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

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
scott.seckel@asu.edu