Question and Answer Session
Dundee Holt (NACME): Sandra, the information you shared with us, particularly about promoting oneself, which is alien to a lot of American Indians, and the fact that you couldn’t even identify one American Indian who is a high-level executive, raises some questions. How does that conversation between a young American Indian engineer and his or her manager take place? How does AISES encourage students or new employees to have that conversation, to raise those issues?
Sandra Begay-Campbell (AISES): We tell students that when they speak up, they are not doing it just for themselves, but for all people like them. The students have to be aware that people are pushing the bounds of participation at a national level, where you have to have a voice. This puts a burden on the individuals who are speaking up at that level. If I hadn’t shown up for this meeting, there might not be a voice for AISES or American Indian issues. There is a lot of pressure on those of us who are trying to raise awareness of the issues. First, you have to show up, and then you have to speak up. You can’t just be quiet and listen. You have to say something. Otherwise the moment will pass and you will have lost a chance to bring those issues forward.
Cordell Reed (NAE Committee on Diversity in the Engineering Workforce): Michele, I was struck by the finding on your survey that students do not want preferential treatment, and I am wondering about the issue of mentoring. If there are mentoring programs in corporations only for African-Americans and Hispanics and women, do you think they are viewed as positive or negative?
Michele Lezama (NSBE): Mentoring is a key component of any workplace and of all of our practices in NSBE. We believe in putting real live examples of black engineers who are succeeding in the workplace in front of our students. The finding about preferential treatment was related to how majority workers view them in the workplace. If I was recruited because of the color of my skin and not because of my accomplishments, for example, because there is a well known preferential recruiting program, that makes it difficult for me to succeed. Even if I perform well, some people assume that I was hired because of an affirmative action or diversity program. I didn’t intend to say that mentoring is not important. Mentoring is key to any relationship with a minority candidate, particularly in engineering and sciences.
Arnold Kee (American Association of Community Colleges): I’d like to follow up on that thought. When I first saw that reference to not wanting preferential treatment, I was trying to figure out whether you were saying that, if a company views affirmative action as preferential treatment, then the students see it as negative, or that, if the company says it has an affirmative action program, students will be afraid that other people in the company will think they are receiving preferential treatment. As you know, people who oppose affirmative action call it preferential treatment.
Michele Lezama: Right. I encourage all of you to read the full results of the survey in the NSBE magazine. The point is that you have to showcase not only a person, but also the quality of that person’s work. It is not just about the color of my skin. It is about the fact that I have three degrees, that I graduated magna cum laude, that I bring a lot to the table. So, don’t just showcase me as a “diversity hire.” You have hired a qualified individual, and that is what our organizations are putting out, qualified individuals. You have to showcase that as well.
Bill Friend (NAE Committee on Diversity in the Engineering Workforce): First of all, it is very good to see all of you together. My question is if you should be more integrated as a single organization. You have common causes, and I wonder if you would be more effective if you were somehow at least a confederation of organizations.
Shelley Wolff (Society of Women Engineers): We do all have very similar mission statements. We also have specialty areas. SWE, for example, tries to encompass not only K through 12 outreach, but also college students who are the majority of our members, similar to NSBE. But we also follow members throughout their careers. So, we have a lot of similarities, but we also have some areas that we focus on as individual groups.
Michele Lezama: We already work together on a number of initiatives. Gina Ryan, executive director of the SWE, and I work together closely. Jose Rivera from SHPE and I work together. I haven’t worked with anyone from AISES yet, but I look forward to that. So, we do talk and we do work together.
I am asked a lot about creating a consortium of minority and women’s engineering organizations. But our strength is in bringing together students on common ground based on their cultures and based on their experiences. They don’t have to explain, for once, who they are and what they are about. That is really the foundation of our organization, the fact that students from similar backgrounds can come together to work on a common cause, which is excelling in an engineering curriculum. That is what makes our organization so vibrant. If you take that cultural component away and merge all of these groups, you would lose the one thing that makes us strong. At the same time, we have to work together on common initiatives to make sure that diversity is respected in the workplace. But we still need to maintain our strong cultural components.
Orlando Gutierrez (SHPE): If I may add my two cents, I think we agree that each group has its own problems that have to be targeted individually. But there are a lot of problems to deal with, and a federation would be nice. As a matter of fact, I am sorry to say that there is more than one engineering organization in the Hispanic community. There is my organization (SHPE), the Mexican American Engineering and Science Society (MAESS), and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), which is a mixture of Hispanics and American Indians.
We can work together, but in the Hispanic community, some people want to focus more on one problem area than others. It is the same with engineering organizations. They are all engineers, but would IEEE and ASME merge into one group? I don’t think so. But they should work together, and they do in the American Association of Engineering Societies. I think that concept is very good.
Sandra Begay-Campbell: I want to highlight a special aspect of American Indians, which has to do with reservations and the state of their economies. We hear a little bit about the digital divide in urban areas, and maybe in some rural Hispanic and rural black areas. But Native Americans may not even have electricity, or even the potential of having electricity in the short term. We are talking about some very basic needs that haven’t been met yet. We are trying to encourage them to become engineers and to surf the Internet, when they may not have electricity in their homes.
That very particular problem has to be dealt with on a tribal level. To pursue a very technical degree and to keep up with the digital age is very difficult for our students, and the divide is getting bigger and bigger. Some unique problems for each group have to be addressed by each group, but also with partners that are willing to help.
Karl Pister (University of California): I want to pick up on Bill Friend’s remark about a consortium. In one state, in several perhaps, the word “minority” has taken on a new meaning. Rather than a consortium of groups that have been called minority groups, we must recognize that they will be (in some places are already) the majority. In fact, they are the majority of the electorate in California.
Why do we deal with the symptoms of the problem rather than the root causes? These organizations are not to blame. We, the people, are to blame, we and our elected representatives. That is the problem we ought to be addressing.