Honest conversations about race and creating real change
Jul 17, 2020 | Atlanta, GA
“Ten years after my arrival at Tech, we’re having the first substantial, and substantive, conversation around issues of race,” Archie Ervin, vice president for Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (IDEI), said.
That conversation took place on July 16, online, hosted by IDEI. Tia Jackson-Truitt, director of Diversity and Inclusion Education and Training within IDEI, moderated “Race at Georgia Tech: A Call to Action.” The event drew more than 1,000 unique viewers during 90 minutes of candid reflections on Black experiences at Tech — and talking about about what comes next, as the Institute and the nation come to terms with the reality of systemic racism at a moment in which change feels both possible and palpable.
It was the first in a series of events that seeks to shine the light on painful racial truths and inspire the action required to bring about change. It featured students, faculty, and staff who, each in their own way, have worked to make Georgia Tech more inclusive. They were tasked with being open, honest, and vulnerable about their lived experiences, and they did that and more.
Mechanical engineering undergraduate Mykala Sinclair began by observing that Black students, and especially Black student organizations, are usually asked to participate in wider campus events when they involve a “Black” issue. “It’s almost a silo,” she said. “The Institute, by not showing care and interest in communicating consistently with the Black community at Georgia Tech, has created that narrative.”
Nettie Brown, third-year Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, first visited the Tech campus as part of the Focus program, which encourages the brightest underrepresented minority students from around the country to pursue graduate studies at Georgia Tech. When she returned as a doctoral student, one of the first things she noticed was that “people stare a lot. And there’s a difference between an admiration stare and a ‘What are they doing here?’ stare.” She described wearing her BuzzCard everywhere she goes on campus, “not just for the quick access, but so people will know, that’s a student, faculty, staff, she’s a something — she belongs here.”
Associate Professor Manu Platt in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering recalled his first day in a Tech classroom. For the Morehouse College graduate, it was his first experience teaching white students. He was 29. “The challenges I got as a young faculty member from 18- to 20-year-olds in class were about my intelligence, where I got my degrees, did I deserve to be here, why did I get hired — it shocked me in my early days.”
Since then, he has taken an active role in making sure that Black students in biomedical engineering feel like they belong there. “If I hear of something being said to or about one of our students, my job is to go in and correct it. I don’t want to drive our students away from science and engineering” because of a hostile environment.
Where to start, then? Change the environment. Participants agreed on the necessity of creating and nurturing a pipeline and networks for Black students at Tech, and for white faculty — and students — to be intentional, persistent allies who will take the lead in solving problems that are the result of deeply entrenched racism.
Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, executive director of Georgia Tech Strategic Consulting, concluded the session, noting that the work being done to improve equity and inclusion represents a “great beginning. But we’ve got to accelerate the momentum. We have to take courageous action to address the things that we know are real. Racism is a societal cancer. I don’t know that we have gone as far to be as fierce as we need to to really address it at the root.”
Other panelists included Seth Marder, Regents Professor and Georgia Power Chair in Energy Efficiency in Chemistry; Kaye Husbands Fealing, dean and Ivan Allen Jr. Chair in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts; and President Ángel Cabrera.
Cabrera wrapped up the event by identifying steps that Tech is taking to move beyond words to action. First, Tech’s executive leadership team will engage in anti-racist training this summer. Next, the Institute will set up a community police council made up of a cross-section of students, faculty, and staff to meet regularly with the Georgia Tech Police Department, ask questions, and share concerns. There are also plans to launch an Institute-wide diversity and inclusion council, to develop new implicit bias training with greater attention to racial biases, and to highlight diversity and inclusion in the new strategic plan currently under development.
“We have to act today,” Cabrera urged. Before signing off, he turned to the camera and said, “At Georgia Tech, Black lives matter.”