Building Technologies of Respect for Our Collective Liberation, with Color Coded

author: Karissa McKelvey
date: 2020-06-17
title: Building Technologies of Respect for Our Collective Liberation, with Color Coded
categories: – blog

Color Coded is a POC-only space and collective that is co-teaching, co-creating, and co-owning new technologies. This year, they are celebrating their 5th anniversary. Digital Democracy has worked with Color Coded to craft the user experience design for Mapeo. The following is a shortened transcript of a conversation I had with Cesia Domínguez López, the Co-founder of Color Coded.

To learn more about their work, visit:

Karissa: What sparked you to start Color Coded?

Cesia: Color Coded started while we were doing anti-displacement work in Los Angeles before the term “gentrification” and much less “displacement” was part of the narrative.

I am a 90s baby, so the Internet didn’t really take off until I was in middle school. For my high school education, I attended the Academy for Math, Engineering, and Science. I was one of the many kids from low-income communities that were poached for the “STEM track” from an early age. A lot of my classmates were programming new software, filing patents for their code/projects, and had multiple screens available to them at home. I received my first computer as a graduation gift and I’m very thankful for my uncle and others who offered tech access and support to make sure I had the tools I needed in order to be successful in high school and attend college.

During my undergrad education, computer science (CS) was also referenced as a way to talk about neural networks and as a neuroscience major, we were encouraged to take CS classes. I was always interested in the subject but being in a predominantly white institution, where most of the STEM students were apolitical, it didn’t really feel like a space where I could be vulnerable enough to learn. In all of the STEM classes I took, there was one Black professor and one Latino lab assistant.

Most of the students in the sciences were middle class, white, and a lot of them were trying to do pre-med. They didn’t have lived experiences of how the themes and subjects we talked about in the classroom or rather, didn’t talk about, affected working-class people of color. It made me nervous to think that some of these same students would go on to become the doctors, researchers, teachers, and social workers working in “service” of low-income communities.

I left college feeling very angry and resentful. Growing up, I knew about interlocking systems of domination (like heteronormativity, capitalism, religion, and whiteness as an ideology) because I could see these systems at play in my lived experience. But I didn’t have the language to talk about how intentional this violence is until I was introduced to Black Feminist theory and Queer theory. As I processed this intentional violence that most of my classmates benefitted from, it became important for me to have a safe space to learn without having to navigate the emotional labor of trying to explain these things to folks who didn’t get it, and the grief that came with this knowledge.

Fast forward to our Color Coded space — we didn’t want to have to do that labor or slow down to explain these topics to privileged folks.

Karissa: What did it look like when it first started and how did it evolve?

Cesia: I was working in the NGO industrial complex, some of us were working in the tech industry as well, touching the corporate world a little bit. During the first couple of years, we started meeting around my kitchen table and took up space wherever we could. When my kitchen table wasn’t big enough, we took over my job’s office space and would meet there after hours.

In the first 1-2 years, we joked about it as a support group for those of us who were frustrated with “business as usual” and disillusioned about the avenues for change or economic security that weren’t available to us no matter the industry. As a first-generation student, you are told that if you get a bachelors, and then get a job, it will bring you and your family economic security; it will get your family closer to that (harmful) narrative of the American dream. That wasn’t the reality. As people of color working in white-dominated spaces, it became clear that we needed a space for healing together and to cultivate a place from which we could take action to prevent some of this harm from happening to other folks of color.

Our space has always taken an intergenerational approach; we were thinking about youth and other community members that we are attached to, about the folks who are part of our collective body. One of our first collective-wide projects,, was coded and designed with highschool youth and señoras living in Boyle Heights and East LA.

The current pandemic has brought questions of access to the forefront that a lot of our communities have been grappling with for a long time. How can you do virtual school when most of your students may not have access to WiFi, to a computer at home, or sometimes, a safe space to learn? The mainstream narrative around the digital divide doesn’t capture what’s actually happening. I’m in community with lots of folks who don’t have regular access to computers or don’t use them in the same way that I do, but they still engage in many different technology modalities. It became important to de-center digital and Western technologies to make the technologies that our community members were already engaged with more visible. We started thinking about ways that we could uplift and bring non-Western technologies to the forefront.

To offer our skill-sharing at no cost to our community members, we have blended tax status as a profit/business as well as a fiscal sponsor. LABS is our “worker-owned” offshoot where our members commit to a contract together and 30% of the profits go into the collective fund to help maintain our space and offerings at no cost.

We’re 5 years in and we want to celebrate that.

Karissa: What does “uplifting technologies” look like?

Cesia: We want to uplift technologies that fall outside of the Western definition. Through our #CommunityTech workshops, we invited community members who are using tech in different ways to share their work. Technology is defined as “applying knowledge or a set of practices towards a practical process.” Our work is about intentionality, it’s about rigor, it’s about discipline, and really studying what problem you’re trying to solve. We know that communities of color have been doing this for decades but lots of these technologies haven’t been recognized or celebrated.

For example, we’ve invited herbalists who are thinking about plant medicine/plant technology. We’ve also worked with a lot of artists who are creating propaganda and other Resistance technologies. Like youth on the street using graffiti as a way to make sure their voices are heard. Maybe they aren’t building a website, but they’re using a platform to communicate. There is a whole intentionality of processes built-in to that specific way of art-making.

Karissa: I’m happy you brought in art because most technology today is made for profit. Can you talk about the corporate domination of technologies and how Color Coded relates to it?

Cesia: We don’t engage in the corporate tech world, which has been interesting to navigate. We have prioritized building relationships with organizations outside of the tech world but we have also been a bit out of place in traditional movement spaces. We’ve had to do some of that bridge-building. We were excited when there was a whole conference targeting movements, and how technology relates. When Mijente launched their #NoTechforICE campaign, a lot of organizers began to realize the importance of thinking through how and which digital technologies were present in their work. This is happening at an even larger scale now that the pandemic is pushing us further into the digital realm.

Karissa: Can you talk more about how technology fits into this moment of mass organizing and mobilization?

Cesia: We have been exploring art as an abolition technology. In partnership with Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, we have an art and practice space for abolition called #EmbodyAbolition #BuildManyWorlds. Those of us who are targeted by surveillance know what the threats are and we know which carceral technologies are causing harm; we don’t want cops, we don’t want prisons; we don’t want body cams.

But what do we want instead? A lot of us don’t know what that new world could look like because none of us have lived outside of colonization. Cultivating abolition technologies requires creativity and imagination. Working-class Black and Brown folks don’t always have access to many spaces where they are asked to imagine what a life of health and dignity might look like and then given the tools and resources to build toward that new world.

We like to say that abolition isn’t a destination or a deliverable–it’s a process. How do you practice abolition tech? How do you embody abolition? How do you embody those carceral technologies? I know that I have anti-blackness, capitalistic behaviors because I am someone who has grown up in it. Yet, how can we think of different ways of inhabiting our bodies despite this carceral world that we live in?

The #BuildManyWorlds part is a shout out to Los Zapatistas — a world where many worlds fit. One solution is not going to be right for everyone, for every context or geography.

As soon as you start defining what utopia looks like, you start excluding folks. It’s part of the technology process — if you’re not constantly maintaining and keeping track of your tech, it’s got a bug, and it’s going to break. We have to do that kind of maintenance within our systems, our bodies too.

Karissa: I love that analogy between tech maintenance and maintenance inside ourselves! What other ideas do you have about movements in relation to corporate tech?

Cesia: We know that we can’t rely on most tech companies or their products to keep us safe. Amazon and a lot of these Big Tech companies are connected to ICE, DHS, local police departments, and other social services databases. We know that most of the tech we use harms Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Lithium and car batteries are contaminating land and people. How do we take this into account for all bodies? Not just humans, but bodies of land, bodies of people, bodies of plants, bodies of animals. How do we have healthy relationships with technology? How do we cultivate healthy tech environments? It’s one thing to do interpersonal analysis, but how about the infrastructure it is built upon?

Autonomy is also important to highlight. It’s not enough to create our own apps if we don’t have control over the infrastructure. We want an Internet owned by the people and for the people. This can apply to all sorts of technologies that come to us in the form of utilities like electricity and water. Not every community has the capacity to build its own Internet, to build a P2P secure network. But for people to have the autonomy they need to have ownership of these utilities.

Karissa: What would you tell a funder that agrees with everything you’ve just said and wants to contribute to this kind of work?

Cesia: Focus on sustaining the folks who are most impacted and who are already doing the work.

Now that abolition is “sexy,” for example, more groups are getting funding for abolition work, but many of them are actually doing reform-based work, and diverting resources from folks that have been doing on-the-ground abolition work for a long time.

Another thing — no strings attached. If you’re going to give money, don’t require reports, orgs often have their own methods of evaluation. Through their divest/invest work, Movement Generation has worked to bring more capital to “the commons” or to the hands of the people rather than private corporations. Their Just Transition framework is an inspiring way to think about moving away from extractive economies and toward regenerative economies.

Groups like Trans Queer Pueblo, have shifted the way that funders give grants. The folks that have the best and most creative solutions are the ones who are living and existing in these communities. It’s so important to get the money directly into their hands.

At Color Coded, we like to say we don’t build for people, we build with people. We want to make sure folks have the skills to make it sustainable once the designers or coders are gone.

Karissa: Can you say more about co-design and how that plays into your process of ‘getting the work done’?

Cesia: We have been exploring “technologies of respect” for the health and dignity of Black and Indigenous communities. Dori Tunstall’s work explores Decolonizing Design at Ontario College of Art and Design. In Canada, she is able to more deeply do this work because they have legal “reverse racism,” so she was able to hire professors that represented communities from the local nations and actually start handing over decision-making power of the institution to these folks.

We are not ready to talk about “decolonizing technology” in the United States. Right now, decolonizing is just a buzzword rooted in academia and theory rather than praxis. Especially at this moment, these institutions haven’t gone much further than publishing statements on “diversity & inclusion.”

We have come up with some guiding questions to make sure we are building respectful technologies. Like, “Am I honoring myself and my lineage?” “Am I the right person to be doing this work?” What power dynamics are at play here? Maybe it’s not my role–maybe I should step back.

The world of Big Tech tends to get so caught up in a solution-centric narrative of progress, but sometimes we need to slow down. Sometimes analog is actually better. Slowing down is a method to help us ask — is this even needed? — with intention. If you’re being intentional, you’re going to go slow. You’re building relationships with folks through deep listening, and listening again. Am I being respectful to my body and other bodies? Am I building a technology that perpetuates extraction or respect? We have created a workshop and slide deck that you can use to help put it together.