Yes We Must: Achieve Diversity through Leadership-Student Remarks

author: Matt Gethers, Department of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Joy Johnson, Microsystems Technology Laboratories, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Dec. 9, 2013,   recorded: February 2009,   views: 1700

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Two students deliver heartfelt appeals for courage and integrity at the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast.

In the 1940s, Matt Gethers recounts, his grandfather was forced to flee South Carolina after defending his brother against white racists in a store. Gethers wonders if he’d have put his life on the line in the same way. He acknowledges the “bittersweet reality” that he won’t likely be facing the trials of his ancestors, while also wishing to “share in the work and sacrifice that secured my inalienable rights as a citizen of this country and the world.”

While U.S. institutions seem to reflect “what we know to be right with respect to race, gender and disability,” Gethers notes that there’s a more corrosive racism eating away at “hearts and minds.” The absence of diversity in leadership throughout U.S. society encourages stereotyping. In his work in the Cambridge Public Schools, Gethers meets students who believe they couldn’t possibly grow up to be “an astronaut, physicist, mathematician or president.” Why? “Because little black girls don’t grow up to become CEOs.” Gethers concludes that only when these students see themselves “in people who are breaking the mold …will we restore their sacred right to dream.”

Joy Johnson was almost cheated of a college scholarship by a high school counselor who “forgot” to send her transcript in. Entrenched racism has helped create the “impostor syndrome,” says Johnson, whose “sufferers can’t internalize their own accomplishments and thus feel they don’t deserve them.” She wonders how many fellow MIT students are asking themselves, “Do we even belong here, and what do we need to do to become as smart as the others?” But “many times the impostor is not us at all,” says Johnson. She sees a long, sorry tale of the usurpation of black achievements, inventions and discoveries: “Impostors have been doing it so long, they’ve perfected the very art of fraud.”

But what must be done to ensure that the contributions of black people are recognized? Johnson nods toward MIT’s mission -- inclusive of all students -- of advancing knowledge to serve the nation and world. True innovation and intellectual advancement, she says, require respectful interactions not just in labs and classrooms, but in everyday life. “This must begin with acknowledgments, speaking to … janitors and lab techs and bus drivers as eagerly as we speak to professors.” Johnson ultimately hopes to “show the world that at this institution, decisions are made on merit, not on nepotism, cronyism or racism.”

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Comment1 Big Chungus, October 2, 2020 at 3:59 p.m.:

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