STEM and Social Justice: Applying an Engineering Lens to Social Change Part 2

Written by:

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
Executive Director
National Society of Black Engineers
Emily Williams
Associate Director
Social Justice Initiative, University of Illinois at Chicago

The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) is rooted in social justice. In Part 1 of this blog, we made the case that engineers’ unique, disciplined approach to problem solving can be used not only in areas such as heat transfer and structural dynamics but also more broadly. Applying engineering to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and countless other global and domestic challenges is crucial if we want to improve and save lives.

But for most engineering students or professionals, it’s not often clear how to apply their discipline to redress social problems that are confronting our communities and the developing world. Here are a few suggestions:

Graduate with excellence. Every collegiate and pre-collegiate NSBE member has the same primary goal: to graduate with excellence. Earning a degree with the highest grades possible equips you to conquer social problems and increases your options to apply your skills, interests and passion anywhere.

Be multidisciplinary. The cofounders of #BlackLivesMatter did not simply found a movement on a whim. The idea for the hashtag and the conviction around the need for a movement were the result of studying and learning about black history, black feminism, black politics and queer theory. Broad study and intellectual curiosity have been encouraged and practiced by many of the young activists in the movement. In the same way, engineers can complement their technical and scientific knowledge with knowledge of the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Don’t accept the status quo. Our current world privileges some and subjugates others. This can change. When you invent new technology or perfect an existing model, ask who benefits and who loses from the end result. Will disadvantaged and already marginalized communities be able to access the product? Will the creation of said product or technology irreparably damage our planet? Adopting a sense of social responsibility means thinking about the impact we have on the world.

Find something you’re passionate about. Mike Murdock, in his book “The Assignment: Powerful Secrets for Discovering Your Destiny,” asserts, “What grieves you is a clue to something you’re assigned to heal.” Finding a cause or movement that emotionally fires you up may be a window to your calling, even if you respond by making it an extracurricular activity…for now.

Research what others have done or are doing. Chances are that there are others who share your passion and interest for a certain cause. However, as an engineer, your perspective may bring fresh solutions to the problem. It’s always better to add momentum and diversity of thought to an existing movement than to start a movement of your own.

Connect with communities. The people who are closest to the problems are most aware of what the solutions are and should be. When solving social problems, it’s important to work with individuals who are most affected. What do they want? How do they talk about the issues affecting them?

Seek out advisors. There is safety in numbers, particularly when it comes to the numbers of advisors who can help you avoid “landmines.” There are countless people in our lives who’ve succeeded and failed, and who are willing to offer lessons learned about their experiences. Experience isn’t always the best teacher. Teachers and advisors are!

Build sustainable networks. In her TED talk, Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, draws the distinction between current-day protests and the civil rights movement. The latter took years of planning and organizing, with attention to building communications networks and lasting relationships. Sustainable movements require a commitment to slow and steady organizing and collaborative networks, and not just a rapid assembly of people who are following a hashtag.

Focus relentlessly on data. Sustainable movements answer the “So what?” question with data. What effect will you have, and how can it be measured? Giving attention to metrics and piloting solutions while capturing and sharing data are key to building financial, human and institutional support.

Mentor your successor(s). Many movements rise on the charisma of a singular leader. But these same movements fail when that leader leaves or is removed, for whatever reason. Lasting social change initiatives invest in training and mentoring future leaders.

Social justice matters, for the sustainability of life on this planet and for the healthy development of human civilization. By taking a few steps and asking particular questions, social justice can be viewed through the lens of any career field.

Engineers can create the world we want to live in. In fact, it is up to them, and countless others who are trained to think critically and solve problems, to name injustice, to strategize and to develop informed, thoughtful alternatives. See yourself as an influencer who can catalyze change. Our world depends on it.

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STEM and Social Justice: Applying an Engineering Lens to Social Change

Written by:

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
Executive Director
National Society of Black Engineers
Emily Williams
Associate Director
Social Justice Initiative, University of Illinois at Chicago

Calls for justice for Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner gave rise to Black Lives Matter, a national movement that in one succinct phrase accentuates the value of all African Americans, and particularly those who are most marginalized in communities of color. On college campuses in Missouri, New Haven and Cambridge, diverse student protesters are raising legitimate questions about the racial climate of their local citadels of learning and progressive thought. And in largely African-American Flint, Mich., the neglect by state and federal officials of an environmental disaster may have irreparable repercussions for a generation of young people.

Tragically, these stories aren’t new. One can swap out the contemporary flash-points and replace them with names of historical significance such as Montgomery, Jackson or Watts. In truth, the African-American experience is born out of struggle. Author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls Black Lives Matter a rebirth of the black liberation movement of the ’60s, which itself encapsulated 400 years of striving for equality and justice in America.

Social change is in the air, and it’s being waged with a disciplined approach to effecting justice, social justice.
Defining Social Justice
Social justice is the pursuit of a world in which all people have the opportunity to live decently and free of harm. It is born of the collective understanding that injustice and inequality are endemic to the systems and structures that make up our society. Our world is divided by race, socioeconomic status and other identity markers. Many who advocate for social justice realize that justice will not come for many communities through the criminal justice system or traditional institutions.

Envisioning social justice, we ask ourselves what the world would look like if everyone had access to the resources they needed, if black lives mattered, if violence were not used as a tactic and if the environment were not damaged for profit. Activists, community leaders and everyday people are imagining this world as they fight to end these injustices. It will require creativity, strategy and collective action to create this world. In short, it will require the minds of engineers.

NSBE Is Rooted in Social Justice
The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) is no stranger to social change. The Society was founded in 1975 by six Purdue engineering students who invited other black students from across the country to transform the face of engineering in higher education. In the ensuing 41 years, NSBE — now one of the largest student-led organizations based in the United States — has not only helped graduate tens of thousands of engineers, its 31,000 student and professional members around the globe are at the leading edge of a new cultural movement to transform education and increase participation of blacks in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). NSBE’s vision is to make engineering a mainstream word in homes and communities of color, and its primary strategic goal is to nearly triple the annual number of African-American engineering bachelor’s degree recipients in the U.S. to 10,000 by 2025. This vision and goal will not only have economic ramifications, they are bold statements of social change.

Engineers in Action
By their nature and training, engineers are problem solvers. Their disciplined, creative approach to finding solutions is useful in areas such as heat transfer and structural dynamics but also more broadly.

When news that the community of Flint, Michigan, was being poisoned by lead, bacteria and other harmful substances in its drinking water, the NSBE National Executive Board, in partnership with NSBE Professionals and collegiate chapters in Michigan, launched a national campaign to provide bottled water, water filters and water test kits to the people. More strategically, members of NSBE’s Environmental Engineering Special Interest Group, in collaboration with the American Water Works Association, are lending their technical expertise by educating Flint citizens about water filtration safety and helping to engineer a sustainable solution to the water crisis.

Addressing acute needs such as these while working to find long-term solutions is how we can apply an engineering lens to a social justice problem. And NSBE’s activism in Flint also exemplifies what it means to “positively impact the community,” which is a large part of NSBE’s mission.

In the next installment of this blog, we suggest some ways for engineers to redress social injustice.