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Dean’s Blog: What’s next?

Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

Some say last week’s trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was a ‘historic milestone,’ concluding with a jury verdict of guilty on all three murder charges. As I watched the news come out, I felt a mix of sadness, relief, and justice being served. My sense about George Floyd’s tragic and horrible death is frustration at multiple levels: you don't lean with your knee on a handcuffed person's neck for more than nine minutes no matter who you are, who the person laying on the ground is, where you are, or whatever the circumstances may be; no matter what; period. I am comforted by the fact that the jury deliberated quickly and rendered an unequivocal verdict. It is a bit of hope that the future will bring us more justice, peace, and freedom.

In a recent article in The Hill, Amaka Okechukwu, a sociology professor here at Mason who specializes in race, ethnicity and social movement said, “While he was convicted of murder and held legally accountable ... the same day, Ma’Khia Bryant, [a 16-year-old Black] teenager in Ohio, is killed by the police.”  Okechukwu added, “I use that as just an illustration of the persistent and systemic nature of this violence. It is beyond individual officers. At this point, this is a systemic issue.”

The day after the outcome was announced, our college held a townhall to discuss our draft Inclusive Excellence Plan. Faculty and staff convened virtually to discuss and ask questions about our proposed anti-racism, inclusion, and equity efforts within the college, as well as those supported by Mason. After the engaging discussion and questions, I left asking myself, ’OK, what should we do next?’ as perhaps many others did as well.

This process is occurring in two phases—developmental and implementation. We’ve asked all stakeholders to review the college’s plan and weigh in, creating an anonymous survey to collect your key takeaways from the SMART goals, to share the aspects of the plan that resonate with you, and to highlight areas you think still need work. To improve our plan, and move towards an equitable and responsive place, we need your trust, civility, input, and engagement.

Some have shared it is unfortunate that this timeline for comment hits at such a busy time of year, yet here we are. I very much value the insights of those who can make the time to review it and provide your comments. Since this is a first-time effort, I have a sense that this will provide an important framework, yet we will always look for new ideas and insights throughout our journey to true inclusive excellence.

As the Mason leadership reviews these plans presented by the colleges and organizations across campus, we wait for their unifying vision while asking ourselves not just ‘What can we do next?’ but also “What can we do now?’

You should know about an event that our college is pursuing while the plan is under review which will occur this summer. Forensic Science professor Kelly Knight champions an organization called StemNoire.  Our college has partnered with the College of Engineering and Computing as a premiere biosphere sponsor of the StemNoire upcoming conference on June 24 through the 27th.

We join Amazon/AWS, the Aids Healthcare Foundation, and Cambridge Mobil Telematics to support this effort which the STEMNoire website describes as “a first of its kind research conference and holistic wellness retreat for women of the African diaspora in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is well documented that Black women are underrepresented in STEM. STEMNoire’s mission is to ‘shift this narrative’ with this intentionally created space to uplift the contributions of Black women to the past, present, and future of STEM fields. Attendees will leave empowered with targeted personal and professional development resources necessary for resilience in STEM education and the workforce. Further, research presentations will facilitate critical analysis, as well as culturally-relevant ideation and collaboration.” This offers Mason an exciting opportunity to connect with emerging black female leaders, to help build connections and present pathways for further education, mentorship, and employment.   

Our motto Understand. Innovate. Succeed. isn’t just aimed at our students. It applies to all of us on our inclusive excellence journey. We must first understand our own personal stance and views on this topic and share those diverse perspectives as we look to propose an innovative path forward which can bring forth success for all. I encourage you all to review the Inclusive Excellence plan, if not now, then perhaps over the summer. Understand where we are as a college, and as a science community, and as a university. Attend upcoming town halls. Ask questions. Identify what matters most to you, and then help us pursue it. It is our time to understand the issues and identify opportunities to act. The change we seek will take each and every one of us coming together to create a culture that encourages full inclusive excellence.

Take time now to decide what that means for you. Let’s get started.