Faith, justice and coding. Reflections by Sarah Bland '19

Standing on the rooftop bar of Squarespace’s office building in NYC’s SoHo district, I looked out over the foggy scene of bustling traffic in the intersection below and felt, in a word, overwhelmed. The week leading up to that moment had been filled with many new people, intense full-stack development classes, and challenging conversations. I was in New York City for a program called The Impact Fellowship, an intense, two-week coding experience for “the next generation of social entrepreneurs.” I went, intending to engage with issues of injustice, meet similarly motivated peers/ mentors, and ascertain whether computer science could be a viable field for those seeking to “love God and love people” well. And yet, here I was, visiting the posh downtown office of a company with millions of users, nearly half a billion in net worth, and hundreds of employees earning six digits. Questions about the computer science industry dizzyingly crowded my mind: “Can ethics and industry intersect meaningfully, or is CS too obfuscated by desire for wealth, glory, and power?” “Am I competitive enough to be a software engineer? Powerful and faithful enough to do SWE for God’s glory?” “Is CS intrinsically too abstracted away from immediate aid and love for those who need it most?” My mental state was perfectly mirrored in the confused honking, peddling, and shouting below.

 

Overwhelming as the moment was, these sensations of cognitive, emotional, and spiritual dissonance in relation to my vocation and calling were not incongruent with prior experience. While it may be true that we often don’t understand God’s ways, we can sometimes [if we’re fortunate] begin to see patterns. One that’s repeated itself again and again in my life has been God’s calling to go and do in cities. In college alone, I’ve been called to Greensboro, NC for a service trip, Chicago for a spring break social justice plunge, Chicago [again] for a summer of urban ministry, the Perkins House Charlottesville, and New York City for a winter break spent learning about coding for social impact. Lord willing, I will spend this coming summer in Detroit, Michigan, working at the intersection of justice and SWE (e.g. teaching coding skills  through a startup like Grand Circus to people who’d otherwise not have access to tech education). Each of these cities have taught me particular lessons; nonetheless, persistent threads have woven themselves throughout all of my experiences. Predominantly, I have been struck in each location by the confluence of human brokenness and excellence on all scales. The paradoxical coexistence of vibrancy and pain in the human experience are nowhere more evident than in the multitudes living in places such as Chicago and New York City; nowhere are the broken, hungry, and alone more visible.

It may not be immediately obvious how computer science, or the tech scene at large, plays into all of this. It is the case that NYC, perhaps more than any other city I have encountered, exhibits a bold demarcation between countably infinite numbers of exceptionally wealthy individuals and (seemingly) uncountably infinite numbers of needy individuals. Certain fields within computer science, such as financial and informational technology, play a significant role in this divide, as they contribute to ever-widening wealth and access gaps within the city. Now, more than ever, NYC’s Silicon Alley is burgeoning into a multi-billion value parallel to California’s Silicon Valley. Even impressive companies such as Squarespace are overshadowed by nearby Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft offices. To be sure, some of these tech companies are impacting the world positively through their products and research. Almost all, however, are explicitly negative in terms of their diversity, inclusion, and ethical resource acquisition (think: precious metals like Coltan, important for building hardware). Certainly, many are neutral. Regardless, it is inevitable that computer science is changing the world (and quickly); the only variable that remains to be defined is the moral and ethical direction in which it does so.

It is the multidimensionality of this problem, as well as the role that I [may or may not] play in it, that caused my overwhelmed and anxious state that afternoon in New York City. I know that God has given me a mind and desire for computer science. I believe that CS has the potential to change the world on a broad and powerful scale, but I personally possess a limited understanding about what that could look like and have no certainty whatsoever about what part I could play. I know that God tends to call me to go and do. I also know that God is training me to think about and engage with issues of injustice; He is ever-breaking my hubris, white privilege, and false self-sufficiency through prodding my heart to better love my neighbor. Finally, I know that God often asks more questions than He provides answers and am learning to be still in that discomfort. My mother, at the end of a long conversation discussing these themes, said to me: “Sarah, you are a warrior being trained for the forefront of some battle.” Ultimately, I can only pray that God will arm me well in preparation and that I will be able to discern His voice when He calls.

When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.”

Exodus 14:10-15 (ESV)


P.S. Have an interest in learning more about some cutting-edge tech projects that actually are promising vectors for change? Check out WePower’s decentralized energy network (built using blockchain technology), this research project on protecting victims of intimate partner violence from surveillance by abusers, or Bad Batch Alert. Or send me an email at scb4ga@virginia.edu and we can chat!