‘To go far, go together’: Priscilla Chan talks combing tech, other fields to enact change

Jordyn Zitman

In one of the first featured sessions of the year, Priscilla Chan sat down with CNN’s Poppy Harlow to discuss efforts by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to bring people together to find solutions to issues in the fields of education, science and criminal justice reform.

Harlow greeted the crowd with an anecdote surrounding how she first met Chan. Providing further context for the talk, she shared that Chan is a first-generation American, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and the first in her family to attend college.

Since graduating from Harvard, Chan said she changed careers several times. She was a teacher, then a doctor, and now, a prominent figure in the technology and social justice world.

“Technology has always been synonymous with possibility,” Chan said.

She went on to detail some of the efforts of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, beginning with the development of tools to increase engagement in education.

One of these efforts is a partnership between the initiative and Summit Learning Platform, an online educational tool to increase engagement and personalization for students.

Chan said she noticed a need for tools like the Summit Learning Platform in the classroom during her time teaching. She said if a student got too rowdy, she would let them run around to blow off steam, rather than taking the time to figure out how to help them learn.

“For this project, (the initiative) brings the knowledge of technology and resources, and Summit connects us to teachers with experience who know what is needed,” Chan said.

Beyond education, Chan spoke about some efforts the organization has made in the medical field. A new program will be able to sort scholarly journals based on a researcher’s topic of interest — similar to a Spotify feed.

Chan acknowledged that technology cannot solve all the world’s issues, combining those efforts with people in the fields is powerful.

“Technology isn’t a silver bullet, but it should be a tool,” Chan said. “With more complex issues, no engineer is going to figure that out on their own.”

Chan then transitioned to speak on their efforts in criminal justice reform. Sharing the story of a woman trapped in the foster system, which led to her dealing drugs and going to prison.

“Getting convicted of a crime pins a scarlet letter on you for life,” Chan said. “It can impact a family for generations.”

One reason why so many people convicted of crimes end up back in jail is because of this stigma, but also a lack of real solutions. Chan said in the law enforcement system, where success is measured by the level and frequency of arrests, change is difficult.

“When a system isn’t fair, making it more efficient just helps it get even better at being unfair,” Chan said.

Calling the crowd to action, Chan said the only way to enact real change is by considering a multitude of perspectives and collaborating to create better tools.

“We need to develop tools with equality, not efficiency in mind,” Chan said. “If we included more diverse perspectives, more people would understand the problem and help us fix it.”