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Yes We Must: Achieve Diversity through Leadership

02/05/2009 7:30 AM Walker Morss Hall
Matt Gethers; Joy Johnson

Description: Two students deliver heartfelt appeals for courage and integrity at the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast.

In the 1940s, Matt Gethers recounts, his grandfather was forced to flee South Carolina after defending his brother against white racists in a store. Gethers wonders if he'd have put his life on the line in the same way. He acknowledges the "bittersweet reality" that he won't likely be facing the trials of his ancestors, while also wishing to "share in the work and sacrifice that secured my inalienable rights as a citizen of this country and the world."

While U.S. institutions seem to reflect "what we know to be right with respect to race, gender and disability," Gethers notes that there's a more corrosive racism eating away at "hearts and minds." The absence of diversity in leadership throughout U.S. society encourages stereotyping. In his work in the Cambridge Public Schools, Gethers meets students who believe they couldn't possibly grow up to be "an astronaut, physicist, mathematician or president." Why? "Because little black girls don't grow up to become CEOs." Gethers concludes that only when these students see themselves "in people who are breaking the mold will we restore their sacred right to dream."

Joy Johnson was almost cheated of a college scholarship by a high school counselor who "forgot" to send her transcript in. Entrenched racism has helped create the "impostor syndrome," says Johnson, whose "sufferers can't internalize their own accomplishments and thus feel they don't deserve them." She wonders how many fellow MIT students are asking themselves, "Do we even belong here, and what do we need to do to become as smart as the others?" But "many times the impostor is not us at all," says Johnson. She sees a long, sorry tale of the usurpation of black achievements, inventions and discoveries: "Impostors have been doing it so long, they've perfected the very art of fraud."

But what must be done to ensure that the contributions of black people are recognized? Johnson nods toward MIT's mission -- inclusive of all students -- of advancing knowledge to serve the nation and world. True innovation and intellectual advancement, she says, require respectful interactions not just in labs and classrooms, but in everyday life. "This must begin with acknowledgments, speaking to janitors and lab techs and bus drivers as eagerly as we speak to professors." Johnson ultimately hopes to "show the world that at this institution, decisions are made on merit, not on nepotism, cronyism or racism."

About the Speaker(s): Matt Gethers, a champion MIT fencer, received a 2009 Rhodes Scholarship to study next year at Oxford University. Gethers has participated in numerous research opportunities while at MIT, including with former MIT bioengineer Drew Endy. He initiated a research collaboration with an Institute in Bangkok, Thailand that permitted six other MIT students to travel as well.

In addition, Gethers has engaged in public service work, including with the MIT Emergency Medical Service, and as a tutor for Cambridge Public School students. He has served as the vice president for the MIT chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. Joy Johnson received her B.S. in Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University in 2007. She is currently working in the MIT Microsystems Technology Lab modeling wafer level uniformity in electrochemical mechanical polishing. She has served as a research intern at the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, at Cornell's Nanoscale Facility; worked as a technical intern in the Flash Memory Group for the Intel Corporation; and as a technical intern for IBM.

She is an instructor for MIT's SEED Academy, where she created the syllabus, lectures and lab activities for an electronics course for underrepresented high school seniors. Johnson's honors include an NSF Fellowship, MIT Presidential Fellowship and INTEL GEM Ph.D. Fellowship.

Host(s): Office of the President, MIT Annual Breakfast Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated over 2 years ago

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