Courtney Cogburn’s Work on Racism Featured on CBS News

February 28, 2020 @ 3:17 pm
By Communications Office

Kudos continue to pour in for Associate Professor Courtney Cogburn and her groundbreaking virtual reality project, 1000 Cut Journey.

To close out Black History Month one year ago, we checked in with Associate Professor Courtney Cogburn and asked about her research project using virtual reality to create an immersive experience of racism, which had debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival the year before. Was she persuaded that a VR experience of racism can help White Americans walk a mile in a Black male’s shoes?

READ: “Turning Racism Awareness into Action,” 2.28.19 news article

Exactly one year later, we are by no means the only ones to express an interest in the findings of Cogburn’s innovative research. CBS News recently came calling and aired a special interview with Cogburn in the middle of this month.

WATCH: “Exploring Racism through Virtual Reality,” CBS News (2.13.20)

“I think it’s been very, very positive,” Cogburn told anchors Anne-Marie Green and Vladimir Duthiers. “It’s not that VR is a magic pill, but we’ve run thousands of people through it, we’re analyzing data from multiple studies. We get the sense that people are ready to engage differently outside of the headset as a result of going through this experience inside the headset.”

In just 12 minutes, 1000 Cut Journey literally walks participants through the life of a fictional Black male in America. Within a series of vignettes—including scenes of outsized elementary school punishment and police harassment—viewers are subjected to various forms of racism faced by Black Americans. Though the experience Cogburn has crafted is intended for a single viewer at a time, the effect, she hopes, will go well beyond the individual level.

“What I’m trying to do with virtual reality is help people understand systems,” Cogburn told CBS. “Systems of bias start to disadvantage whole groups of people. When leadership in the top 500 companies in the country are being led by people with this bias, that’s … not just an individual problem.”

A year after we featured Cogburn, it’s fair to say that she and her project are much more in the limelight. In January of this year, HP’s technology storytelling website, The Garage, named Cogburn as one of “eight women who are shaping an innovative, inclusive culture in virtual reality filmmaking.”

READ: “Pioneering women are leading the way in VR filmmaking,” The Garage (1.28.20)

Also in January, Cogburn was invited to take part in the XR (Extended Reality) Initiative Speaker Series at the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation. The series, which focuses on the blurring lines between the real world and virtual reality, featured Cogburn alongside the likes of the head of technology of Disney Studios.

“I couldn’t have been happier to have Dr. Cogburn start the series,” said Jeremy Nelson, Director of the XR Initiative. “To have someone in a non-STEM, non-gaming practicum create an experience that is impacting so many people on so many different levels is amazing. Social work historically hasn’t been a practicum to lead in technology innovation, and Dr. Cogburn’s work is exactly what we need right now.”

Cogburn’s work even made a cameo appearance in a December story in The New Yorker, about VR’s various uses—from entertainment to education. After delivering a firsthand account of viewing 1000 Cut Journey, author Patricia Marx wrote, “These would be disturbing stories to read about in the third person, but they are deeply affecting and painful when they happen to you. Or even to ‘you.’”

READ: “Taking Virtual Reality for a Test Drive,” The New Yorker (12.2.19)

Notably, as the news of her work spreads to broader audiences, Cogburn has been increasing her sphere of influence within the social work community as well. At the start of fall semester, she and Professor Desmond Patton launched the Emerging Technology, Media, and Society minor, the rationale for which they discussed during an episode of the weekly show, Social Impact LIVE, streamed live on the School’s Facebook page.

WATCH/READ: SOCIAL IMPACT LIVE: Courtney Cogburn and Desmond Patton on Social Work, Media, and Technology (10.2.19 episode)

Interviewed for Social Work Today‘s November/December 2019 cover story on social work and tech, Cogburn said she hoped the new minor would “help social work students become more aware of and a part of the technology sector,” and act as the “glue” between social work, social justice, and technology.

READ: “Diversity and Artificial Intelligence: A Social Work Challenge,” Social Work Today (Nov/Dec 2019)

Also at the School of Social Work, Cogburn has integrated 1000 Cut Journey into a PROP (power, racism, oppression, and privilege) course, where she tests its impact on the students by randomly assigning only half the class to view the film. Although they are still in the process of analyzing the data, the early results have surprised her.

“It’s hard to imagine that a 12-minute VR experience would enhance a 14-week course,” Cogburn told CBS News, “and that’s definitely what our data is showing. People who go through it are showing additional growth, compared to the people who only take the class.”

We like to think that Cogburn appreciates the burgeoning media attention, given her deep understanding of media’s role on society and social movements.

“Virtual reality is another form of media, another way to engage,” Cogburn also told her CBS interviewers. “In the civil rights movement, news coverage motivated an entire part of the country to go down south and start marching and start fighting.”

Where will Cogburn’s work be a year from now? Currently, she is exploring ways to bring VR into diversity equity training in the corporate sector, and into educational spaces such as museums and classrooms. Stay tuned for still more kudos!