Tawana Petty

Tawana Petty was a Non-Resident Fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab (2019-2020, 2020-2021).

Tawana is a mother, social justice organizer, youth advocate, poet, and author. She is intricately involved in water rights advocacy, data and digital privacy education, and racial justice and equity work. She is the National Organizing Director at Data for Black Lives and former Data Justice Program Director at Detroit Community Technology Project and co-leads Our Data Bodies (ODB), a five-person team concerned about the ways our communities’ digital information is collected, stored and shared by government and corporations. Tawana is a convening member of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC) on behalf of DCTP, which organizes Data DiscoTechs (discovering technology) fairs and other initiatives to foster media and digital literacy. She recently co-produced with ODB, the Digital Defense Playbook, a workbook of popular education activities and tools for data justice and data access for equity, as well as the report, A Critical Summary of Detroit’s Project Green Light and Its Greater Context, on Detroit’s Project Green Light surveillance program. Tawana is a co-founder of Riverwise Magazine, a quarterly magazine which lifts up community stories by Detroit residents, which might otherwise be misrepresented or underrepresented in local and national media. Riverwise Magazine recently produced a special surveillance issue, Detroiters Want to Be Seen, Not Watched.

She is a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (Boggs Center), a Detroit Equity Action Lab (DEAL) Fellow, and the organizer of an annual art festival and artist retreat in historic Idlewild, Michigan, which convenes over 30 artists, organizers, herbalists and innovators each year to create art, share healing practices and respirit each other and the communities they serve.

Tawana is the recipient of several awards, including the Spirit of Detroit Award, the Woman of Substance Award, Women Creating Caring Communities Award, Detroit Awesome Award, University of Michigan Black Law Student Association’s Justice Honoree Award, was recognized as one of Who’s Who in Black Detroit in 2013 and 2015, the Wayne State Center for Peace and Conflict Studies’ Peacemaker Award, and a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition in 2018.

Research Project

Legitimizing True Safety

Project Lead: Tawana Petty



The centuries long conflation between safety and security has helped propel society down a trajectory prohibiting numerous opportunities for visionary resistance to societal ills.

Because of a long legacy of racially driven, reactive policies, including with the use of facial recognition technology, tens of thousands of Detroiters and other black and brown communities have suffered the brunt of targeted mass surveillance and methods of security as a means of safety, in lieu of investment towards housing, public education, recreation, transportation and affordable water.

In Detroit specifically, a prolonged dominant negative narrative has profiled the city’s residents as inherently dangerous and incapable of self-determination. The fact that the city suffers great economic poverty, i.e. a medium income of less than $27,000 per year is rarely considered. What is also rarely considered is the history of disruption and destruction of viable black led communities through the leveling of neighborhoods for freeways and other forms of imminent domain. Because of this, greater efforts are needed to reinforce opportunities that create true safety, outside of increased policing and mass surveillance, including facial recognition systems.



This project seeks to create tools and organize initiatives for systematizing true safety by minimizing the conflation between safety and security, countering the public safety narrative which has become synonymous with surveillance and activating opportunities for visionary resistance.



This work will leverage existing networks, foster research, generate learning materials and resources, and organize initiatives focused on highlighting racial disparities in digital technology while fostering critical thinking around safety vs. security and surveillance. These activities and resource materials include, but are not limited to:

  • Creating a toolkit for safety vs. security and surveillance living room discussions
  • Organizing a series of discussions around safety vs. security – with greater emphasis on alternatives to surveillance
  • Producing a zine that lifts up community members’ stories of calling on one another, in lieu of leveraging surveillance technologies as protection and safety
  • Creating various blogs and other forms of media rooted in research, fostering critical thinking around race, its relationship to technology and alternative visions centered in equity

The goal is to continue the work of emphasizing digital and data literacy in Detroit, particularly around the impact of racialized narratives and how those narratives drive digital technology and the extraction of data in the city. The goal is also to increase community engagement around legislative policy and advocacy regarding digital technologies in the city.

Fellowship Impact

In July, 2021, Detroit organizer Tawana Petty and her colleagues across the state were waiting to hear if the Michigan Supreme Court would rule in favor of allowing the people of Detroit to vote on a new city charter, a “Detroiters Bill of Rights.” Whichever way the court rules, the thousands of hours spent listening, bringing the community together, and creating the plan was worth it. For Petty the organizing and educating built on years of work focused on data justice and centering an understanding that human and community safety takes many forms, but surveillance is not among them. From access to clean water to strong neighborly relationships, from art to broadband, transit to health care, Detroiters continued to care for each other and build together through lockdowns and floods.

Petty credits her time as a DCSL Fellow with allowing her to create materials (like her forthcoming Zine, “Detroiters Know Safety”), curate town halls, be on nationally-organized panels, attend police board meetings, and speak at city council meetings. During this time, she became the National Organizing Director at Data for Black Lives, a role she calls an amplified version of her local work in Detroit. Looking forward she plans to get more rest, continue to make art and organize, and continue asking her two guiding questions: “What time is it on the clock of the world?” and “What does safety mean to you?”


Green Chairs, Not Green Lights

The Green Chairs, Not Green Lights Campaign aims to end the conflation between surveillance/security and safety, and plans to launch this campaign in neighborhoods all over Detroit.

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Seeking Algorithmic Justice in Policing AI

AI researchers and advocates discuss abolishing facial recognition tech—and why gradual reforms aren’t enough.

By Daniel Peterschmidt, Digital Producer for Science Friday

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Race, Policing, and Detroit’s Project Green Light

An online lesson plan complete with videos and readings from the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing at the University of Michigan.

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Abolish the #TechToPrisonPipeline

By the Coalition for Critical Technology, a coalition of researchers aiming to abolish the tech to prison pipeline

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In the ‘Blackest city in America,’ a fight to end facial recognition

Activists say facial recognition and its racial bias have no place in Detroit, a city that boasts the highest percentage of Black residents in the US.

By Alfred Ng, reporter for CNET

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Defending Black Lives Means Banning Facial Recognition

What’s happening in Detroit should be a wakeup call for the nation. We can’t stop police violence without ending police surveillance.

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Detroiters Want to Be Seen Not Watched

This special issue of Riverwise Magazine is designed to provide a critical perspective on the controversy swirling around the Mayor’s plans to blanket an already highly surveilled city with more high definition cameras, including traffic lights and facial recognition technologies.

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Technologies for Liberation

Technologies for Liberation Toward Abolitionist Futures

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Detroit: On a Journey to Be Seen

After struggling for decades against pervasive narratives and disinvestment, Detroiters are making policy work for them.

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New Positions & Appointments

Speeches & Presentations

The Business of Police Surveillance


Defunding Police & Reinvesting in Communities in time of COVID & Uprisings


Data Feminism Reading Group – Conclusion


Shifting the Culture of Anti-racist Organizing with Tawana Petty: ENGAGE | June 8, 2020

Beyond the Ouch: Activating Anti-racists in Data and Digital Spaces

Movements, Organizing, and Empowerment in the Time of COVID-19

Podcast: Mass Surveillance of Black Bodies & Anti-Racist Data-Sharing

An Interview with Data 4 Black Lives’ National Organizing Director Tawana Petty



Joshua B. Hoe interviews Tawana Petty and Alex Vitale about policing and Operation Relentless Pursuit


Stepping Up for Social Justice Activism

Digital Policing: Facial Recognition Software and Community Resistance

Surveillance Doesn’t Make Us Safer

This session will explore the increasing use of surveillance in the city of Detroit, a majority black city through the Project Greenlight Program and facial recognition technology, and how a coalition of organizations in Detroit are challenging the city’s use of this technology.

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Race, Policing, and Detroit’s Project Green Light


How to Reduce Crime and Increase Safety in Detroit

Hypervisibilizing the unseen: Dominant narratives, smart cities and race-blind tech policies (CADE)

The Color of Surveillance

References to Work