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.