Community Conversations: Race and Diversity at MIT

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Post-dialogue survey question: “What was your favorite part of the event?”

Attendee response: “Being nudged to start an uncomfortable conversation, and being able to listen to learn how to help!”

On December 16, 2015, 200 MIT community members gathered to share in an important, uncomfortable, and ultimately empowering lunchtime conversation about the experience of race at MIT. The seventh installment of the 2015-16 ICEO Community Dialogue series, December’s event had the largest attendance to date. In all my years at MIT I can think of few other times when so many people from all ranks and roles — from students to postdocs to support staff and senior faculty — shared so openly in challenging conversation.

The subject, race and diversity at MIT, was a timely selection in the wake of student-led civil rights demonstrations in response to deteriorating race relations on campuses across the US. At MIT specifically, the collaboration of black student leaders with senior administration to outline a list of specific student-oriented requests had begun to spark broad community interest.

Attendees of the December dialogue gathered in randomly selected small groups of 6 to 8 people, which were balanced to achieve nearly uniform distribution of faculty, staff and students at each table. Discussion guidelines were provided by a facilitator at each table, including: “Introduce yourselves to each other,” “Share perspectives with ‘I’ statements instead of ‘You’ statements,” “Give each participant the opportunity to be heard,” “Respect differences in opinion and identity,” and “Respect confidentiality.” Members at each table chose two or three questions from a set of discussion prompts for the hour-long conversations that followed:

1. Why did you come today?
2. What are you hoping to gain from being a part of this dialogue?
3. What do you notice about race at MIT? How does it affect your experience of MIT?
4. Do intolerance or hatred outside MIT affect your experience within MIT? If so, how? If not, why not?
5. What are 1 or 2 recommendations for making MIT more inclusive of different races, gender identities, and religions?
6. What are effective ways to bring people who are uncomfortable discussing race into these conversations?

A post-Dialogue survey amassed feedback on participant experience during the event, and a follow-up meeting was held during which facilitators were debriefed on their experience a few weeks later.

As with previous community dialogue events, satisfaction was high, and many survey participants indicated that they would have preferred more time for discussion. This result was encouraging, as it signaled the willingness and desire of MIT community members to share their commitment to justice, equity and inclusion. There was also a clear affirmation that events like these are beneficial at MIT, with one person recommending that the Community Dialogues Series become a recurrent feature on campus. Increasingly, our community is learning to be comfortable with discomfort, to listen before speaking, and to respect the complexities and nuances of community issues before reverting to “problem-solving mode.”

Certainly this is not the image held by most observers of MIT, including community members themselves, yet recent progress inspires us to more effectively realize our collective mission at the Institute.

However, not everyone is happy with the current pace of change. Conversations following the event revealed that some community members remain weary of discussion, preferring, instead, public action. Others are discouraged by the small number of faculty in attendance at these events, especially from our largest schools. One event attendee remarked it was “noteworthy how much suffering exists at MIT,” while another called for more safe spaces for healing. Being a leading science and engineering school does not absolve MIT from serving the very human needs of its community members. On the contrary, our success in technological discovery, engineering achievement and innovative prowess hinges on the full expression of our humanity.

The life of an institution, like that of an individual, is told through stories. To achieve our birthright requires that we tell our stories. MIT is on a journey to redefine itself as a place of heart as well as mind and hand. Community Dialogues may not solve all of our problems, but they give us a safe space to share our stories, to demonstrate mutual respect, and to care for each other. As our heart grows, so then will our confidence to change. Indeed, real change is already taking place.

(Many thanks to Graduate Community Fellow Nicholas Davis for his contributions to this post.)

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