The talk @UMBC, “Why Your Life Matters: Reflections from a STEM Perspective”
In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter issues, deaths of unarmed Black men, confusion, and hurt, I called my talk at UMBC “Why Your Life Matters: Reflections from a STEM Perspective.” The talk was given on Saturday, July 9, 2016 in Lecture Hall 2 of the Chemistry Building (MEYR 030), at 10 AM, and was sponsored by the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Members in the audience included UMBC’s students, summer students from the Meyerhoff summer bridge programs, some UMBC alumni, the Millennium Scholars from Penn State, and the Chancellor’s Science Scholars from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
The program’s leaders had asked me to cover a variety of topics, so mixing discussions of STEM with social justice took some thought. The talk and the associated questions lasted a little over an hour. I apologize to the students who didn’t have a chance to have your questions answered. I hope that the talk led to some meaningful discussions throughout the rest of the day, and that the dialog was productive. Here, I present a subset of the slides (additional slides about study habits, and STEM-based skill-building, e.g., MatLab, have been omitted):
I talked about a number of STEM fields and the essence of “mattering” — I included mentions of cancer research, diabetes work, heart disease, environmental engineering, ornithology, water resources engineering, computer science, cyber security, hardware design, and other areas.
I felt that it was important to call the names of those who had passed on. As sensitivity within communities is growing, I also felt that it was important to use the full names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, without the use of hastags. The list only presents a subset of the names of the people who have been killed. They are among those that give me pause, and have specific meaning. Trayvon Martin because his death brought to light injustices in the system. Freddie Grey because he was from Baltimore, and I live and work in the Baltimore area. Tamir Rice because he was just a little boy, and I learned about him when I was in Oregon of all places … it was a very surreal experience because I had to go through Utah and only saw a handful of people of color for days. I think that I counted 5. Eric Garner because I learned about the decision while I was in Dubai, so I watched it unfold on BBC news, wondering who would take responsibility for killing a man who was telling anyone who would listen that he couldn’t breathe. Sandra Bland because she was a woman, and we still don’t know what really happened to her.
When I give talks in public, I do become vulnerable, especially when the subject is this serious. I told the audience, that yes, I have been in the car when my husband and I have been stopped … in our own car, that I have family members who are numb to the number of times that they have been stopped. There are things that I started to write here, and then erased, things that I want to forget, but situations which have had lasting impressions on me, on my friends, and on my family members.
The use of the term #BlackLivesMatter was used in the following context:
There is now an expanded version of the “All Lives Matter” – all houses matter cartoon, and I posted in on my Facebook page after the talk.
In STEM, recognizing that there is underrepresentation is important. I used this chart from the National Science Foundation to show that the percentages of people from underrepresented groups who earn science and engineering degrees is low, at every level.
My husband and I gave a talk and wrote a paper about underrepresentation and used physics metaphors to describe conditions in academic departments, and ways to mitigate risks. Background information and the paper can be found on my webpage here, https://renettatull.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/darkmattersdiversity/, and on the website that we developed for the project here: https://darkmattersdiversity.wordpress.com/.
I told the students that they were the next generation of innovators, that they would make discoveries, and that they would impact students coming after them, so they have to be steadfast in their commitments to their craft.
I asked them to care for themselves, and to care for others. I asked them to speak up and to act when they witness mistreatment, and to stand up for each other.
— Renetta G. Tull (@Renetta_Tull) July 9, 2016
It’s humbling to have students from all backgrounds tell you that this was information that they needed to hear, that it made a difference for them, and that it was important for them. In the Q&A, I mentioned having connections to both discipline-specific groups such as IEEE, ASME, and ACS, as well as affinity groups such as SHPE, SACNAS, NSBE, and SWE. I thank all of the people who sent prayers and kind words in advance of the talk, and those who sent theme music with messages of change. Thank you to colleagues in Meyerhoff and at the university for trusting me.