MIT community members hold Black Lives Matter demonstration

Payne: it ‘takes more than a brief acknowledgement of a broken system to tackle the difficult systemic change required to fix it’

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Demonstrators hold signs on the steps in front of Lobby 7.
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Demonstrators hold signs on the steps in front of Lobby 7.

About 100 MIT community members held a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration June 6 on the steps outside Lobby 7.

The demonstration was in response to incidents of police brutality against black Americans, including the recent killing of George Floyd by a white police officer May 25.

The two-hour event was organized by Cadence Payne G and outgoing Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) co-president Chelsea Onyeador G. Demonstrators held signs reading “Black lives matter,” “Scientists for black lives,” and “Disarm MIT police.”

Payne wrote in an email to The Tech that she and Onyeador “were anticipating that maybe 15-30 people would show since the information was circulated” less than a day before the event. It was “beautiful to see folks turnout in solidarity,” Payne wrote.

Onyeador wrote in an email to The Tech that demonstrators sat on the steps and “shar[ed] space with each other.”

Onyeador wrote that the event also featured two guest speakers who discussed the “absurdity” of “our racialized society”; charged “the crowd to examine their actions and the racist institutions that we all, often inadvertently, contribute to”; and called attention to the “lack of progress” towards the recommendations presented by the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and BGSA to MIT administration in 2015 in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson protests.

Payne wrote that she spoke at the closing of the event, encouraging people “to see their community structures through a critical gaze and take note of the number of Black students and faculty that constitute their departments.”

Oneyeador wrote that the event came together June 5 when she and Payne were texting, “venting” their “frustrations” about current events. “We both… wanted to be involved and support BLM efforts” and “play a more active role in calling out the injustices we felt not just as black people but as black students and academics,” Onyeador wrote.

Payne wrote that she and Onyeador then created a flyer and distributed it to their “immediate friend and departmental groups.” The event was publicized by “word of mouth and social media.” 

Payne added that she and Onyeador “did not consult” MIT for official guidance. “When advertising the event, we made it very clear that MIT was not endorsing or sponsoring the demonstration in any way,” Payne wrote.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Payne wrote that they “made it clear that masks and social distancing were required to participate.” Hand sanitizer was also available, Onyeador wrote.

Payne wrote that she and Onyeador were inspired by” the individuals who “have been sitting” on the Lobby 7 steps with a “Free Listening” sign.

“I felt it was important to call attention to issues” black students “faced specifically at MIT,” Onyeador wrote, adding that she wanted “our pain and our frustration to be seen.” Onyeador added that the demonstration also allowed community members “to both acknowledge” the “shortcomings of the institution” and “lend support.”

Onyeador wrote that she was “frustrated” that messaging from MIT “meant to reassure and support” black community members suggested that racism and police brutality were issues “that we faced only in the outside world.”

Candace Ross G, a demonstration attendee, said in an interview with The Tech that she is “not a big fan of diversity statements in and of themselves,” because they often involve “departments saying that they value their students of color” without a concrete “action plan or even a concrete goal.” 

Ross said that she is “very behind MIT having a strategic plan.” Without a plan, “concrete change” is “hard to imagine” and “it just feels like words,” Ross said.

“The MIT brand is powerful,” and “taking up space on our own campus to show solidarity with the BLM movement speaks volumes,” Payne wrote. “Having students, faculty, and staff present in support of this movement” is a “powerful display.”

Payne added that while “we are at the institute of technology,” it remains “critical” to “recognize the value of humanity that plays a role in how we contribute to the world.”

Ross said that “it was pretty empowering” to see “how the Cambridge community was actively supporting students and this movement,” citing bikers whistling and “cars and buses driving by and honking every few minutes... We would start clapping every time they honked.”

Onyeador wrote that it often “feels that we are constantly having to prove our worth and that we deserve to be here,” because black students are often doubted by peers, faculty members, and administration.

Black graduate students “are never allowed the space to just focus on being technically excellent and producing good work, though we certainly do these things,” Payne wrote.

Specifically, Payne wrote that black students “also have to teach… our superiors how to be anti-racist,” “how to form spaces that serve us,” “about institutional racism and how it manifests in our own classrooms,” and “how to unlearn racist behavior and microagressions that they may unknowingly possess and use because nobody has ever corrected them.”

“It’s been pretty heartbreaking to see how many people have been just experiencing blatant bigotry by tenured faculty members” nationwide, Ross said.

Ross added that “one of the hardest things” of being a black MIT graduate student “is that we are just so underrepresented…, especially at the faculty level,… that it can be hard to feel like you belong.” For example, Ross pointed out that the EECS department has only 10 black graduate students out of 742 total graduate students, according to the Registrar’s website

“We are often expected to act as representatives for our entire race” or “assimilate as much as possible in an attempt to receive acceptance from our non-black peers and colleagues,” efforts which are often still not “seen as good” or “competent enough,” Onyeador wrote.

“Most students of color here are very active in diversity and equity work, which means that you put a lot of time into it,” taking away from research, Ross said. “You do a lot of free labor because you really want to see a change,” but upon not seeing any, black students end up “sacrificing their work.”

Onyeador echoed these thoughts, writing that having to “advocate for ourselves” and “possibly make things better for the next Black student” leaves black students less “time to dedicate to academics” compared to “our white peers.”

“We are exhausted,” Payne wrote. “One week, I tallied a total of 30 hours” spent on “Diversity and Inclusion work” across “different groups and organizations,” Payne wrote, adding that although the work is voluntary, “at times it does feel like an obligation.”

Ross said that “MIT has to get to this place where you remove the burden from students” and where “efforts are driven by faculty members,... particularly tenured faculty.” Tenured faculty “objectively have more power than anyone else because it’s basically impossible to get fired,” a “unique power you don’t even see in industry,” Ross said.

Ross acknowledged that while many faculty members, including professors Wesley Harris, Edmund Bertschinger, Melissa Nobles, and Kristala Prather ’94, have worked on these efforts, the efforts were “disproportionately” made by “faculty of color and women faculty.”

Payne wrote that it “takes more than a brief acknowledgement of a broken system to tackle the difficult systemic change required to fix it,” and that to be a good ally “is to not share a square on social media and think that” it “is enough.”

“We need more Black folks in these academic spaces” and an “institutional culture that makes them feel like they belong here,” Payne wrote. The Institute’s “prestigious” reputation is “not enough to recruit worthy Black minds” when “they often have many prestigious offers,” Payne wrote, adding that “transparency on the structure of these efforts” is “critical moving forward.”

“Many times when we try to voice these issues, we are told that we are being overly sensitive or aggressive,” Onyeador wrote.

Payne wrote that while there “is no perfect path for reversing 400+ years of the systemic oppression of Black people in this country,” individuals should listen to and learn from “the Black folks that are contributing free, emotional labor to share their experiences and expertise.”

Additionally, Payne wrote that individuals should “keep your foot on the gas”; “show up and speak out” until “the right people get the message”; “write those difficult emails”; “talk to your departmental leadership”; and “hold MIT accountable for the progress they have failed to make to recruit and retain Black students and professors” and not fulfilling the 2015 BGSA and BSU Recommendations.

The “systemic racism that results in the violent and inhuman murders of Black people at the hands of police is the same racism that exists at MIT,” Onyeador wrote.

“Your Black community is tired, and it’s now your time to put in the work behind the scenes to support them,” Payne wrote. She concluded that a “community passionately united against a broken system is a community that wins. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”