To our Swanson School Community,
The events of the past weeks have mobilized the country and once again brought us together to stand against racism, injustice, and inequity. The tragic murder of George Floyd, as well as those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arber were cruel and inhumane, and I know you join me in wanting justice to be served. We must finally pivot from the desperation of “Not again” to the preferred future of “Never again.”
Because of the raw emotions these injustices draw from deep inside us, especially from within my fellow African Americans, I wanted to take the time to gather my thoughts in a collective voice of resolve, purpose, and hope. I trust you understand my prerogative to respond on my terms. Social media and other technologies often demand rapid response, but do not provide us with the capacity to treat each other better or to empathize with each other with the awareness and inner space needed for healing.
I want to first address our students and our underrepresented community, especially our Black and Brown students. No matter where you are today as the pandemic sequesters us physically, I know you hurt – I feel it as well. I know all too well the emotions and confusion that events like this trigger. I have experienced them myself in some way almost daily throughout my life, whether the result of explicit actions or implicit bias. Although I am a dean of engineering at a top-tier university, I am fully aware that I, too, am only one traffic stop away from a potentially fatal encounter. This is the reality that I have lived as a professional for most of my life, including here in the City of Pittsburgh.
There is rarely a day that I can go out without altering the way I dress, where I go, when I go, who I go with, the car I drive, etc. to avoid an unpleasant experience. Take for example the months of January and February before the COVID crisis. In just two months I was mistaken for: a porter at the Pittsburgh International Airport; a doorman and a food delivery driver in my own building where I live downtown; a bellman at a 5-start hotel downtown; a star athlete for the Steelers; and a football coach here at Pitt. It is inconceivable for me to feel comfortable walking the four blocks to my local gym wearing workout clothes, especially in the evening. I, like many of you, have rarely found safe harbor. This is a common dialogue among my professional colleagues and friends of color.
So yes, I understand how you feel. I should also acknowledge that these adaptive pressures have forced me to develop a unique set of cultural competencies and survival skills – a keen sense of situational and personal awareness, mental fortitude, empathy, agility, and grit. These provide me the inner space to reach, connect with, and serve a broader range of people. As the songwriter says, “I don’t mind going through the struggle. This is just another one.”
If you have not done so, I greatly encourage you to read the powerful messages from Chancellor Gallagher and Provost Cudd and their significant calls to action. We are members of a university community and an engineering school which value acceptance, tolerance, and respect for each other, but we must do better. I am committed to that, and I appreciate that the Chancellor has postponed the strategic planning process to listen to more voices and reshape our university for all its people, as well as for the broader communities we serve.
We will do this within the Swanson School as well. As the Chancellor noted, “this is also a time turn the lens inward and consider our institution’s own role in perpetuating unfair structures and systems.” We will engage in dialogue across colors and nationalities, genders and sexualities, roles and jobs, to build a better environment, increase opportunity, and break down barriers. This will – not may – open wounds and sow hurt. But if we are to build a stronger, more inclusive Swanson School of Engineering, the pain we encounter will transform us for the better.
I recently gave a talk entitled “Building the Future You Deserve,” where I noted that from the Industrial Revolution to the Knowledge Age and the future transformation to Industry 5.0, the common denominator throughout was the human growth mindset. The world’s innovators and change-makers always looked toward a future that was better than the present. Likewise, our job is to spark a flame of discovery that begins and accelerates growth along that trajectory of constant growth. This is not a one-size-fits-all trajectory, but rather individualized with the shared goal of maximizing life-long human development.
More than a few of us grew up in struggling communities or families, always wanting a better future for ourselves. And from those seeds of struggle, roots of response grew that strengthened our spirits and helped us reach where we wanted to be. And regardless of background, each of us remembers at least one person who, at one or maybe several points in time, helped to nourish those roots and enlighten the possibilities of what our futures could be. We now need to draw upon that to effect change in our school, our university, and our communities.
That today is our role – to be a source of healing and empowerment. We are engineers – we solve problems that improve the human condition. It is important to remember solutions are not limited to technological devices and apps, or supply chains and nanomaterials. They are also new ways of thinking, of spirit, of innovation.
I know we can do this. In my still short tenure as Dean, I have seen our Swanson School take on challenges and rise above to success and to inspire others, especially in the way everyone responded to the COVID-19 pandemic that upended our school year. We did not surrender to fear – whether student, faculty, or staff, we said, “We can do this. We will do this, and we will do it at a higher level.” That is why I know the pain of this moment will summon our values and our resolve to do better, and to help others.
It is also important to remember in today’s 60-second cycles of instant gratification, the world does not always work the way we hope or dream it should, or as quickly as we want it to. The recent outcomes and challenges are not the result of this single juncture in time. Rather they are indicative of centuries old, deep-rooted structural factors. As the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There will always be struggle, but we must move forward and become the change we want to see. We can only do that if we take the time now to truly listen and engage.
Lastly, we need to build upon what we are determined to change here, and carry it with us through our imagination, our passion, and our desire to make things better around the world. This is a teachable moment. It is my hope that, like earlier generations, we use these seeds of struggle to produce new roots of transformation. What will our future look like? I say that our future is already here – it is just not evenly distributed.
Stay safe, stay well, and be a source of healing for someone you love.
U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering