Responding to a national crisis in race relations

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On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a video of the shooting was made public. The next day, Philando Castile was killed in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and a video of the aftermath was made public. The result was widespread distress and anger, especially in communities of color, and a deepening of the racial divide in America.

The afternoon of July 7, MIT’s President Rafael Reif was preparing for international travel. He was sickened by the violence and felt the urgency of speaking out to say Enough — This must stop. At the same time, he was concerned not to attack police, who risk their lives every day protecting us. He wrote to Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander and me asking our advice on what to do, understanding that he would be out of the country for a few days. Kirk and I had been discussing this very question earlier that day in a meeting with staff, and so we had some preliminary ideas.

That evening, a black man killed five police officers in Dallas who had been providing security for a march protesting the earlier killings. Things went quickly from bad to worse across the nation.

Thus began an intense two days of discussion among MIT’s senior leadership about how to respond. There was a strong sense that the situation called for more than an email from the President expressing concern and providing information about resources for those in distress. The nation seemed headed in a dangerous direction that called for leadership not only from Washington, but from major institutions like MIT. Through intensive email exchanges, about 10 of MIT’s senior leaders debated the style and wording of a dramatic MIT homepage to alert the community to our care and concern.

At the same time, people across MIT were consulted about what we should do. On the morning of July 8, Vice President Kolenbrander convened a meeting of about 30 staff and faculty from across MIT in person and by phone. Attendees expressed strong feelings of sadness and concern for the nation and urged a Presidential statement accompanied by a change in the MIT homepage. We also learned about meetings convened to support students and discussed the need to support our visiting summer students. In his summary to the senior leadership team, Kirk noted the importance of the relationships that had been built across the organization and throughout the hierarchy over the last year to support diversity and inclusion work, which enabled us to come together to discuss difficult truths with a unity of purpose and understanding.

President Reif made clear his intentions that MIT should lead and not follow, and he provided leadership as to values and tone in the discussions among the senior leaders. Several options were presented for the appearance of the MIT homepage, including wording from widely-known civic documents and moral leaders. I found myself getting emotional about fundamental principles of American democracy when the experience of them varies so widely across groups. Afterwards, I was very glad for the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in the leadership team, because I believe the group came to a better decision than any one of us would have made alone. On July 10 — in the middle of a weekend — MIT’s homepage was turned black, accompanied by the simple phrase We Mourn and a message from President Reif that was sent also by email to community members including alumni.

The letter from President Reif powerfully expressed that we are a community, bound not only by MIT’s mission, but by our common humanity and need to mourn, to reflect, and to respond. He called on our leading civic organizations to speak up and to “act practically to inspire and create positive change.” His call to service was compelling, and he laid out a roadmap beginning with a community dialogue the following Wednesday, to be followed by a problem-solving event in September led by Vice President Kolenbrander.

The President’s letter came out Sunday; the previous Thursday I had offered to lead a community dialogue to take place the following Wednesday, the soonest that we could get the necessary space and prepare an agenda, prepare facilitators, and manage the logistics. I was also going on vacation the next day. Suddenly we were on!

We had three days to put together a major event. I don’t recommend this! But the speed with which we acted ensured that our efforts were well matched to the community’s needs and desires. Proof of that comes from our registration and attendance figures. We announced the event Sunday morning. By mid-afternoon we had 100 registrants. 24 hours later we were approaching 300. In anticipation, the previous Friday MIT’s Institute Events staff ordered 500 lunches. I estimated we would get 400 attendees. Past diversity events had no-show rates of 20-30%. And this event was being held during the summer, when most undergraduates and many others are away.

Over the last year, graduate interns and a small group of volunteers had worked with me to offer several similar community dialogue discussion luncheons. Our largest event had 200 people for a conversation on race and diversity last December. Expanding the offering to 400 people was impossible with the small staff I had. Fortunately, MIT provided amazing support for logistics, communication, and planning. I’m deeply grateful to Ted Johnson and his team at Institute Events for making this event possible, and to the facilitators who volunteered their time and served the community with great compassion. The preparation we had with the previous smaller events was also important because it provided a workable format and a pool of previous facilitators who could be drawn upon for help.

We planned to have 50 facilitators, with each assigned to a table of 8, for a 90-minute program. Staff from Student Life, MIT Medical, HR, Mental Health and Counseling, and others provided advice on the discussion questions. I scrambled to obtain 50 facilitators, and could not have done it without the help of Alyce Johnson of HR. She also shaped the preparation given to the facilitators, along with Abigail Francis and La-Tarri Canty of the Division of Student Life. We assembled documents providing guidance to the facilitators, many of whom had not previously facilitated a discussion involving issues of race and privilege. About 30 of us met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the program, the organization of the groups, and methods to facilitate difficult conversations. It was an emotional meeting, and proved to be excellent preparation for the larger event.

Among the questions the facilitators discussed was whether to offer some tables that were intended to promote healing for people of color experiencing racism and others that might focus on unpacking privilege. Such groups are often used in social justice settings to provide insight and support. We decided to use only random assignment at this event, but to inform participants that the option might be exercised in the future. As a facilitator noted, we must be ready to try new things — the old methods have not resolved our suffering or eliminated conflict.

There were many details to attend to: preparing campus publicity and security, addressing possible mental health needs, incorporating a prayer session, identifying and working with a few speakers to make remarks to the whole group, determining how to fully include everyone in satellite rooms (our main room seated 330), providing accommodations for people with disabilities, planning for merging groups when we didn’t fill tables, organizing a means for randomly assigning groups and handling the traffic direction, working with the MIT News Office and preparing for the possible presence of outside journalists. At every turn, people stepped up to help. The professionalism of MIT Police, Institute Events, the Campus Activities Complex, Audio Visual Services, MIT Video Production and the Communications office were outstanding. The Working Group on Support Staff Issues volunteered to help Institute Events and to help with distribution of materials to each table. It was a wonderful team effort.

There was one problem: the registration numbers kept growing. By Tuesday afternoon, we had over 550 registrants. Fortunately, we had 54 tables and could seat up to 9 plus the facilitator at each table. I was reasonably confident we would not exceed 540 at the event because past experience suggested we would have enough no-shows to keep us well below this limit. But the registration numbers kept growing. To be safe, on Tuesday night I scrambled to get a few more facilitators. And thankfully, Ted Johnson of Institute Events increased the lunch order to 650. By Wednesday morning, our registration topped 650 and surprisingly few people had contacted me apologizing that they could not attend after all.

Sure enough, we overflowed. But Institute Events was resourceful; we had a spare room, which they quickly set up with a table. Instead of merging tables, we had to create new ones, and some of the tables were crowded. I believe there were 18 lunches left over at the end of the event.

You can get a sense of the event from the News Office story, a student blog, and the remarks of the formal speakers. Later this summer we will summarize the feedback and suggestions made by audience members who wrote comments on index cards; we are analyzing hundreds of responses. However, the real story of the event was in the scores of small-group conversations that took place that day, and the ones that followed as participants left with a sense of solidarity as members of a caring community.

In organizing the event, I shared three goals with the facilitators:

Attendees should leave the event

1. Feeling they are part of a diverse community
2. With improved skills for personal resiliency
3. Feeling they are part of a caring community

While it is difficult to evaluate the extent to which these goals were met, I am confident we made great progress. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, many people have called for more such events, and many would like to learn to facilitate such dialogues within their own work units at MIT. The event followed several very candid blogs by MIT undergraduates about their experiences of racism, showing that the community is ready to openly discuss and deal with issues that have proven very difficult in society at large. The Boston Globe noted the blogs and recognized that MIT has moved to dialogue and community solutions.

I’m deeply grateful to the many people who made this event possible. Besides those individuals and groups listed above, I thank speakers Kester Barrow and DiOnetta Jones Crayton, whose remarks provided a perfect introduction and conclusion to a crucial community conversation.

For anyone wishing to conduct such an event, I encourage you to be ready for emotional exhaustion. At the end of the event I felt completely drained. Be prepared to have the care that you yourself need. Holding the event just before a vacation gave me a much-needed opportunity for recovery.

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