Maya Cares: supporting women of colour who face racism

With funding from Telstra Foundation, Australian Red Cross’ Humanitech Lab is addressing the biases that stand in the way of a genuinely equitable society. One of those projects is Maya Cares, a chatbot platform built to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Black and Women of Colour.
Jackie Coates · 04 March 2024 · 5 minute read

Between 2020 and 2022, social researchers around Australia reported another, more insidious pandemic occurring in tandem with COVID, as people angered by the lockdowns took out their frustrations on people around them, in particular - women of colour.

One day, this ‘pandemic of prejudice’ tipped over into the life of Priyanka Ashraf, a former lawyer turned social entrepreneur, when she was accosted at her local supermarket.

The incident – in which a shopper told Priyanka that people like her were bringing COVID into Australia – not only caused her conflicting emotions of “confusion, anger and shame”, but planted the seed of an idea that would germinate into a ground-breaking solution: a chatbot platform named Maya Cares, designed specifically to support women facing racial abuse.

Learning from lived experience

The chatbot named 'Maya' was developed by a unique social enterprise, The Creative Co-Operative (CCO) - a consultancy solely owned and operated by women of colour.

Starting in March 2021, the CCO conducted an extensive series of workshops to understand women’s different experiences of racial abuse and canvas their opinions on what support they believed could most help them.

We spoke with more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, black and women of colour, and it was shocking to find nearly every one had a lived experience of racism.

- Wendy Zhang, Maya Cares - Product & Service Designer.

Wendy Zhang, Maya Cares - Product & Service Designer, continues, “All the women said they would have loved to have had a safe place where they could find validation and begin to process their experiences – as well as access to appropriate mental health support. It was very intense, hearing all those stories. You realise there are so many forms of racism, vastly different experiences, with very different impacts.”

Dealing with racism

It may seem obvious that every incident of racism is different, depending on its nature, location and severity. But as Wendy explains, the difference goes much deeper, to the resilience of the individual, the confusion of emotions they may feel – and even, whether they think they’ll be believed at all.

Every day in Australia, there are women being turned away from jobs, being told to ‘go home’ on public transport, being shouted at in the street – just because of their appearance. Racism may affect everyone differently, but every experience is invidious, humiliating, and potentially devastating to a woman’s self-esteem.

- Wendy Zhang, Maya Cares - Product & Service Designer.

“Up to now, ways of reporting racism have all been either very authoritative or very bureaucratic, so people tend to just share the experience with family or friends – if they share it at all,” says Wendy. “We want women to be able to share their stories comfortably, with no judgment and no fear that anyone else will be involved.”

Validation in the moment and beyond

Priyanka Ashraf calls the chatbot solution “a digital big sister”, but actually Maya Cares is much more than that. When you access the bot, you’re sent automatic messages of support that provide comfort and validation.

As well as sending links to responsive counsellors, Maya has an expansive library of resources it can provide – from reports and articles on racism, to guides for dealing with ‘microaggressions’ and other abusive behaviours.

A user can also make an anonymous report on the platform, which will help the CCO compile information for policymakers to quantify the on-the-ground reality of racism.

Collaboration providing more personalisation

The Australian Red Cross' Humanitech Lab has supported the team behind Maya Cares, to build a more personalised version of their bot and to develop a strategic plan that simultaneously advances their business planning, community outreach, product development, and monitoring.

Humanitech's involvement has given Maya’s developers the opportunity to access the expertise of the diversity and migration support teams at Australian Red Cross, which will help them develop more personalised responses based on users’ experiences, with services and support groups tailored to their individual circumstances.

Adelide Mutinda, Innovation Program Manager at Australian Red Cross' Humanitech Lab says, “it’s a unique solution to a challenging problem that really resonated with us at Humanitech and Red Cross, the idea that a chatbot can be used as tool to deal with experiences of racism."

We’re hopeful that this innovation will not only help to connect people who experience racism with services and resources to support them, but also to elevate the conversation among policymakers and influence further action and advocacy.

- Adelide Mutinda - Innovation Program Manager at Humanitech Lab.

Maya aims to provide instant comfort and validation to any woman who’s been subjected to racial vilification, as well as longer-term support through access to culturally-appropriate counsellors and safe channels should they want to report the abuse. It's also collecting deidentified meta-data that will help policymakers grow their knowledge of racist behaviour in Australia and improve their services for users.

I think we all can play a part in ensuring that we live more harmoniously in Australia.

- Wendy Zhang, Maya Cares - Product & Service Designer.

The success of the Maya Cares platform proves just how powerful and vital collaboration between organisations is when tackling racism.

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