“Keep Fighting!” - the mantra that Congressman John Lewis spoke not only to anyone and everyone, but also something that he lived!
The Phoenix Awards Dinner hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) at their Annual Legislative Conference is known as the Black Political Oscars. In September 2019, the CBCF awarded me with the Chair Award for my work in equity and access in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
It was a star studded night as Presidential candidates, journalists, activists, lobbyists, business executives and politicians at every level packed the room with laughter and chatter. Upon arriving at my table, I immediately noticed that my table was positioned adjacent to Congressman John Lewis. After being honored and receiving the award, I returned to my table. As I approached my seat, Congressmen Lewis caught my eye, he nodded and mouthed “Congratulations! Keep Fighting!”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) was the last living leader and legend of the “Big-Six” civil rights organizations, which orchestrated the March on Washington in 1963. At the age of 23, he was the youngest speaker representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was known as the conscience of the United States Congress, having served for 33 years. In 1965, at the age of 25, Lewis led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and was severely beaten by state troopers in what has become known as “Bloody Sunday”. On March 1, 2020, Lewis spoke atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge and shouted "Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America."
As the nation mourns his death and celebrates his extraordinary life, I have reflected on what took place that September night and what John Lewis said to me and has been saying to each and all of us. I have thought about injustice and I have particularly thought about the economic, technological, and historical inequity and systemic racism in STEM education and the communities that are challenged to get relevant and quality access to STEM education so that they can acquire the currency of the today, tomorrow, and the future... STEM! We must acknowledge, accept, act, and right the clear and present inequities and racism in STEM!
In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, the cries about the systemic inequities and racism in America have been shocking, pervasive and across all sectors. There are inequities and racism across the American economy including STEM Education and the STEM community. Rep. Lewis challenged us when he said: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; You have to do something!” Doing that something is what I see as “Good Trouble in STEM”. And this Good Trouble is not hard to find.
Racial inequities in K-12 STEM education, the digital divide, the academic achievement gap, early childhood education, the lack of diversity in the TECH sector, and racial bias in venture capital investments are well known and have been studied well for years. So documenting the racial inequities in education and STEM is not new, but the activism demonstrated by the everyday scientist, researcher and academic during the Black Lives Matter Protest is new. This is the Good Trouble in STEM to get into.
During recent BLM protests, #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia, and #Strike4BlackLives began trending on Twitter. Black academics and researchers began sharing their personal and horrible experiences in laboratories and academia, graduate school, and even in the publishing media. As more people shared, it was clear that many have and were continuing to suffer in isolation. It was and still is obvious that systemic racism is ubiquitous in the STEM community. More importantly, a movement had been born and people found and used the power of their individual and collective voice!
On June 10, 2020, thousands of scientists, engineers, researchers, publishers, and professional societies organized “Good Trouble” under the hashtags #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM, and #Strike4BlackLives to stop - no research, no meetings, no classes, no business as usual - to highlight, and to take action on the historical inequalities in STEM fields that are no different than the inequities everywhere else. The movement increased its momentum and garnered national attention when editors at NATURE delayed journal publication and released a statement in support of #ShutDownSTEM and committed to address anti-Black inequality and racism in science.
The organizers of #ShutDownSTEM chose to Keep Fighting. On their website, an appeal was made to the broader community: “Those of us who are not Black, particularly those of us who are white, play a key role in perpetuating systemic racism. Direct actions are needed to stop this injustice. Unless you engage directly with eliminating racism, you are perpetuating it. This moment calls for profound and meaningful change.” On one day of ‘fighting’ on June 10, the scientific community was figuratively shut down for a day. The work that must continue is to use this energy, synergy and focus as the start of a collective effort of awareness and action to address the historical and systemic issues raised by and from within the STEM community.
Another example of good and necessary trouble in STEM is a group of Black engineering faculty from across the country who released recently a video entitled Black Faculty Engineer Speak - We Rise and a call to action website. The organizers (Drs. Monica Cox of The Ohio State University, Carlotta Berry of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Tahira Reid of Purdue University) of the movement state “the goal of the video is to bring broader awareness to the issues Black engineering faculty experience such as implicit bias and marginalization, facilitate dialogue to bring change to the broader community, connect to current and potential partners and sponsors in our efforts, unite the STEM community and to stand in solidarity with productive activism efforts for Blacks in America.” The video has a current multi-person, multi-voice structure and black engineering faculty members from all over the nation articulating whereas because of their skin color, they could be one of the many - George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery to name the popular few who have died doing nothing different than what those professors have done countless number times in their lifetime: jog, lay in bed, go to the store, drive a car. The faculty also highlight what they have endured, demand equality and justice, and state that they will “Keep Fighting” in their own words. As an additional example of the challenges engineering faculty must endure and navigate in an effort to assimilate, Dr. Monica Cox, one of the faculty who organized the video, wrote recently about her career struggle to separate her work from her identity. In the article, Dr. Cox not only challenges her peers but she also states firmly that silence is no longer acceptable and openly questions the purity of the singular pursuit of academia, “Will we earn tenure only to be killed in our neighborhoods and in our beds? What is the purpose of upward mobility if I can be struck down and become a hashtag overnight?”
Workforce development is another area in STEM ripe for Good Trouble, Necessary Trouble. The consulting company McKinsey & Co. recently published a report entitled, “The Future of Work in Black America,” projecting that automation may disrupt 4.5 million jobs held by African Americans over the next 10 years. It is believed that automation which consists of Artificial Intelligence, machine language and robot will replace low-wage, low-skills jobs in the near future. Many are afraid that the Covid-19 pandemic will hasting the shift to automation in the American economy.
Community-based workforce development and training programs must commit to providing trainees with skills for 21st century jobs. Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (OICA) is an organization committed to fighting the good fight. “We must continue to fight for the change we seek – The State of Work in this country has and continues to change with evolving technologies. OICA and its network of Affiliates are responding to these changes. As one of the longstanding and influential historical African American Workforce Development institutions in this country, we understand that we must be STEM focused. Our network of affiliates works tirelessly to prepare people of color for sustainable jobs that lead to living-wage careers. The Digital Divide is pervasive in the communities that we serve; as such, we seek to partner with STEM experts to develop scalable models focused on developing the entire pipeline from the cradle with 21st century skills. Our necessary trouble is blowing up the old model and embed STEM into the 31 Affiliates and communities we serve, across 21 states, and close the divide." says James Haynes President & CEO of OICA.
The connection of STEM education to justice has been studied, observed, and reported in the education community for years. However, it was as recently as 2016 that the National Science Foundation (NSF) published their report "Next Generation STEM For All: Envisioning Advances Based on NSF Supported Research". The NSF reports acknowledged, recognized, and highlighted the strong and deep connection between STEM education and social justice. The compelling, decision-quality data and research from reports by reputable organizations like the NSF have continued to document the injustices and inequalities of Black Americans in STEM Education. Unfortunately, the leaders of STEM policy making agencies and organizations have typically recommended additional studies before adequately and properly addressing the findings of the report in hand.
On the other hand, social and political scientists and civil rights leaders have always broadly addressed social justice matters in writings, lectures, protests, and boycotts. They have not had any problems getting in the way, and getting in trouble, really good trouble. For institutional inequality and anti-Black systemic racism in STEM to change, it will require the example and courage displayed by the organizers of #ShutDownSTEM and “Black Engineering Faculty Speaks”, James Haynes and Congressman John Lewis to continue to Speak Up, Speak Out, to Get in Trouble, Necessary Trouble … Good Trouble! If not you, then who? It is time!
Thank you to the Honorable John Lewis for being a living example of what is possible if we stand collectively together against injustice. We will do our best as you directed us to walk with the wind and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be our guide, and answer the highest calling of our heart and stand up for what we truly believe. Rest in Peace Sir!