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Eggs, bacon, cereal, and muffins with coffee were the food of choice for watching this morning’s Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Engineering Dean Recognition Awards.

During the two-hour digital ceremony, it was a treat to see past winners of the Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) make presentations to scientists and engineers leading innovation with incredible inventions, patents, and product development. Engineering deans from the 15 ABET-accredited engineering schools also spoke about their artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing research.

This year’s hosts were national broadcaster Angela Stribling and Dr. Pamela McCauley, an entrepreneur, and professor in the North Carolina State University, Wilson College of Textiles, where she also serves as associate dean of academic programs. The two emcees kept the show lively with fun quizzes based on memorable moments and milestones from the conference’s 35-year history.

‘Leveraging talent’

One of BEYA’s longtime sponsors has been The Boeing Company. The corporation has leveraged the talents of hundreds of thousands of people across the United States for more than 100 years.

On Saturday, five Boeing executives sat down in a digital fireside chat to address the internal and external crises that coincided in 2020. Joining the panel was J. Murray Gibson, engineering dean of the Florida A&M and Florida State universities.

The panel talked about how they deal with the pandemic, dilemmas of the digital world, economic uncertainty, racial injustice, and social unrest. According to the moderator, these crises impact industry, communities, and culture overall and brought to attention issues that had been ignored or neglected. As leaders within Boeing and academia, the panel discussed how they are stepping into action to make a change.

Delores Alexander joined Boeing in 1987 as an entry-level contract negotiator and is now a multi-billion-dollar negotiator. Long familiar with society’s biases on color, race, or gender, she has spoken about working twice as hard for equity.

Having tough conversations is needed and expected, said Matt Daniels, a Boeing senior manager. He acknowledged that these discussions could be challenging. Still, he noted the significant steps the company has taken in making investments in local communities and institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU).

J. Murray Gibson of the Florida A&M and Florida State engineering school, the only joint college which focuses on minority students in its recruitment and retention efforts, said it was important to talk about institutional and systemic inequities and the underlying issues.

Racism, prejudice, intolerance: ‘Why is it happening?’

Talking about her experience in the continental U.S.A, Marvi Matos said, “the first thing you encounter as someone from Puerto Rico is an adjustment from being invisible to being visible because of your accent. You have to endure comments, subtle or not so subtle, that undermine,” said the director of engineering.

Matos first joined Boeing in 2010. After six years, she left the company but returned after three years. She studied chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico and got her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

‘Code-switching’

Over her 20-year career at Boeing, Charlisha “Charli” Greene, who moderated Saturday’s event, has held several positions, including supply chain site leader for aircraft modernization and modifications, and chief of staff for the vice president, and general manager of Integrated Logistics. She has also served in Boeing’s Enterprise Auditor leadership development program. Additionally, Greene is the university relations executive focal for Florida A&M University.

Greene asked the panel about “code-switching” in corporate America. According to the Harvard Business Review, code-switching or behavior adjustment has long been a strategy for Black people to navigate interracial interactions. But studies have shown significant implications for well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival.

Philip June, who is vice president of safety and quality for Boeing Global Services, said he did not know what the term ‘psychological safety’ meant before last year.

“You try to fit in, change the way you speak,” he said. “The whole point of communication is how you show up,” he added. “But trying to keep up a facade means people lose productivity in assimilation,” June said. He noted that Boeing management has an expectation that business is imperative, so work must be about creating safe spaces for people to get ideas forward.

Matos agreed. She said she could not understand why some people think they had to lower standards instead of widening the talent pool because they must provide equal opportunity.

Murray said it was important for middle managers and executives to understand equity was not giving someone an ‘extra chance’ or being unfair to one group. There are historical barriers, and HBCUs still experience inequities in funding thus limiting the opportunity to grow. “Undergrads need exposure, but HBCUs have been held back,” he added.

‘Getting exposure’

Since students at FAMU-FSU spend time studying in diverse environments, hiring corporations and agencies must believe in diversity; take the programs they have, and look at them objectively. He also said FAMU-FSU is not only focused on helping students settle into internships far from their hometowns in Miami, Florida, but the college is also recruiting students from places like Seattle, Washington.

As a strategic position leader, Matt Daniels said mutual respect was essential to Boeing employees to advance a global, diverse team. He said that although society must do better as a whole, he works at Boeing because it promotes diversity, allows him to work with others, and is aligned with his values and ethics of hard work, integrity, and respect. Coming up to the first anniversary of the covid-19 outbreak, the panel agreed that Boeing had provided a platform for honest discussion.

Four engineers addressed similar issues in the “Young, Gifted, Black, and Corporate” seminar hosted by Northrop Grumman Corporation; Raytheon Technologies presented the “Black Voices, Black Views: A Conversation With Black Executives” panel, and Lockheed Martin, lead sponsor of the BEYA STEM Conference,  hosted B.A.M.! Belonging and Authenticity Matter.

Click here to watch all the seminars at the 2021 BEYA STEM Conference.

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