The University of Michigan Engineering Office of Culture, Community and Equity hosted the “Truth Be Told, DEI Needs to D-I-E” lecture, given by engineering professor James Holly Jr. on Wednesday afternoon. Holly Jr. discussed how the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion has been used to increase progress without addressing concerns with equity and justice for Black people on campus, specifically those in engineering.
Dr. Sara Pozzi, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the College of Engineering, emphasized the importance of the DEI lecture series and its value to the campus community.
“These lectures are an important element of our people-first engineering focus, where we are committed to engaging our entire community in learning and growing together,” Pozzi said.
Holly Jr. began the lecture by playing a video of socio-technical activist Chanel Beebe’s poem “Proof”, which describes how institutions have failed Black communities, and the song “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone.
“Black folks are gifted right? And not in the terms of the context of advanced education, or people who have a special talent, but rather as normal human beings that they have talent and purposes,” Holly Jr. said. “(The poem) gets at the point that it’s not us who is lacking or deficient, but rather the structures and power structures of our society that (are) trying to keep us contained and suppressed.”
After the poem, Holly Jr. discussed the historical context of DEI at the University and other institutions of higher education in the United States.
“DEI is a social construction designed to preserve the white power structure, a hierarchy without redress,” Holly Jr. said. “When we look at the function of DEI … it allows this reality where institutions can both claim to support change, difference and equitable measures and yet never deal with or reckon with … why the DEI is needed.”
In 2022, the University announced its next five-year DEI plan, “DEI 2.0,” which aims to extend the initial five-year plan, DEI 1.0, launched in 2016. With individualized plans for each college and program, DEI 1.0 included efforts to increase enrollment of minority students, support socioeconomic diversity and provide funding support for DEI research. During its initial years, DEI 1.0 received criticism from the campus community due to multiple instances of discrimmination targeting Black and Jewish students on campus.
Holly Jr. went on to explain how DEI plans, such as the ones at the University, take an exhausting toll on minority communities. He said DEI does not address systems of oppression because even if diverse people are involved in the conversation, underlying power structures still exist.
“Instead of those students being drawn to places where they can exist and be viewed as humane, (students) are drawn to these types of institutions because of the marketing, the new initiative, the strategic plan,” Holly Jr. said. “It appears that the institute will change, yet nothing truly changes.”
Holly Jr. expressed the importance of recognizing how engineering, as an academic discipline that he said relies on the culture of meritocracy and arbitrary credentials, negatively impacts Black engineering students.
Holly Jr. said once Black students get to institutions of higher education, they are often socially isolated and marginalized, which can lead to academic isolation.
“Being a loner when you have to work in teams and no one wants to work with you, or when you have to work in teams and people don’t value your intellectual contribution, (the students) realize that the social isolation led to academic isolation and disconnect,” Holly Jr. said. “Academic survival is hard because … we have this idea of individualism, but the reality of engineering is you need to know somebody. You have to know resources.”
He then discussed how the repercussion of slavery still hinders Black communities from receiving equal access to education and employment. Holly Jr. referred to the story of Elijah J. McCoy, who was a Canadian-American engineer in the late 1800s. According to Holly Jr., McCoy was educated in Canada and Scotland, but struggled to find work when coming to the United States.
“Workplace discrimination set us back and held us back for many years,” Holly Jr. said “But even now, as we are allowed, admitted to work at certain companies, the question is: Are we truly seen as equal contributors?”
Holly Jr. concluded the seminar by discussing critical aspects of shifting the culture of engineering by sharing the three-step process of transforming chaos to change. He said academic departments have a responsibility to “re-politicize engineering” by raising race consciousness and deconstructing ideologies more broadly. The second step, he said, was “reconstructing education,” in which organizations should eliminate racist practices that disadvantage minority groups, such as the SAT exams. The last step is to “reimagine futurity,” which Holly Jr. explained means letting go of what is or has been essential and building new visions of what could be.
“I think we need to deal with the tension of ‘What does it mean to recreate and reconstruct?’ and recognize that there are some limitations,” Holly Jr. said. “If you keep the structure, not just some things need to change, but much of it needs to change to get to presumed and promoted outcomes of racial difference, not looking purely from a statistical standpoint.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily outside of the event, LSA sophomore Sydney Patricia Pitter said based on her experience, she feels more supported in Black STEM organizations than in her STEM courses at the University.
“In every STEM class I have been in here … they always have a diversity slide, then that kind of fades away, just gets right into the curriculum,” Pitter said. “I’d say for me personally, being a minority, (a) Black woman in STEM, I’d say I get my motivation and information about diversifying the STEM field from Black (STEM) organizations.”
Pitter then said she wished she felt more represented in the faculty on campus and the people she is learning from in her classes, particularly as she navigates the STEM field.
“I wish there were more professors that looked like me. It helps when you’re asking for career advice from them because they’ve dealt with a lot of the profiling and the kind of having to go the extra mile to prove that you’re great and smart,” Pitter said. “So I guess having more mentors (would be beneficial), and I would like to see that, and (more) professors and some more Black advisors.”
When asked about what advice he has for U-M students, Holly Jr. said he encourages Black students to engage with experts and faculty members of the Black community who are involved in their respective fields.
“I’d encourage Black University of Michigan students to seek out and engage with the intellectual legacy of Black thinkers within and beyond their respective disciplines, (and) then, using this scholarship as a filter, answer the question: How does this free us (Black people)?” Holly Jr. said.
Daily Contributor Maleny Crespo can be reached at email@example.com.