Uplifting, Educating and Listening: It’s Not Over

4/1/21 DukEngineer Magazine

“Engineering While Black” creates a series of important conversations produced by ESG, NSBE, SWE, and SHPE

A zoom screen with five speakers
Uplifting, Educating and Listening: It’s Not Over

2020 has become a year to call for change and unite more than ever before. The horrifying murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other precious lives have amplified the injustices that Black people face every day—even within our Duke community. The Black Lives Matter movement developed from those determined to eradicate and oppose the continuous violence and injustice inflicted upon Black communities. This movement affirms the talent of Black creativity and innovation and strives for a world where Black individuals’ contributions to society are equally valued.

In order to raise awareness about racial inequities in STEM, Pratt student leaders from the Engineering Stu-dent Government (ESG), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) collaborated with the help of the Pratt administration to develop a program known as “Engineering While Black.” Each Pratt group sponsored a day within the week of August 24 to host a specific local charity run by underrepresented groups to give back to the Durham community. This is especially relevant when, according to an article in the Indy Week by Sarah Willets, Durham’s community in 2018 was 38% Black and 13% Hispanic and Latino, which are numbers that are not reflected in Duke Engineering’s community. On Monday, Duke NSBE sponsored raising funds for SpiritHouse, whose purpose is to create and develop programs to support the transformation and empowerment of Black communities impacted by poverty, racism, criminalization and gender-inequity in North Carolina, centralized in Durham. On Tuesday, Duke ESG sponsored raising funds for Techies4Tomorrow, whose goal is to improve the academic preparation of young Black students and motivate them to succeed in STEM subjects and their future careers. On Wednesday, Duke SHPE sponsored raising funds for Durham For All, whose aim is to bring together a multiracial group of organizers and activists that work to have a government led by people of color and working-class people to ultimately build a cross-cultural Durham.

The biggest takeaway from the “Engineering While Black” conversations is that racial inequity in STEM is real and this movement is far from being over.

There were also four hosted talks via Zoom as part of the “Engineering While Black” series. On Tuesday, ESG hosted a discussion with representatives from Durham Colored Library’s Techies4Tomorrow about their organization and ways to volunteer with them. On Thursday, Duke SWE hosted Ashley Vassel, technical program manager for Fastly, as she led a conversation on her experiences as a woman of color in engineering. On Friday, there were two perspective conversations on identity and inequities in STEM with Pratt faculty and professional alumni. The first was a faculty panel featuring faculty women of color including Sophia Santillan, assistant professor of the practice of mechanical engineering and materials science; Shani B. Daily, associate professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering and computer science; Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, the Jeffrey N. Vinik Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Nicki Washington, professor of the practice of computer science. The second was a professional alumni conversation featuring Stephanie Gloster E’96, lead data architect for Augusta University Health; Damian Dolland E’96, CEO of The Darisami Group; and Clifton Ray E’13, senior scientist at ZenBio.

The biggest takeaway from the “Engineering While Black” conversations is that racial inequity in STEM is real and this movement is far from being over. It was not some 2020 fad. It is not over now because Duke Engineering is hiring a new director of diversity and inclusion or because there are now slightly more people of color around Duke’s hallways from recruitment. These conversations in Pratt have made clear that we must work on uplifting, educating and listening.

We must uplift and support our Black colleagues, communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. We can support them by donating to these communities and promoting Black businesses. Most importantly, we must support our Black classmates and groups in Pratt, our Black faculty, and NSBE.

We must educate ourselves. People tend to turn their heads from the situation with the excuse that if they do not know something is happening, they do not have the obligation to help fix it. Do not expect that it is the responsibility of other POC or your POC colleagues to take their time to educate you. Look at educational websites and organizations—the Duke Office for Institutional Equity Resources has a collection of resources—join book and discussion clubs within your departments or Pratt/Duke organizations, and attend seminars or conversations hosted throughout the year.

We must listen. We must not speak on behalf of our Black colleagues. We must listen when they want to talk about their experiences and believe them. We must listen to experts in their fields studying these matters and strive to make change happen.

One thing is clear: We cannot continue on the same road in academia and STEM that we have been following. Real change needs to be made and it is not going to happen overnight. It needs to come from all angles. It needs to come from administration hiring more faculty of color and companies having leaders from POC and women. It needs to come from students respecting and educating themselves and realizing that any mistakes they have made in the past regarding discrimination or racial bias will continue to occur. It comes from us supporting one another and uplifting this movement, because “Engineering While Black” awareness should not be for just one weekend. It needs to be a conscious effort that is made every day to make a change.

Joana Sipe is an environmental engineer who is a fifth-year PhD student studying microplastics, nanomaterials and plastic pollution from consumer products. She is advised by Professor Mark Wiesner.


Letter penned by a black university student: tinyurl.com/cz3mssye
How to be an ally: guidetoallyship.com
Duke Office for Institutional Equity Resources: oie.duke.edu/node/536
Duke NSBE resources: linktr.ee/wematterdukensbe


SpiritHouse: spirithouse-nc.org
Techies4Tomorrow: durhamcl.org/stem-learning-tool
Durham For All: durhamforall.org/about/who-we-are