese from Malaysia, we’re registered with Cherokee Nation through my dad’s family, and my mom’s family is European American).  The reason this is important is because it’s given us a perspective on Seattle based on our personal experiences as individuals, but also as people raising children. There have been a lot of real challenges. We had to go into the schools a number of times to educate others about my children’s cultural backgrounds — both their Native background and their Chinese backgrounds — to kind of clarify misunderstandings, or remind people that Native people are still in existence.

Rachel, Jared, and Kathryn Wright Lam. (Photo by Peter Lam)

Marisol Morales: Tell me about your early career and past experiences or people that influenced you.

Ann Wright:  Before having kids I worked for Upstream Productions, a company created by Sandra Johnson Osawa (Makah Tribe) and Yasu Osawa (Japanese). Upstream makes films about Native issues and cultures. I worked with them for a few years and we remain very close friends. We did a lot of really interesting difficult work. They were doing a film on Indian fishing treaty rights when I began working with them in the late 80’s. This was not long after the Boldt Decision, so there was a real angry backlash against Native people in Washington state that still lingered, making fundraising problematic.  Through working with them I saw their process, admiring how careful they were in handling people’s stories by offering a platform without interference from the filmmakers’ opinions.

I think what I really love about Sandy is how she can look at a situation or a story and connect the dots which is crucial in telling stories rooted in a complex history. Native people over time have been misrepresented and stereotyped. When you want to create a film about Indian Country you have to first try to knock down all the misinformation and stereotypes fostered by non-Indians. So, I’m a person who believes really strongly in people telling their own stories — a direct voice.

Marisol: How did you become interested in getting a degree in Digital Technology and Cultures?

Ann: I kind of feel like Seattle University and what I’m doing now has pulled together a lot of different parts of my life experiences and personal interests — my experience as a parent, my experiences growing up and watching all these misinterpretations being spoken about native people. So, all this was kind of converging together. 

Rachel Lam at Standing Rock November 2016. (Courtesy of Rachel Lam)

Another impetus in pursuing the DICE degree was the Standing Rock protests. It was like the Twilight zone in that an intense situation was bringing in people from all over the world (including my daughter Rachel) yet the mainstream media wasn’t covering it.  People came because the word spread quickly over Facebook and social media. The power of these networks prompted me to want to better understand this world.   

Lastly, I think Seattle University is really interested in teaching and having their students do things that improve the community. So, their Digital Technology and Cultures program is a humanist perspective of technology. We are at a point where technology impacts everything from how much credit we have on a credit card to how we manage our cities. I’m concerned about equity in our society as we move forward. 

Marisol: What was the concept and idea behind the creation of echoX?

Ann: The concept of echoX comes out of the work that Peter Lam, Peter Davenport and myself have done over the years with various organizations.  The idea is to create an online portal as a type of virtual town square to function as a hub or a gathering place to share information and stories with the intent to really increase mutual understanding across cultures.  

There are different components based out of the various needs we see. We did a survey with large group of ethnic organizations and they said by far the biggest concern was visibility. So, our calendar, directory and voices/stories sections are an attempt to raise visibility for these different communities, giving them a direct voice. Through each component we’re not speaking for them. We are attempting to bridge cultures through digital access coupled with offline gatherings, as a way to create mutual understanding.  

There’s also a youth component to this site, which came out of my experience of being a parent in Seattle. The main intent here is to create peer-to-peer support for students — currently now high school students — to utilize our platform as a discussion space to drive and produce content of their interests around ethnic cultural heritage. Some of that content will also be code based, so we are also providing technological access to students from communities underrepresented in the tech industry. An example of a summer program we did last year was a collaboration with two Seattle University professors, Latino Community Fund, Key Tech Labs, and Washington Hall to teach beginning Python programming. The idea is to connect these kids to each other to increase that peer support and give them a voice to say what they want to say. We are handing that part of our platform over to them allowing them to talk about anything in relation to their cultural identity, but also engage the general public. It gives them the power to have their voices heard. 

As we move forward, we hope to increase opportunities to bring our online exchanges offline into public forums and get togethers, creating a foundational exchange between the two, with each strengthening the other.

So, one of my hopes is that through this site and opportunities that come from it, people have a better understanding of each other. And if we have a better understanding of each other, then I think we’ll take equity and these other issues a little bit more seriously, because it’s no longer an abstract. It becomes more of a tangible part of our community.

For more information or if you want to get involved in EchoX email Ann at info@echox.org

EchoX is currently in beta testing with community organizations and youth, and will launch in early 2020. Seattle Globalist is a partner organization, and the author is a member of the board of directors. 

 


 

Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: This story was made as part of The Seattle Globalist’s Fall 2019 Tech and Social Justice Fellowship, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership master’s program.

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