How do you define diversity in 150 words or less?

Diversity is agency. Let me offer an example as explanation.

I experience daily the reality of underrepresented minority matriculation at Berkeley. 3.8% are Black, 7.1% are Latino/Chicano, and >1% are Native, compared with to 6.6%, 38.2%, and 1.7% in California. We who do attend, experience racial microaggressions which make us wonder if we even belong. We feel powerless to reverse the trend of university matriculation. The larger diversity conversation concerns the admittance of minorities, and not their better cultural inclusion once they arrive.

This lack of inclusion mirrors the superficial definition of diversity, which formative institutions have espoused. In truth, this definition doesn’t give minority communities a voice.

True diversity is acknowledging that people from varied backgrounds deserve a seat at the table to solve our collective issues. Their expertise, their viewpoints, and their input is valid, and should be sought by those who have the power to do so.

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I, Too, Am America: Making All Students Feel Like They Belong

First posted in Education Week.


Is what I’m doing making a difference?

I ask myself that question almost every day as I zip across my elite university’s campus to my next class, meeting, or conference.

Though I hope to be recognized for my research and my contributions to society, some days I can’t shake the particular realities of being a black man in academia. It doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does, the memory sticks. Take the time some well-meaning black parents asked me for directions to an engineering building here at the University of California, Berkeley, and then exclaimed, “Wow, a black Berkeley student. Times sure have changed!”

I’ve encountered this type of disbelief throughout my life. Whether it was when I was placed in the gifted and talented program at Centennial Lane Elementary School in suburban Ellicott City, Md., which had a majority of white and Asian students, or finishing multivariate calculus in senior year at a high school with the same demographic makeup, well-meaning people consistently told me how extraordinary I was. In fact, so many commented that I started questioning my own authenticity. What exactly makes me so exceptional? Why didn’t I see more people like me excelling? Do I truly belong here?

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who feels this way. A recent campus-climate surveyshows minorities at Berkeley are more likely than nonminorities to experience exclusionary conduct. What would make people feel this way, you might ask? Words and actions known as micro-aggressive behavior, much like the quip from the well-meaning parents, offer omnipresent examples.

I’ve talked to people across campus about this issue: alumni who were in my position a few years ago, sympathetic professors who have struggled for acceptance for years, and colleagues who want to build community. These talks helped me notice another unfortunate trend: Not only do minority students feel excluded, they also feel powerless to do anything to enact change.

Looking for a way to respond, I decided to get involved in the “I, Too, Am Berkeley”campaign. A few months ago, students at Harvard University started the “I, Too, Am …” movement, with Oxford, Princeton, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and many other institutions following. The movement drew attention to current issues of race, culture, religion, and their intersection on the academic stage by highlighting students of color and their concerns at higher education institutions. Even today, education, it seems, is not a cure for institutional racism.

Not everyone on the side of change is for the movement; many have argued that the campaign doesn’t solve the issues it exposes. A good friend told me how little faith she had in “I, Too, Am Berkeley” a few weeks ago. To her, “Doing the other things (marching, Twitter campaigns, etc.) is a waste of time … well, if it results in no change.” She raises an important point.

But the effort has done at least one exceptionally important thing: It has shown that, even in the breeding grounds for the future leaders of the world, even with the gains that have been made in our society, we people of color still feel injustices we shouldn’t have to. Even more importantly, some folks seem to be paying attention to the conversation.

Let’s share some perspective. On May 17, the nation celebrates the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka—the ruling that struck down racially separate educational facilities as inherently unequal, paving the way for school integration.

Brown marked a turning point for our nation, but we should not forget America’s deeper history. The black American community did not have equal rights under the law in America since its earliest days, three centuries before Brown. Moreover, the very structures which stand today, that serve as foundations of American society, were inextricably tied to the slave economy, even the very academic institutions we frequent today.

Not surprisingly, many institutions haven’t been ecstatic to talk about their connections with slavery. Sven Beckert, a professor of American history at Harvard who led a project on the university’s connections with slavery, told The New York Times last year, “There has been no effort to make this into a broader discussion.” However, I agree with the historians about one thing: The subtext behind these historical questions has a direct relationship with the academic minority’s current struggles. The main question is: Are schools—K-12 through higher education—doing everything they can to make minorities feel they truly belong? The “I, Too, Am…” movement serves as evidence to the contrary.

edweek stock photo

What then, can be done better? One idea is to open up the larger discourse about America’s real connections to institutional racism and xenophobia, instead of assuming the racial and cultural realities of our society are former issues solved by a set of civil rights laws. The quicker we understand as a community how massive inequities have been built into the American system, the more time we can spend fixing real issues.

Moreover, because affirmative action is hotly debated in our society, might I suggest an addition to the discourse? A majority of the race issues concerning academia focus upon the integration of different races, cultures, and creeds into our universities. What isn’t included in the conversation is a movement toward true inclusion, toward making sure minority communities and students of all ages feel that they truly belong.

Racial and cultural micro-aggressions are actions taught in our society; and just like many other social norms, they can be untaught. These discussions about race and culture should happen on a larger scale, so people can unlearn ignorant actions, phrases, and traditions in our society. By developing fruitful discussions about cultural tensions in our communities, we might make some progress. It might incite change we never thought possible.

I know I don’t have all the answers, so I welcome solutions from all who want to make a difference. If you want to be involved, I do suggest two simple things: Reflect on your own racial privilege, and learn to listen. It’s obvious, by the “I, Too, Am …” campaigns that our generation is ready to talk.

The real question is: Will you pay attention?

Fireside Chat: What’s your leadership recipe?

fireside

When being in a leadership role, what are some ways to know when to be firm towards a particular situation, and when to be encouraging. Is it better to be a firm leader, a friendly leader, or a mixture of both?

 

A good brother asked me this recently, and I thought I’d share a more nuanced answer here for all of you.

If you remember anything from this post, remember this:

Relationships are not recipes.

Many blogs we’re used to are addicted to giving you advice that works like a recipe. Think about it: how many blogs have you seen this year that have a list attached to them? Count it you’d like; it might take a while. Take 1/4 cup sympathy, 3/4 pounds of wisdom, a pinch of reality, and heat until 450 degrees, and your life will be perfect. Even if the authors didn’t mean for their columns to be cure-alls, they’re sure read that way by our society.

In the world we live in, however, that type of post is dangerous. Many situations are much too complicated to ascribe advice towards without more context.

That being said, when acting as a leader, how should your leadership style change? Let me give you a few examples. If what I’ve done.

 

One certain instance was during my Aerospace design course, where we learn how to design a 777 Boeing jet equivalent. At the start of the class, we had to decide which students would take over which aspects of the project.

In many instances during my coursework, like this one, I’ve been in groups where other students were all too scared to make the first move. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable, it’s that empty space before a decision is made was too pregnant with insecurity.

In this situation, we were trying to decide who would be the leader of the group; and noone felt compelled. I decided to raise my voice, and become the leader for the semester. Mind you, I wouldn’t gain any recognition for leading the project, everyone was just interested in graduating. I did it, however, because I knew someone needed to step into the position to get it done.

The task was more than just delegation, however; throughout the entire semester, the leader had to tie up loose ends that didn’t have a home in any of the other positions the other students held. Believe me, I cleaned up many loose ends, I learned on the fly optimization coding, center-of-mass calculations, and more I can’t recall. Just because I did these things, however, didn’t mean I was better than anyone else; I just had a different position, and I had to respect all the other group members for the experience they were bringing to the table.

What’s that an example of? Firmness. But also, servitude towards the cause, and a clear understanding of one’s own capabilities.

 

However, leadership come in the form of mentorship as well. In the metaphorical body of success, if networking is the skeleton, then mentorship is the lifeblood. To do it well, it requires understanding, an open ear, precious time, and many times, a closed mouth. Your mentee came not just to hear your input, but to speak her mind.

Many of my mentees ask for help from me not because their problem is complex, but because there’s no one else available at the time to keep their ears open about the issues. Understanding their space in their issue, and making them feel like someone considers them valuable, is important in any mentor-mentee relationship.

However, firmness might be necessary; mentees might come to you to hear the piece of honesty they know they won’t get from anyone else. It might taste bitter when first heard, but they know, and you know, it’s good for them in the end.

Mentors are not meant to be heroes; a symbolic representation of important tenets that you hold dear. They can have both aspects of firmness and kindness; in fact thats probably why mentees come to them in the first place.


 

So, what does this all mean? Let’s go back to the cooking metaphor; you might have a recipe, but if you’re doing it well, you’re really cooking like my mother. You add what feels right, you practice it a LOT, and you learn from your mistakes. Because, mistakes are bound to happen.

So, is your leadership recipe, firm, or compassionate? Or both? What else is involved?

Who knows? Just get cooking.

The New School of Chivalry

Stop a moment, before you read the rest of this blog.

Ask yourself: Do you believe in chivalry? I’m not asking if you think chivalry has died; that question has been all but beaten to death.

Instead, I’m asking this: do you believe chivalry in our society is a good thing? Why, exactly, do you think so?

Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The idea of chivalry never fully vibed with me. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that it’s a touchy topic, and it’s been a cultural undercurrent for modern society, even since many have claimed its demise. I’ve been immersed in its practices since I was born, and being chivalrous has become second nature. However, I never really had the best reasons for doing it (besides, of course, being scared of being punished by my parents). It always felt a bit peculiar that there was a collection of actions that we should do for the opposite sex, just because they are a member of the opposite sex.

Why open the doors for women when they get out of cars, but not for men? Why help my mother with her coat when we leave a restaurant, but not my father? Why walk on the side of the street closest to the car with my girlfriend, but not for my brothers? I decided to keep doing the actions, but I couldn’t blame others for deciding against them. The reasons I was always told  were a bit hollow; that they were not based on philosophical grounding. Unfortunately, the popular arguments I heard were hardly convincing.

Many people argue we need it in our society more than ever. It reminds us of ‘traditional’ values, of a time when there are understood roles, and actions through which men and women were meant to act within. However, in the growing age of LGBTQIA+ agency, we must realize the world isn’t only filled with cisgendered heterosexual people. We must strive to develop a more nuanced code of actions than traditional chivalry affords. Moreover, with the powerful presence of feminism in our society, many people argue that chivalrous acts, previously done by men, can be happily done by women, for themselves. The point here is, why hold our modern society to a code of rigid, problematic values stuck in yesteryear?

On the other side of the coin, why not get rid of chivalry altogether? Much of the argument is as follows: if women aim to be equal, they should be treated as such; thus, men should treat women the same way they treat their brother. This argument, however, is overly idealistic and callous: it fails to acknowledge the systematic sexism and patriarchy that has occurred in society for millennia. It’s disrespectful to the people who live, today, in the aftermath of such subjugation; it doesn’t acknowledge the invisible privilege that men have exercised for generations.

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Probably not the old school they were hoping for. Source

Moreover, I think the argument fails to acknowledge the main point behind chivalrous acts: the acts are nice things to do; and it’s a way we’ve learned to acknowledge our fellow human beings; to show respect to people with whom we exist in this world. That respect and acknowledgement seems to be what’s missing in our society as a whole.

When people want chivalry back, I don’t think they really want it because it’s ‘old school.’ I feel like, instead, we harken for a time when individual relationships, no matter how fleeting, were cherished. Chivalry was a means to that end, no matter how problematic.

So, what’s a good man to do? Ascribe to outdated roles of action and communication, or cast off years of systematic oppression by acting as if men and women are equal? Neither option seemed like a correct way to live my life.

Until I saw a particular video short named Minute Man, made by the ingenious YouTube studio, BlackNSexyTV. Made to be a short talk show for men, by men, and with men, they talk about present issues which plague the Black American man in society. The topic of discussion was if a man should pay for the date. Take a second and watch the brothers.

Though I agreed with some points, and opposed others, I appreciated the presence of the conversation. However, I then heard one of the brothers, at about 4:36 into the video, say ‘…I say first date, man pays… because at the end of the day… women go through a lot of shit, on a daily basis…’ 

For me, that’s all it took. The linchpin for new chivalry. It’s not about harkening to the past, or aiming for some ahistorical actions of equality. Its about understand the society we live in today.

The truth is, the types of things women have to do every single day to gain social acceptance would make the average man’s head spin. Women get paid less, they are forced into physical impossibilities engendered by the media, and across the globe, they are treated as second class citizens, as the invisible linchpins of society.

I realized, anything I can do to show respect, to show alliance with the plight of women in society, is worth doing. The basis of chivalry can be shifted; instead of focusing on an ahistorical reading of sexual equality, or focusing on outdated roles of conduct, we can redefine chivalry. I can do chivalrous acts because I consistently acknowledge, and act as an ally for, the systematically marginalized. In this new ideal, chivalry is not charity. I do these nice things to make your day a little bit better, because the world has had it out for women for generations.

However, if we can redefine chivalry, we should adapt it to the world today. We should have real conversations about what chivalry actually means: about which aspects of chivalry should be kept around, and which should be discarded. Should certain respectful acts be culturally coded by gender? What if both people are nearly broke, and go out on a date? Should we all wait until our partners open and close car doors for each other?

I can’t answer these questions, and maybe I’m not meant to. These revelations aren’t fully developed, and they’re my internal rationalizations, no one else’s. However it manifests into real actions, I believe in three common threads:

(1) actions should express respect for others in society,

(2) how you show respect should be your decision, and

(3) the codes of conduct should be as fluid as the society in which we inhabit.

Living our lives by an unchangeable code could get us caught in the same problems of ‘old chivalry.’

Our world is not equal, and changes by the second. and fighting against this inequality must be done with every action. Kill the system with kindness, as it were. Here’s the real point: it pays to be a good person. The world has too many other problems with inequality; it makes little sense to argue against actions which make the world a little more livable.

Many people have spent their whole lives fighting against chivalry. Try buying into the new school of chivalry, and respect your fellow human through your actions. You might even find your own reasons for enrolling in the new school.

Emotional Walls and Personal Stories; or, why Awkward Queues Might Spark your Eureka Moment

We live in a world of communicative hypocrisy: we strive to be connected, but have to keep certain walls up when we interact with most of society. In our world, it’s understandable: we all move so fast, and interact with more strangers than we care to admit on a daily basis. You want to make sure that you separate the wheat from the chaff.

I’ll argue today, that you might want to let your walls down. Just a bit, for the right occasions.

When? I’m not even sure.

For who? You have to keep your eyes open for that.

But why? You have so much to offer, and the world has more to offer than you’d expect.

Earlier this winter break, I caught myself rushing through security at Dulles airport recently, and by chance, I found out my flight home had been delayed, so much so that my connecting flight would be missed. I was already confused; I hadn’t flown out of Dulles for a couple of years, and it already got lost in the terminals. Needless to say, I wasn’t in the best of moods. To find out more information, I went to the gate, and found almost every passenger in line, looking to reschedule their flights.

Now, these lines are an interesting social experiment. An airplance requires complete strangers to share an equally awkward space together for hours at a time, but delays highten the experience for everyone. Such a waiting line gives us a collective enemy: the airline. We’re stuck in a type of limbo; we want to express contempt with our bad situation, but don’t want to let our walls down for these unfamiliar people.

I found a young brother next to me, who shows up as distraught as I was about the flight. His story is already worse: he told me he just flew from Abu Dhabi. He seemed even more interesting, when I heard him on the phone with relatives: he spoke Arabic with one set of relatives, and Japanese in another. But, I heard his accent, and it was decidedly American. I find out his family has moved around like an Army Brat, and he just started his first semester at Georgia Tech. He talked a bit about his high school in Abu Dhabi, and how it had a graduating class of eighty, two student of which were sons of billionaires. Racially diverse, but economically alike; an interesting dynamic. I passed my business card his way, and we eventually parted.

He noticed my blog, and I checked out his as well. Now, I noticed something amazing when I checked out his blog. It seemed like he was unsure about what to write, or if anyone wanted to listen to his viewpoint.

Mind you, I was more than a bit speechless at this finding. This young kid probably has more stamps in his passport than a novice UN Ambassador, and he was wondering what makes his opinions any more unique than the people around him.

I’ve noticed this trend with many of my friends. I hear of their backgrounds, their exploits, their fears, their struggles, and their victories; and they rarely understand how unique their stories are. Moreover, they fail to understand how they can use their individual stories to explain their passions, their goals, and their beliefs.

  • One of my younger Morehouse brothers told me about how he was basically economically self-sufficient for most of his existence before adulthood: he played dice and sold candy to make ends meet. He’s aiming to become an entrepreneur with an engineering background, and is currently working to find graduate programs which give him such an opportunity. He recently asked me if I thought he was ready for grad school; I realized he’s more ready for the grind than the average honors graduate.
  • Another great confidante wonders daily if she has what it takes to apply to, and make it through, medical school. I’ve never seen a larger anatomical geek in my life: and names organelles  with ease and guesses diagnoses when I’m ill to keep her busy. Passion incarnate.
  • One of my great friends travels the globe at a whim, to visit friends and to make new ones. Last year, she went on a world tour through Nepal, Tokyo, Haiti, her home country, and probably five other places I can’t remember. As a User Experience engineer at Google, she’s interested in understanding how culture informs design, and I told her she should do a TED Talk someday. She then wondered to me aloud, that she wouldn’t know where to start. Needless to say, I was more than a bit surprised.

It’s not that people understand how unique they are from everyone else; it’s that few people I know have critically looked at their own experiences, and worked out how those experiences turned them into the person they are today.  Make those connections, and you might find out some things about yourself you didn’t know before.

So, I’m here to say it now: your story is unique, it matters, and it has made you into the person you are today. Learning how to harness your experiences, into powerful storytelling is a masterful skill.

The first step, paradoxically, might be letting your walls down long enough to talk to a random stranger in a queue.  Start a conversation; who knows what might happen? Given time, a little light might even shine in.

Representation Matters

Chart

Even today, students obtaining PhDs in science and engineering are homogeneous. How do you combat this inequity? Data obtained from the NSF.

Representation matters. It’s a cold reality: an important influence on what young students do with their lives is if someone like them is in their dream career. If a young black boy from the Southside of Chicago sees its their whole community is obsessed with basketball, it’s likely he’ll develop hoop dreams. Unfortunately for science and technology, the inverse is also true: young brown boys and girls won’t become academic experts if they don’t see a relatable expert while they grow up. As you can see, the newly-deemed experts in science and technology are by and large racially homogeneous.

So why, as a 2nd year PhD student, am I an exception? By the prayers of my loved ones, and through the tough love of PhD-based pipeline programs.

I stepped on the red clay hills of Morehouse College during New Student orientation, horribly tired from my experience in the drumline at Band Camp. I only felt hurried confusion: unable to understand which meetings were important and which were marginal, I visited all of them. It was a bit of a harrowing experience, and acrid heat felt alien on my skin business . My parents made me fell as welcome as possible, but it helped little, when I knew in a few days they would travel back home.

Enter Rahmelle Thompson, a doctorate of veterinary medicine and the newly inducted director of the John H. Hopps Defense Research Scholars Program. I entered the small room on the third floor of the biology building and met a short, vivacious motherly figure aching to meet the new students. I timidly went to the front and introduced myself. She could tell, like all the other students there, that I was nervous. And, she uttered words I remember to this day: “It’s okay, I’ll be your second mother.” Little did I know then how true that statement would become.

Any parent wants to make sure his or her child is taken care of in college. Although Mother Morehouse proudly indoctrinates the importance of brotherhood into each of her students, the school does even more: it builds entire second families. Dr. Thompson, in fact, did become my second mother: even after I had left for my second institution, coming back to visit meant another set of errands to run, important people to meet, a pressing meetings to attend. At the same time, she asked for our advice on the program’s development, and cared for us like we were all her own children. She’s still one of the first people I visit when I’m in the city.

As one of the twenty-three inaugural scholars in the program, we found solace in other students that were interested in math, science, engineering, and technology. It was a bit jarring for me, however, that so many of my future classmates were as interested in the science as I was; most of the black students I remembered hated the school system they were forced to be a part of. I asked How will I fare against these exceptional anomalies? Who will care if I fail? Can I do all these things I dream to accomplish? Who, like me, has done it before?

Representation matters.

To keep myself grounded, I made the Hopps Scholars program a professional priority. Fortunately, the program sent us through the wringer from the beginning. Our weekly meetings introduced us to the basics of succeeding in PhD programs, from graduate school applications to looking for jobs after graduation. The program willed us to conduct summer research every summer were involved in the program, and research while in school in Atlanta-based research institutions, including Morehouse, Spelman College, Emory University, and Georgia Tech. The program also willed us to present our research in a variety of locales, both in oral and poster presentations.

A few of my brothers visiting the First AME Church of Los Angeles.

A few of my brothers visiting the First AME Church of Los Angeles.

The program brought me and my colleagues, free of charge, to MIT and to the National Institute of Technology to complete research, to conferences stateside and abroad to present said research, and across the country to explore graduate opportunities.

Now, it might seem that such a program was wholly positive, but it’s a more complex issue. In my experience, I’ve never seen a program like it which propels black males toward terminal degrees. In fact, America hasn’t seen it before or since. At our zenith, the program held just shy of 100 black male students intent upon getting the doctorate. In the event that our year all received our PhD’s at the same time, we would be responsible for increasing the amount of PhD’s by 2.5%*. That was disappointing, and empowering, at the same time.

As expected, people we interacted with reacted… abnormally… to our program. I remember one visit in Seattle when he had a bit of time to wander the city after research and corporate tours and visits. We visited a few restaurants and gift shops, donned in our business attire. ‘Amazing!’ the shop owner asked. I should have caught her incredulity there, but she went further. ‘Are you all a basketball team?’

I should have expected as much. I’m just shy of 5’8”, and our median height was probably a few inches taller than I was. I’m what you would call an ‘energy’ player on the court: all passion, no skill. Why couldn’t we be seen as the scholars we were? These strangers weren’t trying to be offensive; they only deduced what we were, based upon what is typical. For forty black traveling college students, what else was possible? Unfortunately, these experiences were more of the norm instead of the exception.
Incredulity, confusion, and amazement were the main emotions we experienced from the people we interacted with. We experienced every emotion, except for unambiguous acceptance.

Representation matters.

The Hopps Scholars program, and pipeline programs like it, are important for another whole set of reasons. The people who make decisions about which programs are high priorities, which research projects are funded, and which scientific issues are pressing concerns of our age. A cold reality in the United States is, the representatives who wield such power is of a wholly homogeneous racial background.  It isn’t just in doctorates in science and technology: it’s relevant in Fortune 500 CEOs, and members of the United States Congress. There’s an obvious disconnect here.

I speak to my colleagues from other universities about Hopps, but most of my peers never had the chance for such an opportunity. Such organizations gave our community a competitive advantage for the graduate school experience; other underrepresented communities should have the same opportunity. Unfortunately, our public priorities disagree. organizations which correct inequities in our society, which would contribute to the economic, scientific, and social fabric of our community are under attack. The national news is rife with information about public school closings in Philadelphia and Chicago. Programs like Hopps do their best to change that, but cutting programs like Hopps by a quarter of its funds threaten to destroy the country as we will know it.

I won’t beat around the bush: the Hopps Scholars program is the seminal reason why I am where I am today, working towards a doctorate at one of the greatest public universities in the world. It’s also why, in my minimal free time, I choose to give back to my community: I understand it took multiple villages to raise me, and in return, communities must see my position of opportunity to contribute to villages locally and abroad.

  • I’ve worked as a tutor for the GRE and the SAT for over half a year as a part of Sherwood Test Prep, teaching students basics, tips, and tricks of getting into college and graduate school.
  • As the president of the Black Graduate Engineers and Graduate Students, I’ve contributed to the Bay Area Science Fair by teaching students of all ages the importance of engineering and science disciplines on our everyday lives.
  • I’ve also participated in the Bay Area Scientists in Schools initiative, by teaching elementary school students the importance and basics of green energy.
A few students learning about thermodynamics, and making ice cream from our NSBE/BGESS team.

A few students learning about thermodynamics, and making ice cream from our NSBE/BGESS team.

I promise I’m not bragging; I wish we could all do more to give back.The truth is, these matters of representation require soldiers willing to take the hardest step: to show up, and be seen. What will you do to fight these inequities?

*Check out the statistics for doctoral recipients for the past few years here.

Questions with Obvious Answers: The Danger of Reframing and Oversimplifying Poverty

A less acknowledged poverty expert.

A less acknowledged poverty expert.

People fail to understand the power of expertise.

In my personal experience, it is more visible in some situations than in others. My academic background, as you see from my personal pages, is one of natural sciences and of engineering. One thing which frustrates me to no end is how averse the Western community is to science topics. I can understand individuals being good at a particular topic; but an entire society? Ignorance on such a scale is a symptom of many types of ignorance our society condones.

However, on the other side of the coin, I noticed people in our society are willed to be well versed in the other social sciences and the humanities. It’s a given in our society: everyone has an opinion on historical politics, how to fix the economy, and why social ills exist, or what to do to fix them.

I intend to rail against both types of ignorance.

What started this little tirade? One of my Morehouse brothers shared a thought-provoking essay on my Facebook news feed, which spoke about the reality of poverty. The essay writes about unfortunate cognitive truths about the lack of accepting poverty in our society. If we accept poverty, though, and make it a part of our knowledge, then we should do something about it.

I understand the mindset, as it is one I’ve been through as well. Growing up in an upper-middle class community with one of the greatest public school systems in the United States, with parents who are lawyers, and an education fully paid for by scholarships puts me squarely in the category of Western privilege. Because of these circumstances, I felt it made sense to devote my research and career to issues which help the impoverished.

But, here’s where the mistake of the commons seeps in. There are a lot of mistaken assumptions with what the article says, and it felt too wrong not to deconstruct them.

The article, in building an argument, uses the statement: “If you actually believed that you could save a human life for $2,500, how would you act from now on?” The statement is used to build a willing coalition to understand the present pressing issue of poverty. This, I have no problem with; what is an issue, however, is the assumption that all poverty requires is your $2500 and an intent to donate. Using a single example of malaria medication as a cost for saving a life is a GROSS oversimplification. Some interventions might cost pennies on the dollar from Western donors; some would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to help a few people. Any development official worth her or his salt understands the first step to solving a poverty entangled issue is to frame the context.

Another issue is the complexity of poverty. In a class on my campus, a representative from the International Fund for Agricultural Development introduced me to the Cynefin Framework, developed by Dave Snowden. The theory aims to compartmentalize events, situations, and scenarios into one of five different categories, dependent upon the enmeshing of causes and effects. By acknowledging the correct context of the situation, one can act accordingly in addressing the problems. For instance, problems with complicated contexts, solvable with expertise and deep understanding, should not be approached with basic problems solving skills, which aim to fix bureaucratic processes and layman categorization.

In short, poverty is a complex problem. If Western consumers could solve it by contributing $2500 more dollars to their favorite non=governmental organizations, it would have been solved by now. America spends over 200 billion (with a B) to charities annually, more than corporations, foundations, and bequests combined. Believe me, the money is there. The amount of money funneling into international development as a whole isn’t the problem; it is how it is used.

Another important point to be made is not about the argument, but about the focus. The expatriate community does much to focus on abject poverty overseas, and while doing so, communities fail to acknowledge the dark shadow of domestic poverty. If you haven’t seen the current scale of inequality, it’s literally stunning, to both the average citizen and to economics experts.

Interestingly, many laypeople believe domestic concerns of poverty should be solved either through market mechanisms or through policies of wealth redistribution and economic safety nets, but overseas poverty should be attacked with non-governmental institutions with powerful advertisement campaigns and overseas donations. Such a reality seems awfully paradoxical and patriarchal, doesn’t it?

Now, let me explain something. In no way do I mean to assume, or detract from, Bath’s expertise; his website on Ordinary Gentlemen says he used to be a business school professor, and his interests are in “philosophy of science and cognition”. In fact, that’s what his poverty article focuses upon. However, the labeling of poverty as something like a personal issue makes two big mistakes: 1) It turn the focus upon the affluent, instead of the poor, and 2) it re-pressures our community to act on a topic in a way that seems helpful, but isn’t in reality.

With all that being said, I reemphasize: Expertise counts for something. Everyone can, and should help, but before that, the passionate should learn why things are the way they are. If you want to help with poverty, learn the history of poverty, at least on a basic scale. Learn what has been tried, what is being tried now, and what the average person can do to help. The most important thing, however, is that we keep focus. If the main protagonists of poverty remediation are the privileged, like they are in many other spheres of influence, then we have already failed.

Misplaced Affirmative Action: Crabs in a Transatlantic Barrel?

This post is dedicated to my baby. Just passed the Bar too. THANK THE LORD ABOVE

This post is dedicated to my baby. Just passed the Bar too. THANK THE LORD ABOVE

I’ve had an important milestone. Approximately half of my dating experience has been in multicultural relationships.

What exactly does that mean, you ask? Multiracial? No, multicultural. See, my current girlfriend hails originally from Germany and Luxembourg, and her family is originally from The Democratic Republic of Congo. The relationship is riddled with potential obstacles, but it’s completely worth the while. Though she’s been in the United States for a while, a few discerning eyes can tell when there are cultural difference between my American experience and her multi-country one.

As such, she comes to me when she has questions about the Black American experience. One day, she asked me how I felt about a particular topic. “Pierce, many Black Americans people I’ve conversed with claim Africans in the United States take spaces allotted by affirmative action to Black Americans into college.

I couldn’t have thought of a touchier topic. Pan-Africanist discourse in the American community would have you think that the relationship between African immigrants and enslaved ancestors are agreeable. This, unfortunately, is far from the case.

Africans see Black Americans at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole in the United States, and are likely to believe the superficial stereotypes that the dominant discourse would have them believe. The newly naturalized Africans have little chance to give Black Americans the benefit of the doubt, because they rarely learn the background of American society and the destructive impact it’s had on the black community.

On the other side of the coin, Black Americans fall victim to another pervasive discourse: the homogenization of the African continent. Subtle and blatant remarks about Africa’s backwardness, its war-torn countries, its struggles with debt, disease, and poverty, all rise to the top. As a result, separate Black cultures fail to break down stereotypical barriers,  and friction ensues. Mind you, that was an extremely abridged version; a full explanation of the intensely complex relationship relationship would take up encyclopedias. But, people need a background.

Let’s bring it back to school. The background of the affirmative action is to ‘intended to provide equal opportunities for members of minority groups and women in education and employment.’  First instilled by President Kennedy in 1961, it required that government employers ‘not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin.’ In fact, there are hundreds of links, articles, research publications, and off-the-record conversations which happen every day about the need and efficiency of affirmative action. So, I won’t discuss it further.

One argument by Black Americans is stated here: the laws were meant for Americans  who are the sons and daughters of race-based discrimination. Black Americans come from difficult socioeconomic and historically based experiences in the United States. Because such Africans don’t experience such parochial racism, so why should they be the benefactors of the policy?

The last thing I consider myself is a law and policy expert, but a few things just felt dicey. My girlfriend brings up exceptionally important points, as did I, which strike down their points in tandem.

1) First, a certain argument hinges upon the idea of affirmative action: that you, as an individual, were done wrong solely because your university of choice chose you over a different minority. Universities all take into account different and widely varying criteria, and race is only one of many.  The idea that one person’s acceptance was taken away solely because of a group of other individuals is just a bit self-centered. What happened to the other members who got in who fit the same demographic? Was the main variable race, or something else? Many times, the only ones who know are the admissions committee, and the prospective student can rarely pick out race as the main variable.

2) “Oppression Olympics” doesn’t get us anywhere. This competition, again, is the argument that certain problems are worth more than others, and people should be shamed for worrying about one over the other. If we want to, in fact, we can play this game. Many Africans have to enter the extremely difficult United States lottery to become an immigrant; only 55,000 are made available to the entire immigrant community. But that’s not the beginning of it, however. My girlfriend’s country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has experienced horrible exploitation, which continues to impact the country today. You won’t get very far by guilting the Congolese into this Olympics game.

But why does ‘Oppression Olympics’ get us nowhere? It’s like a reverse version of the blame game: it leaves the players the same way they were before: exasperated, with misplaced anger, and with no solutions.

3) Our energy can be placed elsewhere. Let us establish that this argument is the literal definition of ‘crabs in a barrel.’ Although anecdotal storytelling of ‘lost admissions’ and twenty four hour media frenzies have turned affirmative action into a completely different beast, a different question must be asked about affirmative action. Obviously, our experiences are more complex than our race, but race is tied to said experience throughout the world. Don’t blame the benefactors of the policy, blame the policymakers for failing the update the cracks in the policy.

That being said, in the 21st century, should affirmative action policies policies be used as band-aids of the past, for the sake of academic reparations, or as  but for the purposes of increasing diversity?

My opinion of affirmative action is that it is wonderful in ideal, more than necessary in our country, but badly implemented. Again, I am not an affirmative action scholar, but what I do know is that for all its grandiose promise, the law has been codified many times into quotas. Our systems, which are hegemonically governed by the need to quantify everything, have truly botched it up. How many more points should one get for being Native American, or Black, or Hispanic? Can you see how horrible a question that is? Besides, the failures of the admissions systems are usually expressed through qualitative data, i.e. anecdotal stories. There’s a mismatch here, of evaluation and of implementation.

I say we go further. Diversity is deeper than the social construct of race, but is deeply involved in it, and to the system to which we are inextricably tied. Race impacts our social environment, and impacts us subconsciously. Moreover, diversity should be used in all its definitions: through race, gender, class, experience, background, and through merit. All these things contribute to our lives today, so it makes no sense to tie admissions to dated forms of diversity.

What will this look like? I have no idea. I do know, however, it will take more thought, more cross-cultural conversation, and less bickering.

Try it out sometime. A cross-cultural relationship might do you some good.

A Tribute to Brotherhood

Brotherhood is the very price and condition of man’s survival.

-Carlos P. Romulo

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Brothers of Morehouse through generations.

I appreciate the good brother Joshua Bennett for inspiring this blog post.

I come from the Gordon Family, the beautifully crafted, sometimes dysfunctional, monstrously intelligent nuclear family since the illustrious year of 1988. I’m also the only boy in the family, the traditional carrier of a last name has left me with certain important idiosyncrasies and personality traits. I’m simultaneously:

  • an appreciator of diplomacy,
  • a fiercely hardworking human being,
  • a budding polymath
  • a bit  of a self deprecator,
  • a person who thinks for himself,

And so on, ad infinitum….

However, one part of my identity I’ve always owned, but wondered about, was my being a brother. I’ve grown up in mostly a family of women; I’m a brother by blood, but I’ve never had one. I’ve always wondered what it meant to have one of those. I love my sisters to death, but I continue to ask questions about how my experience with a male sibling would have been different.

What would it have been like with a brother?

What crazy exploits, concerning debacles, great experiences would I have had with a fellow ball of testosterone at my side?

Could I define myself as more of a man, if I had someone to sharpen my knife blade of masculinity during my impressionable years?

Mind you, this particular thing had always made me feel a bit incomplete. It seemed unfair, in a selfish way, that I couldn’t have a male confidante on this path of life. Friends did well, but what about the fears when I go to sleep at night? What about true connections, dependence, foundation, and love, which comes from true brotherhood? What did such a label really mean? If only I had a community which taught me what it meant.

Enter Morehouse College.

Anyone who has heard of my alma mater knows the types of community she fosters, but if youve never been exposed before, here are a few reminders. The most critical thing Morehouse offered me, however, was a community of outsiders. Black men in our society are not meant to succeed, and yet my classroom were filled with international success stories.

An epiphany eventually hit me about the importance Morehouse had on my life. I always thought racism was an act of hate, where individuals establish arbitrary heirarchies because of phenotypical differences. On a superficial level, racism does include this hate, but it is so much more. Racism is a systematic global disease, manifested in pervasive hegemonies classified by separating races in multitudinous ways. In my life, racism manifested in the pressures of race blindness, combined with a feeling that my skin color consistently made me out of place. I was looked at as a racial anomaly: surely a black kid couldn’t be interested in skateboarding, punk rock, multivariable calculus, and engineering all at one time, right?

How cathartic it was, then, to be placed in a community of peers, many of whom had experienced the same social plague I had. Race did not define us, but it was a part of us. At the same time, it felt, for the first time, that other men – like me – finally looked at me as a human being, and not an amalgamation of stereotypes.

It felt like home. It felt like brotherhood. When’s the last time you felt that way?

Now, Morehouse isn’t the only place that has such qualities – community empowerment, intellectual achievement, minority advocacy, and a history of transformation. However, such locales are critical for harnessing pipelines to success for those who rarely afford chances.

More importantly, such locales give a metric of accountability as individuals. It makes you ask questions about your existence:

  • What have you done to achieve today?
  • Have you taken the chance to emote with, and for your compatriots?
  • Have you thought of, and acted, for your comrades’ interest, instead of your own?
  • What is your legacy on your community?

I wish on you the burden and happiness of brotherhood.

My First BERC blog! Come check it out.

World changers of every interest! How goes it?

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I’m always happy to see you at my blog, as you can plainly see.

No, really, how are you doing? People barely ask that question, right? I’m concerned about your well-being. You come to read about my thoughts, my life, but I want to know about yours. How about you leave a little comment, and we can start a conversation? We all need someone to talk to.

I’m doing alright: it’s been a struggle, both in grad school and in life in particular, but I was built for this life.

One great thing I can report, fortunately, is that an article I’ve been working on for more than half a year is finally published. It’s called Fighting Climate Hypocrisy with Subtle Policy Solutions, and it’s built for your pleasure.

Check out the abstract I whipped up about it:

‘Green hypocrites’ are omnipresent. Although many intellectuals and activists preach the green gospel, they are caught in a network of inescapable resource-sapping mutuality, and can’t see their way out. How do we solve this conundrum, without drastically changing the environments we live in? Policies which employ innovative design practices, which subtly changes social norms for the better, might be a remedy. I expound in my article.

Innovation: it isn’t just for scientists and engineers. Hope you like it guys.

Interested in the idea for social innovation? Check out Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation for a community passionate about great research and definitions on the topic.

Do you conduct research, or work with social innovation in your policies? Let’s communicate!

Is there something specific you want me to blog about? Keep me posted! check out the pool below.

I look out for you, you look out for me. This is a symbiosis we have going on here.

See you on the journey.