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Putting ‘Our Inspiration to Good Use’

Putting ‘Our Inspiration to Good Use’

WASHINGTON – Last month, nearly 1,000 African American women scholars and administrators converged upon this city for the Black Women in the Academy II: Service and Leadership Conference.  One of the highlights of the conference was a keynote speech given by Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair, and newly appointed president of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Shirley Jackson. The following are excerpts from her speech:

“I would like to discuss one particular area in which I believe we must continue to make progress, an area in which we can put our energies and our inspiration to good use. … Traditionally, [Black women] have reserved our strongest praise for those women who have devoted their lives to correcting issues central to racial and gender injustice — such as suffrage, economic inequities, academic desegregation, and legal underrepresentation. As a corollary, for aspiring young Black women, the pressure has been strong, in some cases, to choose a career field that can be of direct and apparent benefit to the Black community- careers such as law, medicine, religion, or education.
In no way do I wish to denigrate the value of these choices, or to detract from the obvious benefit that the practitioners of these vocations make to their communities. On the other hand, I think it is important that we broaden our horizons. Black women continue to be underrepresented severely in scientific and engineering disciplines, and continued perceptions of pressure to choose fields only of “direct” contribution can serve to perpetuate that underrepresentation. By limiting the range of what our young women view as valid “models of success,” we in fact can reinforce external stereotypes regarding fields of low representation-stereotypes that Black women “do not have what it takes” to succeed in those fields.
I believe that the time has come to “expand our universe,” to be aware of our own demographics, to understand and publicize the value of increased participation in science and engineering fields, and to create new “models of success” for young Black women. How does one go about creating these new models of success? By harnessing all of the sources of inspiration I just mentioned. Leaders who have achieved a measure of success and recognition must set an inspirational example of vision, hard work, and ethical integrity, and must be willing to cultivate and serve as mentors to others. Those nurturing activities should build small communication networks which, in turn, can give birth to larger foundations, support programs, and meetings such as ours today – vehicles in which successes are publicized, limiting stereotypes are eroded and eventually eradicated, and both young people and the larger community are educated.
Meetings such as this one illustrate that we are closer to achieving this objective – the conscious and methodical elimination of our career limitations – than we ever have been. Many studies, discussions, and actions are receiving formal organizational support and assistance to encourage more women and individuals of minority background to participate directly in science-based careers. In addition, I believe that a large percentage of business and governmental organizations increasingly are acknowledging that, if they are to compete successfully in a global political and economic environment, they must make use of all the best human resources available.
As a veteran of the private industrial sector, of the academic community, and of the  federal government, I often have made the point that this country does not have people to waste. The present and foreseeable challenges facing our nation are too great for society to ignore or to undervalue the capabilities of entire population segments. The added richness of perspective that results when we embrace diversity is no illusion. If the needs of Black women are to be incorporated into the drive for scientific and technological advancement, then we need Black female scientists and engineers who bring an awareness of those needs to the academic, industrial, and governmental arenas. If we seek economic parity and equivalence in employment opportunities, it follows logically that we also should encourage our daughters to pursue their dreams across the full spectrum of vocations. They must feel that no field is foreclosed to them, no darkened glass ceiling left intact.” 

— Compiled by Michele N-K Collison

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