The only thing you should want to be is to be yourself…Everyone else is taken. You got to do some work to find out who you are..Your intent isn’t always important. Your impact on others is.

WADE DAVIS, commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Groton School, January 2018

2018   44th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration


Letter from a Birmingham Jail

The nation has been divided on a great number of issues, particularly around racism, sex and gender discrimination, class, and immigration. Students, faculty, and staff on campus--like the rest of the nation--have expressed deep concerns about the future, prompting Institute president L. Rafael Reif to respond with forward-looking letters to the MIT community, such as "With our eyes on the future" and "Sexual harassment and the future we build together".

Both MIT's 2017 and 2018 MLK Celebration themes have been fueled by Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail". It was in response to a denunciation issued by eight white religious leaders of the South regarding the "unwise and untimely" nature of Dr. King's activism. Written on April 16, 1963, the letter appeared in the August 1963 issue of The Atlantic as "The Negro Is Your Brother". Today we look to this classic document of the civil-rights movement with our eyes on the future.


MIT Homepage, 12 Jan 2018



Sustaining the struggle for equity:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere


Wade Davis
Former NFL Player, Equality Advocate & Educator


Tsehai Grell 'G

Daniel Jackson SM '88, PhD '92
Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
Professor of Computer Science
MacVicar Teaching Fellow
Associate Director, CSAIL
Faculty Director, MISTI-MEET

Josue Lopez 'G
Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

Lee Perlman PhD '88
Founding Director, MIT Prison Initiative
Senior Lecturer, MIT Experimental Study Group

Joshua Woodard '18
Mechanical Engineering

Association of Puerto Rican Students (APR)
Caribbean Initiative



IAP MLK Design Seminar



Wade Davis, who is now an equality advocate and educator, presented the keynote address, in which he urged the audience that as they fight for equality and justice, “the work must become personal.” Photo: Joseph Lee/MIT News

Wade Alan Davis II is an American speaker, activist, writer, educator and former American footballplayer.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Davis grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and Aurora, Colorado. He played college football at Mesa State and Weber State. In 2000, he signed with the Tennessee Titans of the NFL as an undrafted free agent but was cut after the preseason. He made his professional debut in 2001 with the NFL Europe team Berlin Thunder and won the World Bowl IX title with the Thunder. After spending the 2001 preseason with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, Davis again played the 2002 regular season in the NFL Europe with the Barcelona Dragons. He then participated in training camps and preseasons with the Tennessee Titans in 2002 and Washington Redskins in 2003 before retiring due to injury.

In 2012, Davis came out, publicly speaking about what it was like to be closeted and gay in the NFL.

Davis is the former Executive Director and current Director of Professional Sports Outreach for the You Can Play project, an advocacy organization working to eradicate homophobia in professional sports. He develops curriculum, programming, training and conversations focused on inclusion and diversity. He formerly worked at the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City, New York, as the Assistant Director of Job Readiness, where he helped LGBT youth learn life skills.

Davis has been invited to keynote and present workshops at colleges, universities, and corporations nationally and internationally.

Adapted from Wikipedia


PhD student Tsehai Grell believes the variety of MIT students’ experiences and perspectives is one of the Institute’s greatest qualities. “When you don’t have diversity of thought and experiences, you are missing out on a number of problems and potential solutions, especially in the research lab,” she says. Photo: Ian MacLellan/MIT News

Expanding the pipeline to graduate school

Outside of the chemistry lab, PhD candidate Tsehai Grell works to make MIT more inclusive for grad students.

Dara Farhadi | MIT News correspondent
August 22, 2017

Tsehai Grell grew up in a small island nation in the Caribbean called the Commonwealth of Dominica. Known as “the nature island,” Dominica features black sand beaches, rolling mountains, tropical green foliage, and a close-knit community.

“I grew up there and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s a warm, friendly culture. You cannot walk into a room without greeting everyone, even if you don’t know them. Even on the street you say hello,” says Grell, a rising sixth year PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry.

Many people in this supportive environment helped launch Grell on her path to academic success. “It wasn’t just my family; my whole community wanted to see me succeed,” she recalls. “They were equally as proud of me as my parents were, because they had a hand in raising me to become the person that I am today.”

Grell has carried that “it takes a village” philosophy with her to MIT, where in addition to conducting research at the interface of chemistry and biology, she has been active in a number of efforts that encourage underrepresented minorities to pursue graduate studies in STEM fields.

MIT’s enrollment data attests to the importance of these initiatives. For example, as of fall 2016, black and Latino students represented roughly 21 percent of MIT’s undergraduate class but only about 7 percent of the graduate class.

Grell believes the variety of MIT students’ experiences and perspectives is one of the Institute’s greatest qualities. “When you don’t have diversity of thought and experiences, you are missing out on a number of problems and potential solutions, especially in the research lab,” she says.

Helping others succeed

Outside of lab, Grell participates in multiple programs that aim to make MIT more inclusive and welcoming at the graduate level, particularly to underrepresented minorities.

She served as treasurer for the Black Graduate Student Association, or BGSA, around the time when the Black Lives Matter movement was developing. She and other BGSA leaders helped put together panels and other events to address racial inequalities, and in 2015 the BGSA and the Black Students’ Union came together to present recommendations to MIT’s senior administration.

Grell is also dedicated to encouraging underrepresented minorities who might be interested in graduate study at MIT. She has volunteered for several programs, including Dow-MIT Access and MIT CONVERGE, which bring talented undergraduates of color to a weekend on campus to explore prospects for graduate education. Grell says she enjoys interacting with students and getting them excited about chemistry research.

Grell did similar work as a program assistant with the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP), which gives approximately 40 students with a broad array of backgrounds the opportunity to spend the summer at MIT. Participants conduct research and take part in other activities aimed at preparing them for graduate school.

“[MSRP] gave me that access to the MIT community, where you build lasting relationships with the staff and faculty. It shows you that you can thrive in a research environment where you are constantly being pushed out of your comfort zone,” says Grell, who participated in the program when she was an undergraduate at Morgan State University.

As a program assistant, she helped read applications and served as an advisor to 10 students. She was their resource when there was a problem in lab, for example, or if they were worried about their personal statement for graduate school applications. So far, three students she has mentored have started graduate school at MIT.

Grell is also part of an organization started by a fellow graduate student, called i-Trek, which stands for “I Turn Research into Empowerment and Knowledge.” The program offers nontraditional research opportunities to underserved and underrepresented minority students in community colleges and small liberal arts colleges that don’t have the capacity to expose such students to scientific research. She also served as treasurer and later co-president for an MIT club called the Academy of Courageous Minorities in Engineering, or ACME.




Daniel Jackson was encountering depression everywhere he turned. There had been a spate of suicides at MIT, where he teaches in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and students told him that they were falling behind in class because of pressure induced by emotional anxiety. What could be done? he wondered.

Jackson's answer was to start talking to the students and faculty who were suffering, and to start taking their pictures. This recording of words and images became a project called Soulstrong in 2015. From there it was transformed into our recently published book, Portraits of Resilience, a searing yet uplifting portrait of an elite university's community struggling with depression.

Jackson answered questions for us about his book.

How did the project that led to this book begin?
We’d had a terrible spate of suicides at MIT, including a colleague of mine. I came to realize these were just the tip of an iceberg of unhappiness. Each term, more and more students in my classes were coming to talk to me about how depression was preventing them from doing their work. Depression was so widespread, but hardly talked about. And when we did talk about it, we usually talked in very medicalized terms, ignoring the major socio-cultural issues that were causing a lot of the problems.

How did you approach the students and colleagues whom you interviewed? Were they initially hesitant to make these very personal experiences public?
I teamed up with some student leaders. We sent an email to every student. Each week for a term, I published a photo and a story in the school newspaper, and put up posters about them over campus, and encouraging people to participate. Amazingly, none of the people who came to me showed any hesitation about revealing the most personal details of their lives and challenges.

As Krista Tippett of On Being has noted, young people “present themselves to the world with a fullness and a lack of inhibition that I really do think is actually new in human history.” Getting faculty to participate was, surprisingly, much harder.

Is there a particular moment in these conversations that stands out in your memory?
One person brought her partner because she felt she needed moral support to tell her story, and they held hands throughout the interview. Another told me tearfully how he’d decided not to commit suicide because it would let his friends down, and they’d given him so much. Dylan [Soukup] told me how, as he drove Sean Collier in an ambulance, police cars appeared on both sides in a motorcade to escort them to the ER. And there are so many more – every encounter was moving and revelatory.

Beyond the fact that you are an accomplished photographer, why was it important to photograph your interview subjects, in addition to getting their words down for posterity?
A photograph can give you a sense of a person’s character beyond words. The stories are sad and wise and often funny, but there’s an integrity and strength that comes across only in the photos. And the photos make it clear this isn’t fiction or some generalized experiences: these are real people with real lives. For the participants, as Sally puts it in the video on our website, it was a chance to “just get out from the darkness into the light.”

What would you say is the most important thing that you learned in undertaking this project and writing this book?
From my subjects, I learned that you can overcome even the most terrible traumas. I learned that being seen and being listened to matter a lot. And from all the “me too” reactions that the project elicited, I learned that almost everybody has some hardship in their life.

What do you think other institutions – universities, companies, etc. – can learn from the stories that you tell here?
The very desire to succeed, which most institutions foster, can be our undoing. The standard measures of success distract us from what matters most in life and gives it true meaning. Recognizing mental health challenges in a generic way isn’t enough: it’s being open and talking about our lives and our challenges with each other that will help us overcome our problems.


Josué J. López is an educator, mentor, and active citizen-scientist. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research and MIT Lemelson Presidential Fellow. Josué was born in Los Angeles, studied in Houston, and now feels like a true Bostonian. He has worked on educational initiatives focused in promoting ‘green’ careers to inner-city youth. Most recently, he has analyzed investment and marketing trends in clean tech and contributed to a blog for the New England Clean Energy Council.


[Marching] really shows you the power of how communities can move forward agendas and call for action. That’s why we’re trying to engage with the MIT community and Cambridge community as a whole — to demonstrate that, and to show how to do it in a peaceful manner that engages different communities. MIT News, 20 April 1917

Marching for Science and Climate Protects Our Communities


Until three years ago, you could have called me a scientist, educator, or mentor—but not an activist or marcher. Over time, however, I have recognized that I have the knowledge, privilege, and responsibility to act and march to protect the communities I love.

Early in my studies at MIT, I believed I could only contribute to solving the climate change dilemma by creating energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. This all changed after I participated in the first People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014. Now I am convinced that activism as a citizen-scientist is an equally valid way to highlight problems and advocate for solutions.

If we are truly going to protect and empower our urban and rural communities from an environmental and health hazard as big as climate change, we need everyone to fight.

Attending the People’s Climate March was a life-changing experience. I marched alongside more than 310,000 individuals in the heart of NYC to call our world leaders to start taking serious action against climate change. That day I understood the difference I could make by becoming part of something greater than myself.

Furthermore, I recognized that staying on the sidelines to claim “objectivity” as a scientist was not an option. Sitting this fight out would mean staying silent while I watched disenfranchised and vulnerable communities suffer. By staying silent, I would be denying my own relationship to these communities, my own humanity, and I would be ignoring my responsibility as a citizen to fully participate in the democratic process.

As a son of poor immigrants from Central America who grew up in the inner city, I am painfully aware that poor communities are disproportionately affected by environmental threats like climate change. For example, the tragic outcomes of Hurricane Katrina overwhelmingly affected low-income and minority communities. Of the 250,000 evacuees that arrived in Houston, and were housed in shelters, 90 percent were African American, of which 6 in 10 had incomes below $20,000. Today we see similar structural inequalities and issues arising from water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and in the potential impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Understanding that climate change, like other environmental problems, is an issue of equity and justice has further motivated me to take action. As Einstein once said, “those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” I believe scientists, engineers, and experts should be working not just to address climate change, but to do so in a way that empowers communities that do not have an equal seat at the negotiation table.

Therefore, as I prepare for the March for Science on April 22 and People’s Climate March on April 29, I want to remind my colleagues that science or technology alone will not solve the major challenges facing our society. Peaceful marches and protests are valid and necessary means of creating the societal momentum needed to make change. More importantly, if we are going to address these challenges in a fair and equitable way, we must use our privilege to empower and uplift the most marginalized communities in society.

If you can identify with me as a scientist, educator, person of color, or son or daughter of immigrants, then I ask you use your voice to speak up. For me that means marching to protect the communities I care about. I ask that you do the same. If we are truly going to protect and empower our urban and rural communities from an environmental and health hazard as big as climate change, we need everyone to fight.


Lee Perlman (in maroon shirt) lectures on the philosophy of love at MIT. Perlman also teaches classes at Massachusetts prisons with a mix of both MIT students and prison inmates. MIT News

Breaking down walls between the ivory tower and prison

The MIT Prison Initiative provides an academic framework for undergraduates and local inmates to explore the human condition.

Bettina McGimsey | Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education
May 24, 2017

In 1987, while teaching a class at MIT on nonviolence, philosophy lecturer Lee Perlman had a novel idea: Why not take the students to a prison, to talk with men who had committed extreme forms of violence?

Needless to say, the experience was an eye-opener for students — a powerful way to help them understand, at a visceral level, the nature of violence. And it also sparked Perlman’s lifelong professional and personal interest in the prison system. That interest continues today in the MIT Prison Initiative he founded in 2016 with the support of his home department, the Experimental Study Group (ESG). Through the initiative, Perlman teaches classes to a cohort of both MIT students and prisoners at two medium- to maximum-security Massachusetts Correctional Institutions in Norfolk and Framingham.

Over the past academic year, Perlman has taught two philosophy courses at the prisons: ES.S40 (Self and Soul) and ES.112 (The Philosophy of Love). Each week, Perlman and 10 MIT students traveled by van to Norfolk or Framingham to engage in discussion and study with 10 imprisoned fellow students, many of whom are incarcerated for life.

“The kinds of courses I’m developing for the MIT Prison Initiative are designed to allow students to speak about their personal experience, but do it within a serious intellectual framework,” Perlman explains. Taught as part of ESG’s General Institute Requirement offerings in the humanities and social sciences, these courses reflect the program’s emphasis on “out-of-the-box” educational experimentation and on teaching and learning as part of an academic community.

Teaching philosophy in a prison setting broadens the perspective and learning of both student cohorts, by exposing them to people and life experiences vastly different from their own. That’s certainly been the case for freshman Eva Lisowski. “Dr. Perlman’s Self and Soul class was one of the most life-changing and influential opportunities I have ever had,” she says, adding: “Being able to actually look into the inmates’ eyes and have an intelligent discussion about advanced philosophy readings with them completely changed how I view them.”



Wade Davis (right) poses with Joshua Woodard, one of this year’s recipients of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards. February 2018. Photo: Joseph Lee/MIT News

MIT News
Kim Benard | Office of Distinguished Fellowships
December 4, 2017

Joshua Charles Woodard, from Chicago, Illinois, is an MIT senior majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. At Tsinghua, Woodard will earn a degree in politics, with a focus on comparative government. He plans a future career in diplomacy and public policy, with the goal of enacting effective strategies for social change.

Woodard’s dedication to social justice issues began prior to arriving at MIT. As a junior in high school, he applied for and was granted a Boeing Scholars Academy award to research Chicago’s gun violence and devise solutions. He then coordinated a city-wide brainstorming event between youth and government officials.

At MIT, Woodard has been a pivotal voice on issues of diversity and inclusion. As a student advisor on MIT President L. Rafael Reif’s Presidential Advisory Committee, he has provided guidance on important campus issues and policies ranging from diversity initiatives to the influence of the current political climate. Woodard has also demonstrated his leadership skills as co-chair of the student community and living group Chocolate City, and has been instrumental in increasing campus awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and creating opportunities for dialogue.

Woodard participated in the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) worldwide competition for synthetic biology, and he has interned in industrial design at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory and HTC. He has also advocated to help local Boston high school students from underrepresented communities gain access to STEM experiences by co-founding the summer leadership program MIT BoSTEM Scholars Academy.

A talented artist and musician, Woodard has studied and performed Beijing Opera at the Shanghai Theater Academy in China, runs his own freelance photography business, JC Woodard Photography, and has performed on violin and viola with the MIT Jazz Band.

MORE: "Connecting through conversation: Whether in Cambridge or Shanghai, MIT senior Joshua Charles Woodard seeks to learn from others’ perspectives and challenge his own." MIT News, 1 November 2017


Nicole Cooper | Division of Student Life
November 9, 2017

Last month, the MIT Association of Puerto Rican Students organized a three-day donation drive to help Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

With an entire population affected by loss of electricity, shortages of food and water, and the inability to contact family members, two members of the MIT Association of Puerto Rican Students, seniors Gabriel Ginorio and William Rodriguez, decided to utilize resources on campus to help.

“When we saw pictures of the flooding, people losing their homes and just the figures, we wanted to take action in some tangible way,” Rodriguez says.

First, Ginorio and Rodriguez did research to locate any ongoing hurricane relief donation drives being held in the Boston area. They found an organization called Puerto Rico Rises – Boston, and were told that they were unable to send donations to Puerto Rico because the island’s ports were clogged. Due to a lack of truck drivers to distribute items, and debris blockage in the streets, it was difficult to transport donations from the port to those in need.

“In that moment,” Ginorio recalls, “I said, ‘We won’t be able to do the supply drive. We don’t have any storage for a month. How can we store something for a month? That’s not worth it.’”

The possibility of a donation drive at MIT came to fruition when Ginorio and Rodriguez got into contact with Henry Monroig, a pastor in Dorchester, Massachusetts who was taking time off from work to collect and deliver donations to Puerto Rico. Monroig had created a Facebook video about the difficulty of trying to send a pallet to the island. Curt Schilling, a former Red Sox player, came across it and offered to help Monroig with the cost of transporting the donations.

“Henry immediately became the only option to send materials to Puerto Rico in the whole Boston area,” Ginorio says. “So, we put faith in him and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to do this drive.’”

The group organized a Venmo account for monetary donations and set-up a table collecting donations outside of the Stratton Student Center. Once the group started advertising, MIT students, staff, and faculty responded with tremendous enthusiasm and generosity. “We had an amazing — overwhelming, really — amount of support from the MIT community,” says Ginorio.

In total, they raised more than $5,700 in monetary donations and 6,000 pounds of in-kind donations, which have served over 5,000 people in need on the island. “It was really an expression of the generosity of the MIT community,” Rodriguez says.

Support from the Institute did not end here. On the last day of the drive, Monroig was unable to pick up the final batch of donations. An MIT Police officer called the MIT Parking and Transportation Office and asked them if anyone would be willing to deliver the items to Monroig outside of their working hours.

“They are just about to leave for their homes and we’re asking them to make another one and a half hour trip to go deliver and come back,” explains Ginorio, “and amazingly, they showed up with the brightest smiles on their faces, willing to help, willing to put every supply into the trucks.”

MIT’s Office of Student Support and Wellbeing offers all MIT students support by providing individualized services, coordinating resources, and offering innovative prevention and education programs. Whether it be a tough academic week or a natural disaster, staff are commited to helping all students in times of need.

David Randall, senior associate dean of student support and wellbeing, says, “The MIT community is incredibly resilient and incredibly compassionate. It rallies around itself when there is tragedy on campus and it thinks about the world when there is tragedy away from MIT.”

Randall says each student in the Institute is inherently a problem-solver, and he recalls a conversation he had with a group of Puerto Rican students about the lack of fresh drinking water on the island. “They didn’t want to talk about getting bottles of water to Puerto Rico because anybody could do that. They wanted to solve the problem. And that’s what makes MIT different than every other place.”

Ginorio and Rodriguez have also created a website where members of the community can collaborate and learn more about what they can do to further help Puerto Rico.

Installation Highlights

Installation night at Lobby 10

Installation night in Lobby 10


Another Brick in the Wall


Homeless Heroes


Our Patriotic Duty

Televised Revolution

Mosaic of Movement

MLK luncheon: “What matters is what you’re doing”

Former NFL player Wade Davis gives keynote talk at annual event, reflects on his life as a gay black athlete.

David L. Chandler | MIT News Office 
February 9, 2018

When former NFL player Wade Davis, as a teenager, first told his mother that he was gay, he wasn’t prepared for the response he got: “You’re already black!” she told him, adding that she wished he would die of cancer rather than tell her he was gay.

Their relationship remained uncomfortable for years, Davis says, but eventually, after many difficult conversations, they came to better understand each other’s perspectives. Now, years later, he says his mom and his fiancé happily talk and text each other. That long and hard progression, he said, helped to give him insight into the need to ask deep questions and try to understand why other people with different views feel the way they do.

Davis, who now serves as the NFL’s first-ever LGBT inclusion consultant, described these experiences in the keynote address at the 44th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration luncheon, held at a packed Morss Hall on the MIT campus. He explained that he eventually learned that his mother had a much older brother who had been killed in a lynching. He finally understood that her harsh words were her way of trying to protect him from the prejudices and hatred she knew he would encounter in the world — and that she had experienced all too vividly.

“You have to have compassion for those you disagree with,” Davis said. In this case, he said, the breakthrough in understanding only came after “I asked my mother better questions.” Reflecting on a short poem by Langston Hughes, called “Personal,” Davis said this compassion is the key to effective action even when the path is difficult. “The work must become personal,” he said, as people struggle to bring greater justice and equity in the world.

In his own growth, he said, he came to realize that thinking that of oneself as a good person doesn’t really matter. “We’re so interested in our own goodness,” he said, but that’s not as important to others. “They don’t care if you think you’re a good person. What matters is what you’re doing.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his remarks introducing Davis, said that right now we live in “an angry, cynical time, in which many people are careless with the truth. … And sometimes it nearly breaks your heart.”

But, he said, “when I feel worn out by all the terrible noise, I take great inspiration in thinking about our community at MIT because, I would like to believe, MIT is different. MIT can be noisy, too. But it’s mostly the noise of bright, curious people testing old assumptions, coming up with new ideas, and trying to understand each other.”

“As for cynicism,” he added, “to me, cynicism could be a sign of defeat. It could be a sign that you have lost faith in human goodness and possibility, and lost faith in our creative power to make a better world. By that definition, MIT is the opposite of cynicism. And I am grateful for, and proud of, this community’s practical optimism, every day.”

Of course, MIT is not perfect, he said, but “I am very grateful to belong to a community that, I would like to think, is willing to face its imperfections, to talk honestly and openly about them, in a spirit of mutual respect, and to work together to make things better.”

Reif described significant progress MIT has made over the last two years in implementing new programs to foster inclusion and equity, including a $23.4 million increase in financial aid, new interactive sessions on diversity during undergraduate and graduate student orientation, and new mental health staff trained in “culturally competent” care.

“The harder, more systemic issues now become our central focus,” he added. “This includes the long-term challenge of recruiting more graduate students and faculty from underrepresented minority groups and making sure they are positioned to succeed. But we have the right people pursuing the right strategies … so I am optimistic that we can steadily turn these aspirations into action, too.”

The luncheon also featured reflections on King’s legacy by two current MIT students. Josué Lopez, a fourth-year doctoral student in electrical engineering and computer science, said, “For the past decade, I have been trying to tackle climate change, via technology, education, and more recently, direct nonviolent action. As someone who grew up in a low-income and immigrant community in Los Angeles, I am painfully aware that communities of color are disproportionately affected by the devastating effects of climate change and environmental waste and pollution, otherwise known as environmental racism.”

Lopez added, “This year we tragically saw that the most vulnerable communities in Houston, Puerto Rico, and Dominica will take the longest to recover from the physical and psychological scars of devastating hurricanes strengthened by climate change. … The Puerto Rican student association and I all have family, friends, and communities that were affected. So it’s personal. This is why I understand that climate change is fundamentally an issue of equity and justice.”

He concluded by telling the gathering that “looking at all of you, I see individuals who want to work toward a more equitable future. Regardless of the state of American or global politics, we at MIT have opportunities to implement plans that will directly support equity and justice here and everywhere.”

“Most importantly, believe in your own ability to make a difference,” he said. “Believe that equity and social justice are worth fighting for. Believe that we will win in pursuing justice and equity, because we must!”

Tori Finney, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, said that until recently, she had never reflected deeply on the influence of race on her own life and identity. Growing up, she spent eight years at an international school in Belgium where she only encountered five students of color. “It was a confusing time,” she said. “Both my racial and national identity were challenged. Classmates would comment that I was not ‘really black’ because I didn’t talk or act the way they saw black Americans act on TV, but I still somehow felt too black to fit in with some of them.”

She recalled,“We didn’t complain and further alienate ourselves when our next-door neighbor called the police on me for standing outside my own house when I was 12.” That and similar experiences “were upsetting to me, but I didn’t really understand why, or what I could possibly do to change anything,” she said.

Finney gradually became aware of the effects that microaggressions can have on a person’s mental health: “All at once, years’ worth of reactions to injustices against me came crashing down. I refer to this as an awokening.” At MIT, she said, “I went to mental health walk-in hours one afternoon, and was introduced to a new term: racial battle fatigue.”

This term, she said, “describes the stress and anxiety that many people of color develop while navigating a predominantly white institution. With racial microaggressions acting as the source of trauma, this mental health disorder is similar to PTSD. It can affect people both mentally and physically, often contributing to fatigue, hypertension, headaches, and sleep issues.”

Finney said, “While my focus today is mainly on the effects of racial microaggressions, I would like to mention that the problem extends beyond race. … I believe that there are countless MIT students that have similar problems based on gender identity, sexuality, religion, and other aspects of their identities.”

What should people do about these things? “We can increase informal dialogue,” Finney suggested. “We can spend more time asking people about what behavior they might find harmful. We can brainstorm icebreakers that will encourage people to talk about their differences in classes or meetings. In these conversations, we can respect the fact that something we thought was okay might not be okay for someone else. Instead of making excuses for it, we can learn what we need to do to change.”

Comparing injustice to air pollution, which can spread insidiously, she said, “If we all work together, we can cleanse our campus of the pollution of microaggressions. And in doing so, we can prevent it from spreading elsewhere.”

MIT MLK Luncheon Celebration, 8 February 2018
MIT Video Productions