NSA 2022 Convention Experience and Reflections

By Lindsay Reynolds, board member of AImpower.org

Shaomei Wu, AImpower.org’s founder and CEO, recently attended the National Stuttering Association’ annual conference in Newport Beach, California. Recently we caught up to discuss her experience at the conference as a person who stutters, and how it affects her work with AImpower.org.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lindsay: First, for readers who may be unfamiliar with AImpower.org, can you share about the organization and its goals?

Shaomei: AImpower.org is a think- and do- tank that works closely with marginalized communities to design, research and build empowering technologies to remove barriers and address the needs of marginalized groups.

There’s an increasing need to understand the current embedded bias and potential harms that may be caused by technology, but also the underserved needs of delivering tangible benefits from emergent technologies more fairly across our society, so it can be used to level the playing field.

I decided to explore alternative paradigms and mechanisms for design and developing technology, thinking that with the independence I have as a small non-profit and removing the expectations of profit or monetary returns, there would be the freedom and space to be able to do things that are good and right for the world in the long-term.

Lindsay: One of the first groups that AImpower.org is working with is the community of people who stutter. Recently you attended the annual conference of the National Stuttering Association (NSA). What was NSA like?

Shaomei: NSA is more of a community gathering, and it offers a wide range of social activities and opportunities for people to meet and be a part of this community in a supportive space.

One of the most interesting things about the convention is the tradition of open mic sessions. They usually have one or two open mic sessions each day, where basically you go to a room and you can go up to the mic and start talking. But it’s not like stand-up comedy, where you’re expected to tell jokes. In fact, a lot of people go up to share something vulnerable and intimate, and end up in tears. It’s a release and a collective culture building for a lot of the community members who have been silenced and masked in mainstream society and this is one of the only spaces for them to be very authentic.

In fact, after attending a few of the open mic sessions, I gathered my courage and spoke at one of them on the last day, and cried the shit out of myself. It was magical and surreal because I’ve never lost control like that in public and let out so much emotion, but the atmosphere and connection you get from the audience really helps you let down your guard and be vulnerable and authentic because you feel like people will get it. It was a very human and communal experience.

I think my own personal experience as someone with multiple intersectional marginalized identities created this mechanism for me to notice and reflect on the systematic marginalization of certain groups in society, and my background in tech made me more aware of how technology has played a role in it.

Shaomei WU

Lindsay: One value that’s important to AImpower.org’s mission is the importance of intersectionality. What did attending NSA teach you about intersectionality within the community of people who stutter?

Shaomei: I think there’s a lot to be done in terms of how intersectionality is considered and served within the NSA community. There’s a collective action and research sharing component, so the conference has workshops covering different topics. For example, one workshop I really liked was on stuttering and the BIPOC community, which focused on how to empower people of color who stutter.

This is a crucial topic because the organizers and leadership of NSA are predominantly white, even though stuttering happens at the same rate across populations. However, people who attend the convention as well as the people who lead the organization are still following the societal norms of a white-centered composition. This was actually brought up and talked about a lot in that workshop. I really like this point that was brought up by a participant, that the best way to be an ally is to share the power. Which isn’t new, but it’s refreshing to hear someone say that in front of the majority-white NSA leadership team.

The top lesson I learned was the importance of intersectionality, of how diversity and multiplied marginalization is experienced and owned by people in the stuttering community. For example, this workshop of BIPOC community and stuttering and how they are not well represented in the current mainstream stuttering support and advocacy groups was ringing a bell and was alarming for me. And the implication is, in our work for supporting and empowering people who stutter, I want to prioritize the improvement for people with intersectional identities into the research and design and technical work. We cannot really serve this community if we only serve white males who stutter. We have to really start with the people who are most vulnerable, at the margin of the margin, to build a truly empowering technology.

Shaomei Wu

Lindsay: How has your experience attending NSA affected your approach to your work with AImpower.org?

Shaomei: The diversity of speech, even within the stuttering community, was beyond what I personally had knowledge of or had been exposed to, and that challenged some of the assumptions I had made about stuttering and the best way to empower people who stutter.

For example, on the last day of the conference I approached another attendee and introduced myself. It took that person a minute or more to say the first syllables of their name. Even as a person who stutters, I wasn’t prepared for that degree of stuttering, and I wasn’t prepared for how to react to that and the best way to support them.

And what’s notable is that while this was probably the 50th person I had interacted with over the course of the conference, they were the first person I interacted with who stuttered to this degree. So I realized that even within the stuttering conferences, most people who speak or socialize have mild or moderate stuttering. I think the people who have more challenges speaking are disproportionately quiet or silenced in this conference, which is still centered around speaking. There are a lot of activities designed for you to talk. It makes me re-think whether those activities are empowering for a set of people within the stuttering community.

That influences a lot of the thinking I had around the solutions, goals, and technologies involved, and I think AImpower.org will partner with speech pathologists or people who have expertise in understanding a wider spectrum of stuttering, as well as people who are normally excluded from explorations or interventions, like the person I met in the lobby. We’ll learn the best practices and the ways to include the widest range possible for our work.

(See this year’s conference program attached below, provided at westutter.org)

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