|Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
National Society of Black Engineers
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.