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The Difference Engine at ASU aims to create change on the ground

March 26, 2021

The goal of the new universitywide center, launched earlier this year, is to combat inequality

Posting on Facebook doesn’t really accomplish much in the way of change. Lobbying politicians is a long haul. And laws change slowly.

After a year in which many people hungered to effect change, an engine to help them do exactly that is now humming at Arizona State University.

The Difference Engine is a universitywide center based on combating inequality. Launched earlier this year, it has been drawing participants from within ASU and without; 1,200 people last month alone.

The initiative is headed by Ehsan Zaffar, a lawyer, educator and civil rights advocate. He previously served as a senior adviser on civil rights during the Obama administration. One goal of Zaffar’s is to make the university a leader in social change.

“I love seeing the fact that ASU is No. 1 in innovation,” Zaffar said. “I'd like to see it be No. 1 in social change and social justice. Five years from now, I want to see those banners. And so one part of the strategic work of the center is to change the DNA of ASU so that we become known for this, that we attract students and faculty and staff that are interested in working on these issues.”

Ehsan Zaffar

Based in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, the Difference Engine is an interdisciplinary group of ASU units, including The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the W. P. Carey School of Business.

ASU News sat down with Zaffar to discuss the Difference Engine and how he plans for tangible change right off the bat.

Question: What is the Difference Engine and what do you hope it will accomplish?

Answer: The Difference Engine is an ASU-wide applied center that helps communities reduce the effects of social political and economic inequality. … It makes real things that communities can use to reduce the effects of inequality. And it's based on my personal belief that the people with the greatest needs have the greatest ability to meet those needs. They just don't have access to the greatest amount of resources. So the Difference Engine connects communities with student-created projects with faculty support and staff support.

Q: Could you give me one or two examples of the kind of projects you have in mind?

A: We have two projects already on our website. One's called the Women's Power Index. That's kind of like a Yelp for inequality. And that ranks domestic organizations, corporations on measures of inequality. It just kind of gives them a score. And that tells people how well is Walmart doing in its commitment to its workers, to its communities that it serves, to its customers. It's targeted for women currently. And just for the web, for the cohort of women, customers, women workers, and in the legal field for now. But we're going to expand pretty quickly because the algorithm that we're helping to develop will be applicable to many other constituencies and populations.

To give you an idea of things that are kind of measured, it not only measures things that are pretty easy to measure like the salary differential between men and women, but it also measures things that are not so easily measured, or not so often a measure. So for instance, how many restrooms are there for women employees and for men, how big are they, can the heating and air conditioning system be changed because it's mostly designed for men, not for women. So those are all small, but discernible measures of power that women or men may enjoy at the workplace. Yelp ignites behavior change, and our hope is that this index will do the same.

Q: What was the genesis of the Difference Engine?

A: I'm a civil rights lawyer. I'm also a refugee to this country, and I've basically spent my entire career in some element of service work. I served in the government for a long time. I've been a teacher. I've started a nonprofit to help communities get access to legal care. There's an academic kind of answer to it. … The nonacademic answer is I was tired of working on symptoms of injustice. And so police brutality, that's a (symptom) of injustice, right? What I'm more interested in is why does the police brutality happen? What causes people or law enforcement institutions to routinely engage in this kind of national behavior? And then secondly, what products can we give the community to deal with this?

Because when something like police brutality happens, the answer is let's help police, let's retrain police, let's change the system of recruiting. … It's all focused on the institution that's perpetuating the structural inequality. There's nothing wrong with that. People should do that work. It's great to retrain police. There's lots of people doing this work. I've done it for a number of years. (But) it has limited efficacy. What I'm more interested in is what tools can we give communities so that they can prevent this from happening in the long term. So for instance, can we help them establish partnerships on a routine basis with their local law enforcement, where they recommend five or six cadets for training every six months or every year.

Q: Have the events of the past year been drawing people in?

A: There's been tremendous interest. So much interest, to be honest, that it's hard for me as one person to keep up. We're in the process of hiring staff. I think what appeals to people is not just the fact that we're on this topic, because lots of people are doing stuff in this space over the past year. But I think that our message is that we do stuff — we really don't do research. We don't put out white papers. We take research and we put it into action, or we help you take research — your student group, your class, your faculty member, community member that's working on these issues — and we help you put it into action. And so that part appeals to people because everybody asks, what can I do about this? And so we're trying to be the answer to that question.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

ASU launches 'The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality'

February 11, 2021

Arizona State University announced Feb. 11 the new name and website of a universitywide center that will create tools to end the nation’s rising social, political and economic inequality.

The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality” pairs interdisciplinary entrepreneurship with the enthusiasm of ASU students and thought leadership of ASU faculty and staff to help communities overcome social, political and economic inequality. It is led by Ehsan Zaffar, a civil rights lawyer and educator who previously served as a senior adviser on civil rights during the Obama administration. photo of The Difference Engine ASU website The name and website of a new universitywide center — The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality — was unveiled Feb. 11. Learn more at Download Full Image

Zaffar, who was appointed founding executive director of the center and professor of practice when ASU President Michael Crow announced the initiative last fall, is bringing together an interdisciplinary group of ASU units, including The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, W. P. Carey School of Business and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, to jointly launch the new center.

“We chose to name the center ‘The Difference Engine’ to reflect the ingenuity and thought leadership of a woman named Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage during the late 1800s — a time of stratified gender inequality — to build the first modern automatic computer,” Zaffar said. “They called it the ‘Difference Engine,’ and they used it to solve the most pressing problems of their time — from wage inequality to the labor rights of minorities. I love what this story represents — that people can work past discriminatory barriers to find breathtakingly innovative solutions that shatter those barriers.”

Crow, in his opening remarks at the center’s launch event on Feb. 11, said the center is one of several actions ASU is initiating to transform social justice.

“We’re doing this because at the end of the day, the reason we haven’t achieved ... equality is that, while we have the aspiration, our designs are inadequate. Our systems are inadequate. Our laws are inadequate. Our tools are inadequate,” Crow said. “So what we need is to set the goal at a higher level and then start peeling back everything that limits us from being able to get there. We need new designs. New systems. New perspectives.”

Open to all ASU students, faculty and alumni, as well as anyone else interested in the center’s work, The Difference Engine will serve as “a community of doers, thinkers and storytellers that creates innovative products to help people defeat injustice,” according to Zaffar. The center’s products will range from educational tools for use inside and outside the classroom, to indexes and maps for nonprofit and government organizations, and smartphone apps that can be shared widely throughout impacted communities.

“Law is essential to effect true and beneficial societal change,” said ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester. “Welcoming Ehsan to ASU will be crucial to preparing the next generation of ASU graduates to seek social justice and reform. Studying inequality is one thing. Ehsan, through The Difference Engine, will be making a substantial real-world impact, and we are excited to get started.”

Pardis Mahdavi, dean of social sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the interdisciplinary nature of work across ASU pushes innovation and allows us to see things differently.

“The Difference Engine amplifies these efforts,” Mahdavi said. “It strengthens our commitment to work toward a more just society that values and prioritizes social, political and economic equality.”

Amy Ostrom, interim dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, says The Difference Engine is already making a difference with its focus on finding innovative solutions to overlapping systems of inequality.

“We understand economic equity, from wages to loan approval to generational wealth, as a primary driver for social and individual well-being,” Ostrom said. “Expanding access to economic opportunity has the potential to enfranchise entire communities and significantly impact their future. We are proud to partner with our colleagues across ASU and at The Difference Engine to find innovative solutions to overlapping systems of inequality.”

Kyle Squires, dean for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said, “As creators, builders and technologists, we are accustomed to tackling complex societal problems and improving systems. Making substantive strides to improve social, political and economic inequality means embracing diversity in all its forms and we are committed to applying our solutions-oriented perspectives to innovating change here at ASU and the many communities we reach.”

Learn more about the Difference Engine on the website and sign up for the newsletter to join the community of difference engineers and find ways you can get involved with their work. You can also make a contribution here.

Julie Tenney

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law