Hacking the MIT Culture

CoreValuesOn Thursday, January 29, MIT held the first session of its annual Institute Diversity Summit. The afternoon consisted of an opening address Hacking the MIT Culture followed by facilitated small-group dialogues and a set of parallel workshops (Intercultural Communication, The Dynamics of Gender and Privilege, Ways to Advance a Respectful and Caring Community, Does Race Still Matter?, The Challenge and Potential of Diversity for Decision Making; and Speak Up: Being an Active Bystander). The day concluded with a networking reception.

The workshops were amazing, organized and led by experts within the MIT community. I think we all wished we could attend several of them, if not all! Fortunately, several of these workshops are being repeated on February 12, the concluding afternoon of the Summit. Registration is still open this week.

My opening address shared some examples of the kind of caring community we experience at the best of times at MIT, and would like to see more regularly. One of my favorite stories is the empowerment of Latinas in STEM started by five Hispanic women who were the first in their families to attend college – not just any college, but MIT. One of them, Noramay Cadena, came to MIT as a single mother with an infant child and showed unusual persistence to overcome adversity, getting help from her classmates and her Department Head along the way. Nora exemplifies the quality of Sisu, a Finnish language and cultural construct borrowed from my own immigrant mother. She was so committed to advancing herself and others that she returned with her daughter to obtain two more MIT degrees in 2011. Two years later, while managing commercial satellite projects at Boeing, she gathered four other first-generation Latinas who graduated from MIT to found the Latinas in STEM Foundation. Their goal is to change the world using MIT’s power to inspire. In their personal journeys and their service to others, these amazing alumnae exemplify what it means to advance a respectful and caring community that embraces diversity and empowers everyone to learn and do their best.

In my address, I gave audience members a MIT-style problem set to answer, and internalize, the following:

  1. What does a respectful and caring community look like?
  2. How can we achieve that vision?

I presented some data to show areas of need, and presented several ideas and initiatives to help achieve the vision. Audience members were then asked to make personal commitments to small steps they could make to advance a respectful and caring community this semester. Mine was, “I commit to doing a little less, not more, to reduce stress on myself and others.” The full set of inspiring commitments will be posted online.

One of the best ways to guide our commitments is to reflect on our core values, both as individuals and as members of our communities. Some suggestions are in the slide above.  As the Latinas in STEM and many others show, living by our values empowers us to change the world.  First we must change MIT, so that in the year 2030, a journalist may write of us,

“During the first three decades of this century, MIT has become the leading institution developing the talent of its community members for the betterment of humankind. Known originally as a foundry of ideas and technology, and later as an incubator of new businesses, MIT is now the premier institution developing and applying talent from all quarters to address the world’s great challenges using its famous “learning by doing, with caring and respect” approach to collaborative problem solving by students, postdocs, staff, and faculty. Many universities have adopted their own versions of the MIT Compact as a means to advance their communities in service. Besides brilliance and invention, the words most often used to describe MIT include community, diversity, empowerment, and respect.”

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