Wentworth Roundtable: A Discussion on Race - Part II

June 29, 2020

Portraits of different people

Clockwise from top left: Nakisa Alborz, Alex Cabal, Rebecca Drossman, David Simpson and Aaron Carpenter

The following is Part II of our discussion with Nakisa Alborz, David Simpson, Alex Cabal, Rebecca Drossman and Aaron Carpenter. Part I and Part III are also online.

Greg Abazorius, Director, Content: Do you feel there is more accountability right now? Do you believe that having more of a spotlight on people through videos and social media, et cetera, will lead to behavioral changes?

Nakisa Alborz, Chair, Department of Interdisciplinary Engineering: With technology, especially in meetings that are recorded, if someone makes comments that might be sexist or racist or ageist…there is evidence of it. That dynamic has changed because in the past it was your word against that person. But when people still do it, I think it’s important to bring it to their attention and hold them accountable.

David Simpson, Assistant Professor, Department of Interdisciplinary Engineering: There are systems that we need to either redefine or deconstruct and reconstruct because if people aren't held accountable then we just have this cycle. Part of the reason why the recommendations from 1919 are the same as the recommendations now is because of that accountability piece. Someone put that out, but no one really followed through. In higher education, really across all industries, that accountability piece—especially when it relates to gender equality or racial equality—is necessary if we are really going to build a system that's truly inclusive.


Greg Abazorius: How active have your students been during this movement?

Nakisa Alborz: The students I’m interacting with this semester are definitely more involved and more opinionated. They’re really following the news.

David Simpson: Some of my students have talked about it and have emailed me personally. And I reached out to my students in case they wanted to talk about it. It’s been really nice to see students, including white students, stick up for these issues and take a stand. Students everywhere have been saying, “This is wrong, and you need to do something about it.”

Becky Drossman, Assistant Director of College Access, Center for Community and Learning Partnerships (CLP): A lot of students who work with the CLP are students of color and we’ve definitely heard their frustrations for a very long time. There are systems in place at a lot of higher ed. institutions that make it more difficult for them to succeed; sometimes it’s the way advising is handled, sometimes the way financial aid is set up. One thing that concerns me is that it's always the same people who show up to these conversations around diversity and inclusion. And it's the people who aren't showing up that I'm very concerned about.

Alex Cabal, Director, Center for Diversity and Social Justice Programs: At the same time, I do get hopeful and pumped up when I hear recent stories from my colleagues that our white students are being vocal and standing up for friends and peers. It makes me hopeful that doors have been opened for better involvement and more possibilities.

David Simpson: We need allies. We need people who can do the research themselves, who can speak up on our behalf. And like Becky was talking about, there are systems in place that negatively affect students. It’s one thing to recognize the problem; it’s another to actually go in and fix the problem. These students need allies to help make these changes in order to create a system that is inherently non-biased.

Alex Cabal: That’s where I get excited because I’m seeing that more. And I don’t know if it’s the [President Mark] Thompson energy or if people are just fed up with the system, but I’m seeing a lot of people actually willing to put themselves out there.


Greg Abazorius: How does an ally who does not have a certain lived experience present themselves in situations where race or racial inequality is being discussed?

Aaron Carpenter, Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering: As a professor, if I have a Black student who comes to me, just telling them, “I believe you, let’s do something. I can’t fix your problem, but I can try to make things easier from my end.” These are students who might be struggling. Be a support for that struggle instead of adding to that struggle.

The idea among engineers and scientists and people who work in STEM fields…a lot of our impulses are see a problem, fix a problem. That's literally what we teach in classes, right? Find the problem that exists, diagnose why it's a problem, fix that problem. And it's hard to just say, let me be here with you in that moment. It's about opening yourself up to vulnerability. White men especially are not taught to be vulnerable. That is not allowed. We get to be angry and stoic. And so if we can sort of get past that, hopefully the students will respond by opening up as well.

David Simpson: That came out a lot in open forums [hosted by Wentworth]. These students were given an opportunity to freely express themselves and they were noticeably upset. And that’s good. These are things we need to hear. But also, as a person of color, you often have to hide your emotions because you don’t want to be thought of as the angry Black person, that stereotype.

Nakisa Alborz: Or the angry female.

David Simpson: Exactly. And so those opportunities don’t always come up to speak freely. And so like Alex and Aaron have mentioned, listening and listening without judgment is so important. Just stepping back and saying, “Express yourself, let me know what’s going on.” I think it’s something we have to work on.

In Part III, we explore what it means to make your voice heard while a pandemic is underway, as well as what our panel thinks about the protests taking place.

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