After seeing an ad on Good Morning America, shown to her by her mother, McKenzie Williams ’24 found the Disney Dreamers Academy (DDA). Williams is enrolled to attend the DDA program this summer. There, she plans on building opportunities for a career in artificial intelligence (AI).
Though sharing the namesake of Disney World, the academy is not the Disney experience of traveling through the various parks and searching for Cinderella. Disney Dreamers is a selective program based in Orlando, Florida for high-schoolers aged 13-19. The program works to provide students with resources through career-focused workshops, speakers, and connecting with alumni. Since its establishment in 2008, over 100 students have graduated from the program.
Williams aspires to pursue racial equity in the field of AI. She shared that the lack of focus on the disparities in facial recognition systems can lead to issues embedded in the future of the criminal justice system.
“Artificial intelligence is built off of data. And the problem with data, as it stands now, is that it’s incredibly biased. An example I can think of is facial recognition. You know, the models that create these systems are trained with white faces… But when it comes to people of color, and specifically darker skinned, female people, they do very bad[ly]… These systems are being sold to law enforcement agencies and they’re being used, so what might [start as] a very simple problem has very negative effects,” said Williams.
Williams added that large presences in the computer science field, such as CEO and Cofounder of Meta (previously Facebook) Mark Zuckerberg, perpetuate harmful misconceptions. She offered an alternative mindset surrounding data collection.
Williams said, “I think there needs to be a large cultural shift in the technology industry. I remember [Claire Wang ’23] was talking about how Zuckerberg said, ‘Move fast and break things,’ And the whole culture in the tech world is ‘collect a bunch of data, make a bunch of systems and sell it. If they have a problem, they’ll just fix it later on.’ We can’t keep doing that… we can’t keep moving faster and faster, when there are still these systematic issues. To get reliable and good systems, we need to take a step back, we need to fix what’s wrong––the data is wrong.”
Princeton Parker, DDA ’11 and current member of the Speaker’s Resource Group, attributed a turning point on his journey to success to the program during an interview with “Good Morning America”. Parker eventually returned to the DDA program and now is on a panel of speakers such as acclaimed television host Steve Harvey and award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams.
“Disney Dreamers Academy changed my life. I love to put it this way; the Dreamers Academy changes your life by changing your mind… It wasn’t until Dreamers Academy that I really started imagining the true possibilities for how [my] gifts could be used in serving the world. After Dreamers Academy, I went on to do things like writing for “The Huffington Post,” starting my first podcast, graduating from [University of Southern California], traveling the country as a motivational speaker, and now my journey has come full circle as I stand as a Disney cast member,” said Parker.
Suhaila Cotton ’24, a friend and dorm-mate of Williams, described Williams’ passion for computer science. According to Cotton, Williams uses her knowledge to help others in the discipline.
“McKenzie is always working in computer science. A lot of times when we’re studying together she will try to explain to me all the advanced coding stuff she’s doing and then soon after come up with ‘I got it,’ as she says and comes up with a better solution. She also is all about motivating and helping others out. She shares a lot of Black girl magic so I know she’ll make a lot of great changes in her work in reforming AI,” said Cotton.
Placing value on giving back to her communities, Williams speculated on how she might use the resources she will gain at DDA to mentor a new generation of computer science students similar to herself. She plans on learning skills in leadership from the mentors she will meet during the program.
“I always love to give back to my community, whenever I can. And this program will show me some of the best ways to give back. I will be able to pass on the resources provided to me and share with younger generations— whether it be programs to apply for, strategies to employ, or even just the ways they mentor me. I’ll be able to take those skills and use them to mentor younger students,” said Williams.