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MIT Reads hosts author Janet Mock

Shared reading sparks timely conversation about gender, race, and community.
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Author and guest speaker Janet Mock (right) and discussion moderator Syn Odu
Author and guest speaker Janet Mock (right) and discussion moderator Syn Odu
MIT Libraries Director Chris Bourg (standing) introduces Janet Mock (seated, right) and Syn Odu.
MIT Libraries Director Chris Bourg (standing) introduces Janet Mock (seated, right) and Syn Odu.
Moderator Syn Odu and author Janet Mock
Moderator Syn Odu and author Janet Mock

MIT Reads, an Institute-wide reading and discussion program, welcomed author, editor, and media professional Janet Mock to a full Kirsch Auditorium Nov. 15 for a conversation about her memoir, "Redefining Realness."

Seated in easy chairs on the stage just one week after the presidential election, Mock and moderator / MIT junior Syn Odu started a timely discussion with Odu’s own questions and then took more from the audience.

As a mixed-race trans woman of color, Mock spoke openly about the fears that the 2016 election results have provoked, in her words, in “brown folk, undocumented folk, black folk, queer folk, trans folk, and disabled people [who] are now having to fight even more to say that we deserve to be here.”

But Mock’s message was not one of fear or defeat. In the election, Mock said she supported Hillary Clinton, but now, “We have a better option, and it’s us. We have to do the work now.” She urged those gathered to deepen their communities, get involved in grassroots organizations that support marginalized populations, and seek out safe places where they can process and heal.

The timing of this author event could not have been more perfect, said PhD student Danielle Olson. “I am a woman of color at MIT and a strong ally of the LBGTQ+ community,” she said. “Last Wednesday I came to campus feeling hyper visible as a black woman on campus — not because MIT isn’t diverse, but [because of] this past election cycle.” Olson, an undergraduate alumna of MIT who returned as a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, says MIT Reads is one of several new opportunities she’s found across campus to support students and give them safe spaces to connect with one another. The program’s inaugural reading selection was also a pleasant surprise. “I am so happy we chose this author,” she said.

“We had a wonderful cross section of the MIT community attend,” said Nina Davis-Millis, who coordinates MIT Reads as part of her role as the director of Community Support and Staff Development at MIT Libraries. “It was a wonderful example of [Director Chris Bourg’s] vision of the libraries being a place on campus where people can have difficult discussions.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, the audience wanted to know how Mock worked through the difficulties of her young life growing up poor and transgender. As an adult, Mock said, she has relied on community and self-care: “Finding spaces in which I can show up and not have to perform or be some kind of leader or figurehead. Where I just show up and be empty and not have to give anyone anything. That helps me process. Writing has always helped me process. Reading has always helped me process.”

The conversational format and intimacy of the discussion struck Dan Calacci, a first-year master’s student in media arts and sciences. “It was unique because it was really just two people who cared quite a bit about intersectional issues having a conversation — and a very personal conversation at that,” he said. “As a white person somewhere between queer and cis, it was super nice to be able to drop in on a conversation like that and hear from people who have thought deeply about these issues.”

The timing was necessary given the events of the prior week, according to Julio Oyola, assistant director of LBGTQ Services at MIT’s Rainbow Lounge. Mock met with a small group of invited students before the public event. Oyola said it was an opportunity to “express their gratitude for her serving as a role model for them as trans folk and queer students of color. It was moving and remarkable especially in light of how some folks are feeling.”

The conversation with Mock was co-sponsored by the Division of Student Life, the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education, the Sloan School Student Life Office, and the Program in Media Arts and Sciences. The author event is one of several community events facilitated by MIT Reads this fall, including smaller group discussions scheduled to accommodate not only students and faculty but also staff and other MIT affiliates.  

MIT Reads’ launch comes at a time when community dialogue is more important than ever. Its enthusiastic response across MIT has heartened Davis-Millis: “The thing that really made my heart sing was the idea of the MIT community getting excited about a book and coming together around the act of reading.”

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