Page 79 - Winter 2020
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The performance center we were commissioning happened to be just a few blocks from the church. Walking to the performance center, one could still see the
flowers and signs left for the Emanuel Nine, those brutally slain during a bible study. This event became more than a typical tuning concert but more of a catalyst for healing within the city. One of the principals of Akustiks did something I could not have imagined; he asked me to direct the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Although directing the orchestra was certainly exhilarating, what happened next was far more profound. After the concert, I was walking through the foyer of the venue when a group of Black audience members approached me just to say thank you. They had never seen a Black person in an orchestra, let alone conducting the orchestra.
It was clear to me from the very beginning that my mentors at Akustiks were invested in my development and made every effort to understand and make room for my presence in the workplace. Either by conscious intention or by accident, Akustiks created a safe space for me to cultivate my abilities as an acoustician, enhance critical thinking, and develop my technical communication skills.
This is a rarity in this type of environment.
Returning to School
The environment in graduate school has been the complete opposite of my undergraduate experience. Although Rensselaer is a rigorous institution with an emphasis on research and critical thinking, the environment feels hollow because there is such a negligible sense of diversity on campus. In my first year in school, I was the only Black male in any graduate program at the School of Architecture.
I have witnessed a student in my program use racial slurs in conversation, asserting ignorance as an excuse for his inappropriate judgment of word choice. He considered himself a typical student at Rensselaer. If he is saying this with me around, what is he saying when I am not there? Although I was filled with rage, I could not let such a nescient act derail my studies. Author James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”1 Students of color in STEM must find a balance
1 Baldwin,J.,Capoya,E.,Hansberry,L.,Hentoff,N.,Hughes,L.,andKazin, A. (1961). The Negro in American culture. Cross Currents 11, 205-224.
between academics and social consciousness without diminishing their integrity or research.
With a modest population of African American graduate students, it is crucial to have a group to form a safe space; the Black Graduate Student Association on campus is such an organization. Many Black graduate students are asked, “Why is it necessary for you to have your graduate association?” It is not that we are trying to separate ourselves from the rest of the graduate programs, but it is vital to have a space to belong and be ourselves. Our dispersal throughout the campus has made it difficult to interact and socialize. The fact that we face microaggressions multiple times a day means there must be an outlet to express and manage our experiences and our hurt.
A New Normal
As I write this article, two pandemics are roaring throughout the United States. Blacks and LatinX are dying at alarming rates from COVID-19, and bigotry is emboldened by the current administration. I felt it was important to share my experiences as a minority in STEM. From a progressive liberal arts school to an exacting research institution, the story stays the same. STEM departments have not found a remedy for the inequities that persist in academia: the lack of faculty of color, few student majors of color, and insensitive pedagogies. It is often said that there is no pipeline for Black students and faculty in any of these departments and careers. This is my challenge for higher education. Why not be the first? An institution or company with no appreciation for diversity is limited in scope, vision, and mission. To reach a new and better normal, a conscious investment in diversity, inclusion, and equity programming must be implemented.
 Contact Information
E. K. Ellington Scott
School of Architecture Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 110 Eighth Street
Troy, New York 12180, USA
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