How Data Supports the Intersection of Impact and Social Justice: A Discussion with Channing Nesbitt.

At Be Data Lit, we’re always advising people on career pathways in data. Life isn’t linear and careers are no exception. Given the influx of data today, we believe that it’s “all hands on deck” when it comes to navigating data. Another piece of advice we like to give is “You don’t have to be a data scientist to be data literate.” In fact, we believe that being familiar with data is becoming more and more a pre-requisite to any career path you embark on!

I had a chance to talk with Channing Nesbitt about his career journey. Channing is a senior analyst at Salesforce Ventures. He was previously a Social Impact Program Manager at the Tableau Foundation. In this role he got the opportunity to work with organizations who are working to combat systemic racism by means of building economic empowerment to advancing criminal justice reform. 

Channing knew that he always wanted to be working at the intersection of impact and social justice. It wasn’t until he entered grad school did he begin to realize the value of working with data.

Allen Hillery: Tell us about your Social Impact Program Manager role at Tableau.

Channing Nesbitt: My role at Tableau focused on our racial justice portfolio. In June of 2020 we launched our Racial Justice Data Initiative. The goal of this initiative was to work with organizations who are working to combat systemic racism in various forms ranging from areas such as building economic opportunity to advancing criminal justice reform. We prioritized supporting organizations that are Black, Women and/or URM (underrepresented minority) led and staffed. 

I had the opportunity to learn from the leaders and staff in these organizations as we scoped out different projects that center around the use of data. I helped these teams of analysts and data scientists become better equipped to use Tableau as a tool that will benefit their analysis and helped them communicate the changes and efforts they hope to see across different communities. Our Foundation team also works closely with the leaders at these organizations to help determine the adequate measure of funding that is needed to achieve success. This allows us to form a partnership that is layered with funding, software, and support in the forms of technical expertise, outreach and engagement.

Channing discussing the Promise of Data at Tableau Conference 2022 Keynote.
Channing discussing the Promise of Data at Tableau Conference 2022 Keynote.

AH: How did you find yourself at the intersection of data, equity and social justice?

CN: In my mind, I always knew I wanted to be working at certain intersections of impact and social justice. Growing up I thought I wanted to be a public defender for a period of time. I also had ideas and interests in working in the government sector in various capacities that were tied to a sort of political aspirations, which still remain to a certain degree. 

It wasn’t until I got into grad school, where I began to realize the importance and value of working in data/data analytics. I was pursuing my MPA at the University of Washington, when I had two opportunities cross my path. First, I enrolled in a Tableau seminar that was tied to one of my statistics courses. This began my journey of looking into Tableau more broadly as a product, while also opening my eyes to various opportunities within the company itself.  Second, I took a class titled public/private partnerships. Taking this class provided me with background on how major projects pertaining to city infrastructure, corporate decision making and various forms of non-profit development work have been pursued and executed. During my time in this course, I decided that I wanted to take on some of this work, but wasn’t exactly sure in what form or from what side of the effort. 

Working with Tableau Foundation provided me with the opportunity to bring together certain areas of interests I had for working within a tech company, while maintaining a focus on impact – even more specifically, impact in the space of racial equity and justice. Since high school, I’ve always wanted to support communities like my own in Oakland CA, especially in the space of economic access and opportunity. As my work developed at the Foundation, I’ve been able to see the beginning of my journey as a part of this effort. I’m looking forward to how things may evolve, especially as more organizations utilize data as a transformative piece of their work.

AH: Share with us how the Racial Equity Data Hub became a Tableau initiative.

CN: In February 2021, we launched the Racial Equity Data Hub as a first step toward democratizing more of the types of data that can empower grassroots organizations in the movement towards equity and justice in their own communities. The Hub is designed as an evolving platform to reflect and empower the work of local organizations and advocates addressing institutionalized racism in their communities. Its purpose is to connect them with relevant data, analyses, tools, case studies, and each other to advance the use of data in this work. The Racial Equity Data Hub combines our company mission with the expertise of researchers and advocates working to advance equity across the US. 

The site brings together a coalition of contributors to publish original dashboards and case studies, as well as encourage the exploration of data across four key issue areas—Achieving Equitable Education, Building Economic Power, Building Political Power, and Advancing Equitable Justice.

Our goal is to make data on race and equity more visible and accessible moving forward, as well as call attention to the need for greater investment in data in this space. The next step of the hub will focus on how we can make the entry point of data analysis for individuals and organizations even easier through a variety of enablement assets currently in development.

AH: What are some of the career challenges that you encountered along the way?

CN: Imposters syndrome, bridging my own initial knowledge gap, embracing opportunities for creativity, and balancing responsibilities. 

I think like most people, and definitely most Black people working in tech, my first challenge was dealing with imposter syndrome. Tableau was my first full time job after school, so there was a bit of anxiety surrounding the unknown that made things a bit more daunting early on. There was also an initial knowledge gap that I had to get through. This mainly consisted of growing my understanding of terminology and methods internal and external to my team. 

I think the idea of creativity is something that has challenged me as well in this position. It’s been a fruitful challenge though. I think trying to figure out ways to execute a project when working across different laterals, organizations & teams, allows space for creativity to be present. Thinking of the different ways that data can be used to combat racism requires such ways of working that benefit from taking specific risks and pushing the boundaries a bit along the way, which I think can be quite creative. 

Lastly, the way in which certain projects or initiatives must be prioritized at any given time will cause certain difficulties for balancing my own responsibilities. This is why having a great team surrounding me is always very helpful. I can trust that work will always be done and that if I ever do need any extra support, I have folks who are ready to step in and help push the progress forward on any given task.

AH: What does the launch of the Racial Equity Data Hub mean to you personally?

CN: It signals a step in the right direction for sure. I believe it resembles a sign that this conversation surrounding racism, injustice and community advocacy can evolve. It is also an important display of the tools (Tableau and beyond) that are being created and are evolving can be used to bring cumulative benefit for society if used through an equitable lens. 

It has been a special experience for me as well. Being able to work with this team that focuses on tackling these issues has been both exciting and educational. It has given this work an even stronger purpose for me while also allowing me to learn from a great group of people on my team and across our set of partners.

AH: How important is it for nonprofits to leverage data to tell their stories?

CN: Extremely. Data is only growing more valuable by the day. And for nonprofits it can transform their work through more efficient analysis that can help create solutions. Data can be used to create a better understanding of the individual needs that specific communities have, while providing more access to the information that advocates and communities need. Access to accurate and easy to use data has the potential to change almost any organization, and for nonprofits it will be important to continue to create different access points that help build their capacity to use data effectively.

AH: You did a really great job discussing the Racial Equity Data Hub at Tableau Conference 2022? Tell us how that opportunity came to be! We love the Jordan Ones!

 CN: That whole experience is a career highlight for me. I originally wasn’t slated to speak. My manager, Neal Myrick, has always been supportive of my career growth and encouraged me to be a part of the segment. I’m proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish with the Racial Equity Data Hub and was excited to talk to Dr. David Turner about his work on stage. The Jordan Ones is an interesting story! While we were preparing for the Fireside Chat, I casually mentioned to Neal that I was going to wear my Jordan Ones. He immediately loved the idea and was going to buy a pair to wear on stage as well. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for him to get his pair but I wore mine! 

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