What Would Dr. King Do (WWDKD) to Broaden Participation in Science, Engineering and Computing?

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In January 2008, as a Computer Science Professor at Spelman College and Founder of the HBCU ARTSI Alliance for broadening participation in computing,  I gave a keynote speech at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.  Here is my speech with words to honor Dr. King and demonstrate what his teaching means for equity and diversity in technology today.  My speech could be updated to incorporate the Black Lives Matter movement and new technology but I believe the essence of these words ring true today.

If Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today, how would he evaluate where our nation’s African Americans are in their lives? Depending on who you talk to African Americans have made tremendous strides in the areas of education, government, and industry. However, at the same time we face challenges still in the areas of poverty, disease, incarceration, families, and education. The lynchings that occurred in the twentieth century and were chronicled in the recent Denzel Washington movie, the Great Debaters, occur less frequently and as one researcher has stated may occur still in prisons today where African Americans make up an disproportionate percentage of occupants. Because of Dr. King and others who fought for Civil Rights in America, we no longer have the Jim Crow south. Bus boycotts and restaurant sit-ins are no longer required to bring attention to social injustices. Marches on Washington D.C. are not required to bring about laws to insure the right to vote although some may dispute that in some states African Americans need more encouragement to exercise the basic right to vote. Thousands of African Americans lose their right to vote by becoming incarcerated in an “injustice” system that provides longer than needed prison sentences and a prison industry that fuels local economies and “feeds” on our men and women.

Many would point to new levels of wealth and professional status of African Americans and say that justice and fairness in economic settings have been achieved. However we see that African Americans although we make up 13% of the population only represent 7% in high tech jobs and positions. One would ask, why is that? As the Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman College, points out in her book,”Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation” we are moving back to an era of segregated schools with minority schools being less equipped with technology and facilities than affluent, predominately white schools have. We see many historically black colleges lack the teaching and research facilities needed to prepare science students for the new high tech industries being created and to compete in a globally flat economic world.

In the past, if a group that was in power and privileged wanted to discriminate against someone they just had to look at the color of their skin, the ghetto they lived in, or their lack of education. In today’s society, discrimination can take the form of recognizing an “ethnic” name of a child, or looking at their lack of educational pedigree. The disparaties today in education and industry are created not by the old forms of discrimination but the new forms of bias based on a more sophisticated system of educational status, technical knowledge and pedigree. However, with the Civil Rights that Dr. King and others have fought for comes a new “Civil Responsibility”. No longer can we blame outright racism and we can barely point the finger at subtle racism and bias. Today, people can say, well you didn’t graduate from the “right college” or you don’t know and understand technology. We can not blame others if we lack that knowledge just was we can not blame others and violate the law and have to go to prison. And to a large degree we can not blame others if we do not receive a college degree or a graduate degree and lack the necessary qualifications, knowledge, and experience to obtain a high-paying job. Or we can not blame others if we do not take the initiative and don’t seek the know how to create technology, license it, and form a company.

We live in an age of insurmountable technical opportunities today. Even in low-income areas, families own enough computing power in an X-Box, Nintendo Wii, or Playstation that could have easily taken our astronauts to the moon while running multi-billion dollar companies in the 1960s when you look at the speed of the CPUs, the amount RAM, and hard disk storage space today’s gaming devices have compared to the vacuum tube mainframe computers available during the civil rights era. Even in low-income families who own a cell phone, the global communication capabilities that we have in the palm of our hand could have provided telecommunications that put efforts to communicate nationally and internationally in the early 1900’s to shame. The music and video devices a high school student has today represents technology that can contain libraries of educational material to fill up libraries of the past. Our ancestors fought even for the right to learn to read as slaves and former slaves yet our students of today would rather fill their minds with sometimes derogatory music (not my Spelman students) using an iPod rather than using it to fill their minds with the thousand of educational podCasts or downloadable books that are available today. For a few hundred dollars, a person today can buy a terabyte of information and data storage. This would easily contain the data and information that a company like IBM possessed in all of its mainframe computers that ran its company just 20 years ago.

Why is it that any person, including women and African Americans, who are users of this superior computing, telecommunication, internet, and electromechanical technology able to use this technology to improve their own economic and job condition? Why is it that you look at jobs and companies today in the high tech industry you see so few African Americans and women in engineering positions?

In order to answer that question, Iʼd like to share a couple interesting experiences I had this year. This summer I had the unique privilege to meet and talk to some of our leaders in the information technology industry, Serge Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google and Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. I was invited to the Google Faculty Summit and during the question and answer session I asked Serge this question: “How can a company, such as Google, say that diversity is important and needed, if it is already successful without a lot of diversity?”. He acknowledged that Google was not where they should be in the areas of hiring women and African Americans in engineering. He said that they realized from the beginning that if they did not make a concerted effort they were in danger of not having a diverse company because when they started their company, they had around 20 white, males. If you visit the main campus you will see it has not changed much although Google is making some efforts to recruit women and African Americans to Google. However, if you ever talk to a student that has been interviewed by Google, they would tell you that the technical questions that are asked can be extremely challenging, even to a college professor, and its easy to see why African Americans and women can be excluded legally. I heard one of our HBCU professors recall how their students weren’t hired for permanent positions because it was reported that they weren’t “Googly” enough.

Apple is a supporter and sponsor of our Spelman College all-women, African American, Robocup robotics team, the SpelBots and through that support also supports our ARTSI Alliance which we will talk about in our next session. Our SpelBots were invited this past November to do a presentation at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute. While we were in the Bay area we got to visit Apple. This was the second time during one of my visits to Apple someone pointed out Steve Jobs walking in the cafeteria during lunch. The first time, out of respect to my host, I resisted the urge to try to meet Steve. The second time was too much of a temptation for me to resist. But this second time, my host pointed out that he was walking with Jony Ives. Does anyone know who he is? I didn’t either. But my host explained that Jony Ives was his right hand man industrial designer who designed some little known devices called iPods, iMacs, and iPhones. So I used a strategy that I had learned from a buddy when he was trying to meet Tiger Woods. If you have ever been at a golf tournament with Tiger playing it’s almost impossible to get his autograph. But my buddy decided he would try to go talk to and get the autograph of his Caddy, Steve Williams. And before you know it, Tiger came up and granted the autograph. So I decided to use the same strategy and went up to Jony Ives and told him how much I admired his work (honestly, who doesn’t admire his work with the iPhone?). Then, as I strategically hoped, Steve Jobs came up to me. I told him I was telling Jony how much I admired his work. I told him I was visiting Apple because Apple supported our robotics team at Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black college for women. Steve asked me, “Do you have engineering there?”. I explained to him that we have a dual engineering program with universities such as Georgia Tech and University of Michigan. He said, “Can you help us get black engineers? You know how many he have?”. Since Apple is one of our supporters I won’t say his answer out loud but in so many short but intense words Steve let me know that there was much room for improvement. He then gave me his email address and told me to let him know if I had any ideas. One thing that I have found with Apple is that once they learned about our robotics team, they sought us out to get to know about our students, supported us, and sought to build genuine academic-industry relationships with our faculty and students and continue to do so. I’m proud to say that one of our Spelman students, the captain of our SpelBots team will be working with them this summer. This to me is very positive example of how a company can stem the tide against subtle racism and discrimination in the high tech industry. Companies such as Apple, Seagate, and iRobot, are supporting our efforts to broaden participation in computing in our new ARTSI alliance we are announcing today.

So what lessons can we learn from Dr. King in this new age of disparity in the high tech age. How did Dr. King unite African Americans and many white americans to fight for Civil Rights of African American individuals? How can we use those same lessons to fight for a broader participation of African Americans in the high tech age of information and robotics. To determine this, I’d like to turn our attention to Dr. King’s involvement in the Birmingham bus boycott and his non-violent campaign that is spoken about in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

Dr. King was a young Baptist minister who first acknowledged his call to the ministry while he was a student at Morehouse College. He went to a seminary in Ohio and then went on to earn his doctorate from Boston University. In those days, seminaries in the south did not welcome blacks to study about Moses or Jesus in their classrooms. It’s ironic that those who taught about the Greatest Lover of Mankind that ever lived would not extend that same love to their own Christian brother.

Dr. King and his wife Coretta accepted a call to serve at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Jim Crow Montgomery, Alabama. It was there on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (for whom our youngest daughter is named after) decided not to move to the back of the bus in the reserved “white” section. From there E.D. Nixon along with Rev. Ralph Abernathy planned The Montgomery Bus Boycott that was designed to end segregated busing.

Dr. King later moved to Atlanta where his Civil Rights leadership continued. In 1963, he led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to protest Jim Crow in Birmingham. King writes, “In the entire country, there was no place to compare with Birmingham. The largest industrial city in the South, Birmingham…was a community in which human rights had been trampled on for so long that fear and oppression were as thick in its atmosphere as the smog from its factories… The challenge to nonviolent direct action could not have been staged in a more appropriate arena.

Eight of the local white ministers in Birmingham wrote to Dr. King calling for an end to the demonstrations. They called his actions “unwise and untimely”. Dr. King wrote a letter to them explaining what his actions were and why they were needed.

From the Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes, “Non-violent direct action seeks to creates such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored”. In other words, Dr. King was saying, create tension for attention.

Dr. King outlined the four steps in a nonviolent campaign for justice and peace:

Step 1. Collect facts on injustice.

Step 2. Negotiate with those committing the injustice to see if it can be ended.

Step 3. Self-Purification, or self-examination to see if one is ready to endure the ramifications of taking direct action to end the injustice (e.g beating or prison).

Step 4. Direct Action to bring the injustice to everyone’s attention.

King wrote: “So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community. We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through the process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, “are you able to accept the blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?”

King also wrote, “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of PREJUDICE and RACISM to the majestic heights of UNDERSTANDING and BROTHERHOOD.” How does this apply in the absence of a Jim Crow system. I would say, today our problems in education and economics are often LOW EXPECTATIONS and LACK OF OPPORTUNITY. We should want to change Low expectations to MOTIVATION and RECOGNIZED POTENTIAL. We want to change lack of opportunity to the presence of opportunity in education and economics. The illegal injustices of yesterday have turned into the legal disparities of today. THE ILLEGAL INJUSTICES OF YESTERDAY HAVE TURNED INTO THE LEGAL DISPARITIES OF TODAY.

Dr. King went through the four steps of a nonviolent campaign in Birmingham. He and his colleagues reviewed the facts and it was obvious that there was injustice in Birmingham. They met with the elders of the city to see if the problem could be resolved. They had a workshop to decide if they could withstand beatings without hitting back or go to prison for what they believed in. Then they took the direct action…they didn’t ride another city bus until the boycott ended. Sound simple? Could you live without your main source of transportation, for most of us it’s a car? Or looking at the other struggles during the civil rights movement. Could you allow yourself to be punched and kicked just because you were a certain race? Have you ever been punched in the face? Kicked? Beaten? Put in Jail? Probably did not feel too good. What about the others in the rest of the south that lived, bled and died for the Civil Rights Movement and the end to legalized injustice. For many, the fight is not over. But the fight that we are taking on is a fight against in education and more specifically in computer science and engineering:

1. Lack of opportunities to learn cutting edge technology through educational and research opportunities,

2. Lack of interest, encouragement, and motivation, and

3. Lack of role models and mentors.

We live in a world dominated by technology and most in our community are technology consumers but not technology producers. We want to be part of the process to produce technology producers who will get graduate degrees in computer science and engineering and robotics and then educate and train others to prepare them for educational opportunities, industry opportunities, and entrepreneurship opportunities which lead to economic opportunities. Implicit in this process is the character development of a student who needs to learn character qualities of integrity, perseverance, knowledge, wisdom, and ingenuity to succeed a rigorous academic program. We want to encourage our students to dream technology dreams that can improve society. We want them to see the value of science and mathematics and how it applies to discovering new theories that can lead to new applications of those theories to improve the human condition. We want to expose them to research that will whet their appetite to study at a graduate school like Glenn Nickens who did a summer NSF REU you this past summer with Professor David Touretzky at Carnegie Mellon in robotics and is now at graduate school at Norfolk State University. After all, research is the contribution to knowledge. And technology is the application of knowledge to improve the human condition. This is what we are seeking to do with the ARTSI Alliance. Advancing Robotics Technology for Societal Impact. ARTSI involves Education and Research in robotics centered around improving our society in the areas of healthcare, the arts, and entreprenuership.

So how can we use Dr. King’s model for a non-violent campaign to bring about social change in the area of technology education and economics?

Step 1: Collect facts about injustice, or disparities.

You see now we are not fighting prejudice as much as we are fighting low expectations. We are not fighting racism so much as we are fighting lack of opportunity. While our forefathers were fighting with MLK to combat prejudice and racism to lead to understanding and brotherhood, we can fight low expectations and lack of opportunity so that we can produce students with recognized potential and educational opportunity. How can a person learn about robotics if they do not have access to a robot and a robotics lab equipped with relevant software on their computers, wireless network, robotics curriculum, technical support, and a knowledgeable instructor? I don’t need to cite statistics for you and I to know that the average African American does not have access to this kind of learning and technology today.

Step 2: Negotiate.

We can seek to negotiate with companies, industry, and foundations as well as research centers to help us in providing the resources to make this happen. I’m happy to report that companies like Seagate, iRobot, and Apple are partnering with us in this effort. But to provide these opportunities at more of the over 100 HBCUs we need more companies and organizations to join in.

Step 3: Self-Purification

Self-purification means different things for different people:

  • Industry – realize talent can come from anywhere (like Spike Lee says) and educational pedigree is not necessarily the determining factor for success. Their are other indicators of success.
  • Faculty – We have to look at ourselves, and see if we can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

I wasn’t initially trained to be a robotics expert. I had to use what all of us are born with, the ability to learn, to acquire new knowledge or invent new technology. Maybe to some of you I am a robotics expert but compared to half of this faculty in the ARTSI Alliance, I know very little although my area of expertise is in the area of artificial intelligence. Each of us may look at ourselves and see where we lack the expertise or the motivation to learn new things and make changes in this situation. But this is the self-purification process that our faculty have to face. But for most HBCU computer science faculty, robotics, for example is a new area. An even robotics faculty that know robotics only know a few areas in robotics extremely well. So it’s a team problem. We all have to work together. We all have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable as we go through the group learning process together.

Step 4: Direct Action

We need to take direct action. We can not be passive and expect a change in our country’s condition. This is not just a black-white issue. This is an issue of our countryʼs global economic survival. People, in our country, are our nation’s greatest resource. This human resource is going to waste if we do not invest in every aspect of human capital in our country including African Americans and women. The direct action our alliance is taking includes P.E.E.R. Team projects, Developing curriculum materials, training faculty in robotics, reaching out to our communities to expose them to robotics, creating innovative projects the involve using robots for healthcare, the arts, and entrepreneurship.

As a united community, we can help more African Americans to value and use computer science and engineering, in general, and robotics, specifically, as a means to contribute to knowledge (research), heal people (medicine), create inventions (arts and sciences), and generate wealth (economics). I confess, I am a dreamer…Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to be a dreamer. With the ARTSI Alliance we have some ambitious goals to increase the number of students who pursue computer science and robotics education and research training to improve society using robotics in healthcare, the arts, and entrepreneurship. But like Dr. Benjamin Mays, the former President of Morehouse College said, “It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy of life lies in having no goal to reach.” I leave you with this last question: What Would Dr. King Do (WWDKD)?



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