A Conversation with Tech Chaplain Shamika Klassen ’17

A Conversation with Tech Chaplain Shamika Klassen ’17

Categories: Alums in the World, Front Page

Editor’s Note: Shamika’s name while at Union was Shamika Goddard.

Shamika, could you share a little about growing up and your journey to Union? 

Well I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and I’m the oldest of four kids. My mom was a single parent growing up and I went to Stanford for undergrad, where I graduated with a degree in African and African-American Studies before serving a year with AmeriCorps which is what took me to New York City.

I was a site coordinator for Reading Partners in Queens, which is a literacy program for students who struggle with reading. I did that for a year and ended up staying in New York for a while. Before applying to Union I had a conversation with one of my pastors about my faith journey. This was Emily Scott, the original pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, and I told her how my pastor back in Texas had killed my dream of being a Christian author and speaker. She apologized that that had happened and asked if there was anything I could do about that dream today.

So I took a class at Union with Dr. Gary Dorrien on American Theological Liberalism to dip my toes into the idea of going to seminary. It was the second half of the class and on the first day people were picking the theologian they would present on. I didn’t recognize anyone but Martin Luther King Jr. so when it came around to me, I said I wanted to do that theologian and someone else in the class said they wanted to do that person. 

I was like, “Oh, please, go ahead. I’m just auditing the class,” and Dr. Dorrien says, “Oh, no, no, you’ve chosen that theologian. That’s your theologian, they can pick someone else.” He advocated for me at that moment. When I mentioned I was thinking of applying, he encouraged me and said, I think you’d be great. When I found out I got into Union, it was a couple of weeks before the end of the semester, and he was so happy for me, like genuinely happy. 

I was very excited reading your biography because it was a moment of, “Oh, there are other people who come to Union who didn’t follow a traditional route of what ministry looks like!” What were the things that interested you during your time at Union?

Absolutely! The things I was interested in at Union were very much at the intersection of technology, faith, social justice, and ethics. I remember having conversations with people during lunch or in-between classes about GamerGate and Black Lives Matter. I remember thinking to myself, “There has to be a way to apply the wisdom of womanism, for example, to the technology issues I’m seeing in the world,” which was how I came to write my thesis on techno-womanism.

After graduating I wanted to continue exploring these areas, so I applied to a couple of different information science schools in the United States and abroad. I was very grateful to be offered a position in the Information Science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is where I’m currently pursuing a doctoral degree studying issues of technology, ethics and social justice. 

The other thing that came out of my time at Union was tech chaplaincy, which was something that seemed to fall into my lap. During my first year at Union, I was helping people set up their email accounts, their new computer, or just generally being helpful with their technology issues. 

I quickly gained a reputation as someone who could help people with their technology, so more and more people started coming to me. I remember having a Google Drive account for Dr. Cone’s ST 103 which, I think at its peak had almost one hundred people in it, that was a folder of notes and information for the class. After my first semester, I went to the IT department and asked if they could do drop-in hours because a lot of people needed their help.

They did the best thing they could have done at the time, which was saying, “No, but we can pay you to do that.” That was how I started to work for the IT department. 

While working there I decided to think very carefully about how I was helping people, because I was struck by the stories people would share about how they felt when I was helping them – how it was so different than other times they would ask for help and they would be made to feel silly or dumb, that they didn’t know anything, or it was their fault. 

All these emotions. Yet while I was helping them they felt heard, seen, and ultimately empowered.

I was having a conversation with adjunct professor The Rev. Gregory Horn at Union about the work I was doing with people and he said, “It sounds like you’re practicing a ministry of presence with people, helping usher them through these technology crises with dignity and grace. That’s something a chaplain does.” That’s how I came to call this approach tech chaplaincy. I had the idea of starting a chaplaincy institute during my second year at Union, but it wasn’t until this past summer that I was able to actually launch the Tech Chaplaincy Institute formally.

A fitting time I’m sure with the recent move to remote work and all the tech issues that entail, how has it been since the launch? 

I remember at the beginning of my doctoral degree program in August 2019, I was thinking about whether and when to launch the Tech Chaplaincy Institute and I thought, well, the summer will be a good time. Then in the spring when the pandemic hit, I thought, why didn’t I start this a year ago and have this already up and running?

Since the launch of the Tech Chaplaincy Institute, we’ve been able to journey with almost 50 different faith communities, individuals, organizations, and even be involved in a faith conference that was held virtually for the first time this year.  In all these instances, we found a variety of ways folks stood in need in terms of their technology. A lot of the time people are concerned over whether they’re doing enough and if they’re doing it correctly. There are a lot of faith communities looking over the digital fence, if you will, to see what their peers and colleagues are doing and comparing themselves.

The other tech chaplain, Javon Bracy, who just graduated from Iliff Theological Seminary here in Colorado, often says comparison is the thief of joy. When faith communities are thinking about how to best serve their community using technology, instead of comparing themselves to what other folks are doing we them to look inward and ask, who are you? Who is your community, how do they stand in need, and how can you meet that need using the resources that you have. So that’s something we’ve found a lot of over the past few months.

I really love the emphasis you place on caring for emotions that can arise when encountering technology. Often it’s less about the task itself than it is processing the emotions that come up and how we respond to these. When we’re thinking about ethical situations, maybe technology isn’t the first space that comes to mind for most people. What are some ethical dilemmas or situations a person engaged with technology might encounter?

Oh, there are so many.

I think about that question in the context of industry, corporations or organizations, communities, and individuals. There are all these different ways in which people, as individuals, as corporations, as organizations, engage and interact with technology.

For example, when the creator of a technology excludes a group of people as they envision and design it then that technology can be misused or abused. I’m thinking in particular of facial recognition technology. Joy Buolamwini has done incredible work exposing the issues with facial recognition technology, such as not being able to recognize darker skin tones or mis-recognizing women of color in particular. The issue was that those technologies were designed and trained on databases that contained predominantly white male faces. That’s one of many examples of algorithmic bias, where technologies that have been shaped and designed by a particularly small group of people are then deployed to a large number of people across the world.

There’s one example of a company in India that designed a washer and dryer which ended up damaging saris. The company hadn’t thought women in India would be using their product on those kinds of fabrics. It’s that level of envisioning with your product and thinking about who’s going to use it – how are they going to use it, how might they need to use it, how might they appropriate it and use it for ways that you might not anticipate? That’s something I’m studying now with Black Twitter, looking at it in the context of a modern day Negro motorist green book where people are exchanging information, sharing and gathering resources, and empowering themselves and each other in their community.

But in terms of technology and ethical dilemmas, a lot of it comes from the pre-existing biases of a society that get baked into the technologies they create. Right next to me I have a stack of books I’ve been reading and learning from, and a lot of them deal with these questions of technology and how it fails the same groups of people over and over. One of them is Dr. Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression. There’s also Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Technically Wrong, which is a great look at the different ways technologies are designed in ways that can harm people. For example if you create a form or a survey that asks folks what their gender is, but you only provide a male/female option, then that excludes non-binary people right. It’s little things like that which make a big difference in people’s lives. There’s also Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neill and other books on my wish list that I don’t have yet. 

So it’s a conversation I’m really interested in contributing to with my own research as I go through this doctoral program and beyond. 

I’m very excited to engage your research on Black Twitter, would you consider that an instance of technology being appropriated for uses it wasn’t intended for?

Absolutely. I doubt people like Jack Dorsey and others at Twitter had a community of Black people in mind when they created this microblogging website. The technologies used most around the world – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. – were created by people who don’t look like the people who use it. The paper I’m writing right now is thinking about how we can learn from the triumphs, and challenges, that Black Twitter faces. How might that inform the design implications for other platforms or technologies that Black communities create for ourselves?

It’s a really interesting research project, and my first research project, so I’m learning a lot as I go. But it’s been encouraging and inspiring to see how people on Black Twitter have the capacity to really make change on that platform and others as well.

What was your favorite class during your time at Union and, if you were to teach a class at Union, what would you want to teach?

That’s hard because there’s a number of them that were so good. I took a Borderlands class with Dr. Machado where we went down to the Texas-Mexico border. I’m from San Antonio, Texas, born and raised. So I had a very unique experience going down to the border, flying into San Antonio, seeing my family, but then having that experience of what I grew up with being juxtaposed against the experiences that Mexican-Americans and Mexicans have on the border of Texas and Mexico. We talked to people who worked at the maquiladoras, which are factories alongside the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexico border. Being someone who grew up in San Antonio, I felt this was a part of the world around me and my community that I wasn’t aware of so I was really, really grateful for that experience.

I also have to say Dr. Cone’s ST 103 class, which was the inspiration for techno-womanism. He told us each of us had a theology inside us that we could share with the world. I really took that to heart and would be remiss if I didn’t mention that. 

To answer the second question, I technically am teaching a class in January on putting the digital in your ministry. It’s the class I would have wanted to have while I was a student. There’s going to be folks who have a spectrum of skill sets and experiences walking into that class, but it’s an opportunity to get your hands on using technologies that can enhance your ministry, whether faith based ministry or not. 

The class will talk about how to do video editing, create graphics, design a good website, and what a social media strategy looks like.

What do you think is the role of a seminary education in the world today? 

In my opinion, it’s similar to the role of a good relationship with your faith or a religious community – which is that it equips you to ask good questions but it doesn’t give you easy answers. I’ve talked to people who have gone to different seminaries with different theological groundings, and I actually really appreciate having had the experience of going to Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York because it is so social justice oriented – they teach liberation theology and have diversity of students who really made the difference in my experience.

If you can walk through a seminary experience and have it challenge and change your faith, but not take away your faith without allowing you to rebuild something else in its place, I think that that’s the true value of a seminary experience and education. As well as learning how to ask really deep, meaningful questions while helping guide you through a process of being able to approach answers and think through how to do that in community.