It was only fitting that the inaugural Petit Institute Antiracism Distinguished Lecture (view recording) be held on February 4th, which is the birthday of Rosa Parks, mother of the freedom movement; only fitting that it be held just weeks after a violent, failed insurrection at the nation’s capital (though the virtual event was scheduled long before the Jan. 6 uprising); and only fitting that a speaker with the poise and power of Kamau Bobb deliver the lecture.
Bobb, the global lead for diversity strategy and research at Google and the founding senior director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, addressed the racial and ideological divide in the U.S. Nearly 200 people virtually attended the stirring lecture, “Considering Citizenship in a New World,” during which Bobb reminded the audience of, “the delicacy of the timing,” urging his listeners not to hide behind a veneer of objective scientific research, “but to be involved, get engaged.”
The new lecture series was created by the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) Committee, which was established in the aftermath of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta. After the committee was organized, said chair Ed Botchwey, “we targeted February, Black History Month, for more visible activities within the Petit Institute and the broader Georgia Tech community.”
The charismatic Bobb, an engineer and science and technology policy scholar, was well known to the committee. A former program officer at the National Science Foundation where he helped shape the national research agenda, Bobb also served as a member of a President Obama taskforce designed to engage young men and boys of color in the STEM landscape. Prior to that, Bobb directed a University System of Georgia collaborative effort with the governor’s office to improve STEM education across 30 public institutions serving 325,000 students.
Bobb began developing the idea for his lecture well before the events of January 6 in Washington, D.C., which cast an unflattering spotlight on what he called, “the culminating event” of a pendular swing in America back toward a post-reconstructionist world. He offered a quick trip through American history after the Civil War: Reconstruction, followed by a century of Jim Crow, “an era of wanton dismissal of black life in America,” followed by a second reconstruction with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Acknowledging that he grew up during the second reconstruction, like many in his virtual audience, Bobb said, “We were the beneficiaries of a system that was trying to right wrongs, trying to reconcile some of the racist ideology inherent in the system of the United States, that we haven’t had enough time to expunge from our national identity. And so, here we are.”
He later added, “The Confederate flag of the defeated South was hoisted in the Capitol of the United States. I’m not sure the symbolism could be any clearer than that. I think it would be to our detriment to not recognize the seriousness of the moment we’re in. It’s important that we pay attention to this divide.”
Bobb told his virtual audience, consisting mostly of people engaged in the research enterprise, that it was irresponsible to hide in a lab and focus solely on research. He talked of responsibility and having courage.
“I think that because we’re this intellectual class with this specific set of skills that we have acquired, it’s more important for us to pay attention, to be involved,” Bobb said. “It hinges on our influence, whether we achieve the best of our American virtues, or retreat into the worst of its possibilities. This is our time, and I would argue that we are the frontier.”
Following his lecture, Bobb took a few questions before giving way to a panel discussion featuring Georgia Tech leaders from the institute, college, and school/department level: Chaouki Abdallah, executive vice president of research; Andrés García, executive director of the Petit Institute; Samuel Graham, chair, Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering; Kaye Husbands Fealing, dean, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts; Susan Margulies, chair, Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. Then Bobb met with trainees (students and postdocs) for a more intimate follow-up discussion.
“What we wanted out of this inaugural lecture was a challenge to our community, to apply our talents and experiences as problem solvers to address a social crisis,” said Botchwey, who was joined on the Petit Institute DEI Committee by García, Maria Coronel (postdoctoral trainee), Adeola Michael (postdoctoral student) Nettie Brown (graduate student), Lakeita Servance (staff representative), and Milan Riddick (undergraduate student).
In developing the lecture series, Botchwey said, “We hoped to create an experience that would familiarize faculty and trainees with how some of the intellectual thought leaders on issues of inclusion and diversity are grappling with what’s happening, with the issues of our time, while also placing a spotlight on what’s going in STEM, in the healthcare and bioscience community. We need to be engaged in the conversation.”