More than 600 members of the MIT community met on Wednesday in the Institute’s latest public discussion of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion — matters made all the more salient by the series of high-profile gun killings in the U.S. this month.
The event featured public remarks by a few MIT speakers, while devoting most of its time to private discussions among audience members. Randomly assigned to tables of 10, the participants engaged in extended conversations about values, sources of intolerance, and ways to help MIT sustain an inclusive community during a time of social tension.
The U.S. has been roiled most recently by two incidents in which black men were killed by police officers this month, followed by the killing of five police officers who were serving at a demonstration in Dallas.
“I urge us not to give in to the darkness, the darkness of doubt and fear,” said DiOnetta Jones Crayton, associate dean for undergraduate education and director of the Office of Minority Education, in closing remarks to the entire audience. Instead, she said, the “light” we all carry can help us “stand together against injustice, intolerance, and hatred.”
The event is part of an ongoing MIT effort to foster diversity and a culture of inclusion.
“Injustice, racism, mistrust, suspicion, fear, and violence corrode the foundations of a healthy society,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an open letter to the MIT community on Monday. “We cannot stand as observers and accept a future of escalating violence and divisiveness. I believe our leading civic institutions have a responsibility to speak clearly against these corrosive forces and to act practically to inspire and create positive change.”
On campus, MIT has started implementing a series of measures intended to further extend an atmosphere of respect and inclusiveness for all — and of greater mutual understanding among community members regardless of differences in ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
These efforts have been spurred in part by recommendations that MIT’s Black Students’ Union and Black Graduate Student Association made in December 2015. Changes at MIT that have occurred or are being implemented include increased financial aid for undergraduate students; expanded diversity orientation for undergraduate and graduate students; increased capacity at MIT Medical, including race-based traumatic stress counseling, and new staff with expertise in issues pertaining to the African diaspora; and more extensive collection and release of data about ethnicity and MIT, on subjects from admissions to student life.
At the same time, MIT expects to keep holding community events on topics similar to those featured Wednesday, in order to generate frank and supportive dialogue.
“We can’t solve a problem we can’t hear each other talking about,” said Ed Bertschinger, Institute Community and Equity Officer and a professor in MIT’s Department of Physics.
Kester Barrow, Area Director for MacGregor House (a student residence), in MIT’s Division of Student Life, also spoke to the audience about the needs of a diverse student community. While race is a social construct, Barrow stated, it is also the case that “race is a lived experience for us all.” As such, he suggested, we have an obligation to understand how those sometimes very disparate experiences shape us, individually and communally.
Audience members at the forum also submitted written suggestions about new ways MIT can keep working to generate civic inclusion on campus. Additionally, MIT chaplains set up a “prayer and reflection” space used after the event, where, among other things, community members created a paper chain of written thoughts about recent events.
In her closing remarks, Crayton urged audience members to rise above the current climate — “Returning violence to violence can only multiply violence,” she said — and noted that MIT can “challenge itself” to “make a better world” for everyone, no matter how daunting that goal may seem at times.
“If we stay in a state of helplessness for too long, it will cloud our vision,” Crayton said, adding: “As a nation, I do not believe we are incapable of rising above our current state.”