The time is right: social justice at MIT
It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter. As an institution we are standing in reflection and grief after too many deaths of our students and employees. Nationally from Ferguson to Baltimore, we are grappling with large scale racial and class injustices. I was asked to contribute to this ‘Intuitively Obvious’ column, and it is a good time for us to consider how best to care for each other, our community, and for ourselves.
This summer will mark my tenth year here at MIT. As I think about our social justice work, I am reminded of a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world.” I have come to realize that it is only so long that the same small group of people can continue to help keep students and each other safe, functional, productive, and whole. I believe we need more citizens, more commitment, more thought, and more institutional infrastructure to bolster the efforts of the few incredibly dedicated and talented staff, students, alumni, and faculty working to create positive change.
Some of the most important work that I do is in supporting those who fall within the margins of the marginalized. People are often surprised to learn that so much of the community building I offer is with LBGTQ self-identified people of color, women, people with disabilities, and international students. I have such respect for them — especially those who have told me that they are alive today because of the work we’re doing. Despite losing their tuition funding or all their support networks after coming out to their friends or family, they have found the space and the courage to love or to be who they truly are, even in the face of harassment and discrimination in these very halls.
We all hold a collective responsibility to shape the future of MIT. So today I ask us these challenging questions:
If we are to fulfill our mission “to work with others and bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges” and “to work wisely and effectively for the betterment of humankind,” then how do we, as an institution, work to ensure that there are more black men in our colleges than in our prison systems?
What would it take to ensure that all women of color on our campus shared the same level of self-esteem and self-confidence as their peers and colleagues?
With students and faculty that have ties all over the world, what does it mean for us that there are 80 nations that criminalize homosexuality, seven of those where it is punishable by death, or that there are 32 states where you can still be fired for being LBGTQ identified?
How do we address the fact that roughly one in four females and one in seven males in the US will experience sexual violence, even here at MIT?
How do we acquire more accurate data on, offer more support to, and track the progress of our transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming students?
What would it take to have our staff and faculty match the diversity of our undergraduate student body?
How can we change the fact that based on student quality-of-life survey data, LBGTQ students, students of color, women, and international students are significantly less satisfied here, some even reporting that they feel less safe on campus and more isolated than their majority group peers?
What would it mean to have more trained, experienced, and qualified leaders in social justice helping to shape our future?
As I plan social justice efforts, I keep hearing (mostly from those with majority group identities) that MIT is not “ready” to talk about privilege, especially white privilege. I think that we are. At this time in our nation’s history, we have a responsibility to talk and to act, to undo and eliminate racial injustice as well as sexism, heterosexism, cis-gender privilege, and other forms of oppression. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “the time is always right to do what is right”.
Now, I know that we have made some strides forward. We should take pride in these. We have added gender-affirming surgeries to our health insurance policy. We are looking to add gender-inclusive housing options and more gender-neutral restrooms across campus. We have created an Institute Community and Equity Office and broadened resources and staffing in Violence Prevention and Response and in Student Support Services. We have several offices and student groups that focus on supporting various aspects of people’s identities, and those groups are making more connections with each other. We have created Employee Resource Groups, included diversity-related awards in our recognition programs, and host an annual MLK scholars program and Diversity Summit. This list could go on.
But if “diversity” is listed as one of the four main initiatives on our homepage, why are there still so few resources available for these efforts? How can we help that same small group of volunteers striving to move mountains with regard to equity, inclusion, respect, justice, and campus climate? What would it look like if we understood, valued, and talked about “diversity” in the same way that we talk about cancer, global initiatives, or energy?
Imagine what could happen if, today, each of us thought about one area of identity or social justice where we are less comfortable — nationality, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, size, ability, age — then leaned into that discomfort and read an article, talked to a friend, listened to a podcast, or watched a video to learn more. What if we each took action regarding something we had learned? What if we could then challenge an internal bias that we hold, offer an educational lens to a degrading joke, or intervene in a micro-aggression that we witness? Yes, this work is messy. It is uncomfortable. It is in everyone’s and in no one’s job description and academic pursuits. It is relatively unclear. But if we make the time and effort, dedicate resources, learn more, and invite someone to join us, then eventually we all move forward.
This winter we organized a peaceful protest and panel discussion about if and how Black Lives Matter at MIT. Following the event I made a list of “the ten racist things I saw while planning an event about race at MIT.” And here’s the thing: I’m on that list twice. Sometimes the hardest and most important aspect of this work is how we transform ourselves along the way. That includes being honest, compassionate, accountable, and patient with ourselves and with others. Because there is so much work to do. We put this event together in just two weeks and then 430 people showed up. The momentum is here. The time is now. Remember, “the time is always right to do what is right.” We collectively own the responsibility to shape the future towards more respect and caring for one another. I look forward to continuing this work, and I hope you will join me.
Abigail Francis is the Director of LBGT Services at MIT.