Dear Mr. Krasner,
To understand our country, you have to recognize that black people were never meant to be free. It’s a phrase I’ve heard my friend Ismael say often. The weight of it, however, hit hard last week when he and his wife approached a manager at a local theater to resolve an issue with an incessant beeping that disrupted the family’s enjoyment of the movie. They waited over an hour; no one came. After finally obtaining a refund, they were told they could not go back in to retrieve their young sons.
The theater escalated the situation, and within moments eight police officers arrived on the scene. My friends were seen not as concerned parents, but as imminent threats because of their race. It was traumatic for the entire family, which included four young children. The Philadelphia Tribune covered the incident here. This comes a few months after Philadelphia was in the national spotlight over the unfounded and racially charged arrests of two black men in a downtown Starbucks.
Our city doesn’t just have an incarceration problem; we have profound problems with policing, power and racism. Whiteness wraps many in comforting myths of freedom and justice for all under the law, but black and brown Philadelphians know the harsh truth. Our city embodies the Jimenez family’s 40th and Walnut Cinemark encounter more than the experience of the tourists who pass by the Liberty Bell and through the Constitution Center any given day. We must own that before we can move forward and do the work needed to transform our city for the better.
Ismael is a tireless advocate for racial justice and co-chair of the Caucus of Working Educators. Many dedicated teachers, whose work on Black Lives Matter at School drew national acclaim, canvassed for you last fall. They believed in your commitment to progressive change and your willingness to take on the intractable problems of our city’s prison industrial complex.
Yet now the District Attorney’s office has entered into a collaboration with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which leaves me wondering if the teachers’ trust in you was misplaced. I hope you will read Emily Talmage’s “Dear Mark” letter in which she shares her concerns about the “personalized learning” programs Facebook is promoting. These platforms are dehumanizing and grounded in surveillance, data-mining and predictive profiling. Anyone who truly cares about justice for oppressed people surely knows the manipulative oligarch Mark Zuckerberg can be no ally.
Your new partner is a for-profit, Limited Liability Company established in 2015 with $45 billion proceeds in Facebook stock. Because it is not incorporated as a non-profit, Mark and his wife Priscilla maintain a high level of privacy, control, and flexibility over Chan Zuckerberg’s “investments” in charities and for-profit companies. In other words, they have complete discretion over how they use that money to influence policies that can benefit their other corporate interests. The public has no right to know how those funds are spent.
David Plouffe, who leads their policy and advocacy team, was a campaign manager and senior advisor to Obama and later served as a Senior Vice President of Strategy for Uber. You can’t get much more neoliberal than that. The head of their justice program, Sasha Post worked as a program officer and assistant to the director of US Programs at Open Society (Soros) from 2005 until 2009. George Soros made a $1.45 million contribution to the Philadelphia Justice and Safety PAC that put $300,000 into ads supporting your campaign.
Do you really expect us to believe that Zuckerberg’s predatory corporate enterprise, one that has been integrated into the state surveillance network, that monitors the emotional states of vulnerable people for advertising purposes, that traffics in personal data and biometrics, and prides itself on devising ever more sophisticated means of manipulating online behavior, is shadowing the operations of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office for the purposes of BETTER serving subjugated people caught up in the prison-industrial complex and improving our safety?
The online systems designed to monitor the cognitive and non-cognitive traits of public school children through programs like Facebook’s Summit Basecamp, are readily transferred to prison populations. In fact, programs like Edovo, piloted in 2014 in Philadelphia with financial support from the MacArthur Foundation, are already up and running. This predatory business model, launched by Brian Hill who did work on Social Impact Bonds while attending law school at Northwestern outside Chicago, pushes tablet-based online “education” and “behavioral therapy,” paid for by the cash-strapped families of incarcerated people. Once prisoners jump through enough hoops (and generate the requisite amount of data), they can access entertainment on the device. Who knows what data is gathered and how it is used?
And Edovo is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social impact “solutions” for those involved in the justice system, and those perceived of as being “at risk” of being incarcerated. There are whole non-profit industries springing up around anti-recidivism and “opportunity youth” with exuberant bipartisan support, because evidently in this Third-Way political moment even Democrats feel bold enough to to gut the public sector without fearing any real consequences.
Pay for Success, or social impact partnerships, outsource public services to private interests that agree to meet performance targets to receive payment. Services are consequently reverse-engineered to meet data-driven metrics. Consider the ways in which standardized testing compromised authentic education, narrowed the curriculum, and opened up huge markets for test-prep oriented education technology. As a result, those receiving services (toddlers in public pre-K programs, incarcerated people awaiting trial, substance users seeking treatment) will be subject to intense data collection for the purpose of deal evaluation. That data will be gathered via online platforms, dashboards and portals, which means more and more services will need to be delivered digitally.
We know investors will figure out ways to game the system and claim “success,” even if the lives of those ostensibly being served are not benefitted or are perhaps even harmed in the process. See concerns around problematic impact metrics associated with the Salt Lake City pre-K Social Impact Bond agreement in this article from New York Times, “Success Metrics Questioned in School Program Funded by Goldman.”
Picture for a moment the corruption of the charter school industry, spread it across ALL public sectors, and dial it up to eleven. Imagine, say, a Luzerne County, PA “Kids for Cash” scenario, but this time put it in Philadelphia and add predictive analytics, e-carceration (electronic monitoring), and “Pay for Results” family interventions to the mix. What does that look like in a city like ours of such deep, deep poverty and “intractable” social problems? Chilling, right? Well, the venture capitalists operating accelerators like Good Company Ventures are seeing dollar signs.
There will be significant pressure for non-profit organizations to pull more and more youth and their families into “social innovation” systems so they can be “processed,” “fixed,” and “impacted,” even if flawed screening tools and bad data have to be used to do it. In this new model, children like my friend Ismael’s sons could become targets for those wishing to profit from the management of black and brown minds and bodies. I fear a next-generation New Jim Crow is emerging, one where incarceration and commodification of life is digitally imposed, a new method yet one no less vicious than the slavery and mass incarceration that preceded it.
These impact interventions will not remedy the structural causes of poverty or the racist origins of mass incarceration, because the business model FEEDS off of poverty and bondage. For that reason it can NEVER be eliminated. While these programs will anoint a chosen few to model the “up-by-the-bootstraps,” gritty, resilient, growth mindset mentality, the machine will insist on “solutions” that keep a majority of the poor in their place.
The MacArthur Foundation, which is driving the push to eliminate bricks and mortar schools and replace them with learning ecosystems comprised of online learning modules and community-based projects, is also putting considerable resources into Criminal Justice “Reform.” A few months ago I posted online what an equivalency might be for the carceral state. This is the somewhat dystopian scenario I came up with:
- Developing “better” algorithms
- Sending more people “home”with an Alexa-type minder
- Deploying complex systems of biometric monitoring
- Enforcing compliance with online education and therapy programs
- Requiring work-based learning with minimal wages paid
- Amazon food delivery-linked to your fit bit (added to your bill)
- Drone surveillance
- Predictive analytics that create a marketplace for impact investors to direct resources to certain people for “development” purposes
Each of the above will fuel the technology-based, data-driven, social impact investment market, but will not provide “freedom” to those forced to live within the confines of the digital carceral systems.
In 2016, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia prepared a whitepaper, Growing the Impact Economy in Greater Philadelphia, describing the untapped financial opportunities “intractable social and environmental challenges” offer to innovative entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Perhaps your chief of staff Arun Prabhakaran, briefed you on this? He now serves on the advisory committee of ImpactPHL, the social impact engine for Southeastern Pennsylvania. That year he also accepted an award from Social Innovations Partners, a key promoter of social impact investing regionally, on behalf of his employer, the Urban Affairs Coalition. The award was for being a “Behind the Scenes Rainmaker.”
Solving Philadelphia’s “safety” problem doesn’t require Mark Zuckerberg’s billions. It doesn’t require “big data” consultations. It can’t be reduced to an impact metric. This important work demands intense community participation and strategic development of interventions around ending cash bail, exploring prison abolition, implementing restorative justice, halting police violence and killings, confronting structural racism, and addressing poverty and hunger.
Meanwhile, not only have we not made amends for past injustices, we continue to perpetrate them and all the while structural racism is being baked into the coded algorithms that increasingly define how each of us is allowed to lives our lives. What happened to my friends’ family shows just how far we have to go and what is at stake.
Philadelphia, the time has come for some deep soul-searching as the Fourth Industrial Revolution looms large on the horizon. Despite all the catchy slogans, the “what works,” “data-driven” future being plotted in back rooms at Davos promises fewer living wage jobs, eternal austerity, automated decision-making, Blockchain identity and militarized policing grounded in drone surveillance, facial recognition software and predictive policing. Incidents like the ones at Starbucks and Cinemark are mere harbingers of the escalating altercations that are bound to come if we don’t embark on the hard work of confronting our toxic past founded in settler colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
And if we feign ignorance, continue to look the other way, refuse to face that past and imagine new possibilities? Our future will be an economy built on “un-jobs” where wealthy investors view the “value” of the subjugated as confined solely to the data they generate attempting to live their lives confined within the impact-fueled, non-profit surveillance system. Profit will be extracted as citizens are reduced to data, their perceived human capital traded in futures markets as social impact derivatives.
Mr. Krasner, cancel your arrangement with Chan Zuckerberg. Philadelphia is better off without Silicon Valley’s interventions. You’ll find your answers here among the people. In fact, we’re the only ones with the ability to chart a proper new course. A true progressive would not allow social impact investors to remake prison reform as twenty-first century market for digital e-carceration systems. That’s one plan, but we can stop it right now, if we choose to.
See below for a relationship map of players mentioned in this post. Interactive version here.