Wednesday, May 31, 2017

an address on broadening participation in puerto rico

this is a section of a keynote address i gave to about 150 faculty from the university of puerto. it is distinguished because i delivered it in spanish! the spanish version is below. a thrilling experience crossing the language barrier in public:

San Juan, Puerto Rico
26 May 2017

Sensitivity and insensitivity. Cultural sensitivity needs some context. As you know there is an extraordinary effort to establish equity in STEM education and the technical workforce in the United States. In most of this work, even at NSF, black and Hispanic students are bound together by a single set of parentheses and labeled – underrepresented minorities (URMs).

Cultural insensitivity starts there.

My family is from Guyana and I grew up in New York - Puerto Rico North. In New York, you have to know the differences between people.  I know the differences between the Caribbean Islands.  Everyone from the West Indies is not Jamaican. Africa is not a country and every African is not Nigerian. Everyone black is not African-American. I had to learn the different flavors of white people too – Italians, Russians, Greeks, Irish, Poles. I even had to learn that the Hasidim in Williamsburg were different than the Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights and the reform Jews in Park Slope.  I had to learn that Hispanic as a word didn’t mean much and I’m still not clear on the difference between Hispanic and Latino. I had to learn the differences between Dominicans, Cubans, Salvadorians and Puerto Ricans.  I never even met Mexicans until I went to California for the first time. Classifying us all as people of color or underrepresented minorities is an assault on our identities. It hides who we are and allows for all of us and our experiences to be reduced to a false sameness.

Cultural sensitivity begins by acknowledging that the parentheses that bind us are for the convenience of measurement. They are a false bracket around richly different people. The work that we do demands more of us. For example, in my work at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, we had partnerships for engineering students from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.  While doing that work it always struck me that many students coming from there were white. If they didn’t speak, I wouldn’t know they were from Puerto Rico. They didn’t look like the many black, brown and dark skinned Puerto Ricans I grew up with. On our end, however, the Hispanic box was checked and we moved on. The differences of color and class in the Puerto Rican context were hidden in the parentheses.

Our charge in STEM education is to have the courage to acknowledge what we can plainly see. The substance of the proposals we write, the programs we envision and our strategies of engagement have to be courageous. They must acknowledge the reality that our lives affirm as truth. The convenience of the parentheses is a luxury of the privileged. Getting rid of them is the responsibility of those of us trapped within them.


Voy a saltar a un espanol titubeante, tengan paciencia conmigo!

Sensibilidad e insensibilidad. El tema de la sensibilidad cultural necesita ponerse en contexto. Como ustedes saben, hay un esfuerzo extraordinario para establecer la equidad en el campo de la educación STEM y en el campo técnico en los Estados Unidos. Ahora bien, en la mayor parte de este trabajo, incluso en la NSF, los estudiantes negros e hispanos están unidos por la etiqueta de minorías sub-representadas. – Underrepresented Minorities.

El concepto de insensibilidad cultural comienza precisamente allí.

Mi familia es de Guyana y yo me crie en Nueva York – la otra isla. En Nueva York, usted tiene que conocer las diferencias que existen entre las personas. Conozco las diferencias entre las Islas del Caribe. No todo el mundo que viene de las Indias Occidentales es jamaiquino. África no es un país y no todo el que viene de Africa es nigeriano. No toda persona negra es afroamericana. Tuve que aprender los diferentes matices del mundo blanco también - italianos, rusos, griegos, irlandeses, polacos. Incluso tuve que aprender que los jasidim en Williamsburg eran diferentes de los judíos ortodoxos de Crown Heights y de los judíos reformistas de Park Slope. Tuve que aprender que la palabra hispano no significa mucho, y todavía no me queda claro cual es la diferencia entre hispano y latino, y chicano. Tuve que aprender las diferencias entre dominicanos, cubanos, salvadoreños y puertorriqueños. De hecho, ni siquiera conocí a mexicanos antes de ir a California por primera vez. Clasificarnos a todos como personas de color o minorías subrepresentadas es un asalto a nuestras identidades. Nos invisibiliza y permite que todos nosotros y nuestras experiencias se reduzcan a una falsa igualdad.

La sensibilidad cultural comienza reconociendo que la etiqueta, de la que les hable, es una conveniencia de la medición estadistica. Es una falsa camisa de fuerza para la riqueza de la diferencia. El trabajo que hacemos exige mucho más de nosotros. Por ejemplo, en mi trabajo en el Consejo de Acción Nacional para Minorías en Ingeniería, tuvimos convenios con los estudiantes de ingeniería de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Mayagüez. Al hacer ese trabajo siempre me sorprendio que muchos estudiantes que venían de allí eran blancos. Si no hubiesen hablado, no hubiese pensado que eran de Puerto Rico. No se parecían a los puertorriqueños negros, marrones y de piel oscura con los que me crié. Para efectos de nuestra medicion estadistica se cumplia con la marca hispano. Las diferencias de raza y clase en el contexto puertorriqueño se ocultaron en la etiqueta hispano.

Nuestra tarea en el campo de la educación STEM es la de tener el coraje de reconocer lo que es evidente. Lo sustantivo de nuestras propuestas, de los programas que imaginamos y las estrategias de compromiso tienen que reflejar valentia. Deben reconocer la realidad de la verdad que nuestras vidas afirman. La conveniencia de la etiqueta es el lujo de los privilegiados. Deshacerse de las etiquetas es la responsabilidad de aquellos de nosotros atrapados dentro de ellas.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Computer Science, the Saviors and the Soldiers

On Friday President Obama launched an historic effort to improve computer science education in the United States.  His announcement was a tremendous achievement for the CS education community and for the STEM education community in general. Not only did he lend the weight of his position and intellectual stature to the issue, he declared $4 billion in federal funds to support CS education.  

This is tremendous! 

On Thursday the Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, Dr. Meria Carstarphan, issued her turnaround plan for one of the troubled clusters of APS.  The plan includes a number of school closures and mergers ostensibly in an effort to protect those schools from being taken over by the state. The move leaves families in limbo, teachers unsure about their future and hundreds of children feeling abandoned by a system that has steadily failed them. I support Dr. Carstarphan’s effort and applaud her leadership, but the reality for the students is the reality for the students.  On Friday, teachers at two of the schools simply walked out. Children were left at the painful center of an adult problem of neglect and abandonment. 

This is criminal!

It is hard for me to reconcile these two coexistent realities.  The charge forward under the moniker “computer science for all” is absolutely essential. How do we make this manifest in school districts that are in a battle for basic survival? What is the effective argument to make to an embattled superintendent like Dr. Carstarphan that would convince her to make CS education a priority? She is engaged in urban educational warfare. She does not need to be convinced that CS education is important.  Rather, she needs the breathing room to be innovative. She does not have the luxury to educate when she’s under the pressure to save.

This is the challenge with CS for all.  It is no different than with any other subject that requires innovation and a move beyond the most rudimentary skills of literacy and numeracy. I am not at all sure about the outcome of this effort, but I am completely convinced that it is a battle worth fighting. For the large numbers of Black and Hispanic students who are settling to the bottom of public education, this battle cannot be more important. Dr. Carstarphan’s fight to save and salvage what she can demonstrates her unyielding commitment to our students. Now the rest of us in higher ed and informal learning spaces have to lock arms with her. Our charge is to make use of the luxury of time and thought that President Obama’s $4 billion buys us. While Dr. Carstarphan wields the sword and leads the charge, we have to be soldiers at her disposal.