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Enabling Others to Make their Marks

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

7th Annual Harlem Renaissance Festival
Kentland/Columbia Park Community Center
Landover, Maryland

Saturday, May 6, 2006

It is an honor to be here this morning to help kickoff the 7th Annual Harlem Renaissance Festival — a wonderful event which commemorates, and celebrates, the many contributions of African-Americans to art, music, and literature during that exuberant and generative period in American cultural history. This event further strengthens our connections, and our communities, both important endeavors if we are to move forward as a people, and as a country.

I extend greetings this morning to Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele; Congressman Albert Wynn; State Senator Nathaniel Exum; State Senator Ulysses Currie; Former County Council Chair Dr. Dorothy Bailey; Councilman David Harrington, who has organized this marvelous festival for all of us to enjoy; Wayne Curry, former Prince Georges County Executive; and Ms. Gina Adams, FedEx corporate vice president for legislative affairs. I am privileged to be here with all of you.

I want to extend special greetings to the nominees for the Prince George's County Public Schools Living Legends Award — exceptional women who have made their marks, and who have made significant contributions in their respective fields, including education, the arts, and public service. I applaud your very impressive accomplishments. Congratulations on your achievements.

I also want to acknowledge those L.O.V.E. Awards nominees who are in attendance this morning. Your talent, creativity, and hard work continue the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance into the 21st century. In doing so, you are honoring, and building upon, the legacies of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, visual artists such as William H. Johnson, and numerous theatrical and musical writers and performers, who still influence our culture today. They set the artistic bar high for you — and for all of us.

The theme of this year's festival is "Women Making Their Mark." Now, I understand that you have invited me to speak to you this morning because I have "made a mark" in science, in government, and in education. Indeed, as you heard in Mr. Smith's introduction, I have been privileged to have attained several "firsts" in my education and career. This distinction has opened doors and created opportunities. However, always uppermost in my mind is not so much that I am the first, but rather that I am the first of many — and that any achievements honor those who have come before me:

  • Those who have brought me to the threshold of and into institutions unused to the presence of African-American women.
  • Those who inspired me to work to change the world.

The celebration of the Harlem Renaissance reminds us of those who came before us — those who still inspire and fuel our passion for creativity, intellectual endeavors, and social change. We have an opportunity to discover — and to rediscover — the African-American artists and thinkers throughout American history who inspire us and who show us what is possible. The writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, made a dramatic impact on the broader culture — especially in the 1920s, when what we consider to be our "modern society" began to emerge. Yet, some of these trailblazers fell into obscurity over the years, and were resurrected by those looking to the past for role models and inspiration.

You may be aware of the story of the Harlem Renaissance author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who has had her own renaissance as a major American writer, primarily due to the efforts of contemporary author Alice Walker. Zora Neale Hurston's books were out of print when she died in 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida. She grew up in a small town near Orlando called Eatonville, which became the setting and subject for much of her work, and she attended Howard University and later Barnard College, in New York City, where she was the only African-American student. She was an expert in mythology and folklore, and she won a Guggenheim fellowship to study these subjects in Haiti, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. Yet, she was unable to make a living from her writing later in her life, and she was virtually an unknown figure in American literature, until Alice Walker published an article about her in Ms. Magazine in 1975, which led to the Hurston Renaissance. Today, of course, Hurston's name is inscribed in the canons of American literature, and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is read in schools across the country.

So, when we learn about the people of the Harlem Renaissance, we learn about those who struggled to be heard and to be recognized; who made their marks; who made our culture more vibrant, more rich, and multi-faceted.

In my life, I have found African-American forbears, who, while, perhaps, not household names, have had great meaning for me. One of my favorite books as a child was the biography of Benjamin Banneker. He was born in 1731, in Ellicott's Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland, the son of a former slave. Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught clockmaker, astronomer, and mathematician, and he helped to plan the city of Washington, D.C., which is my hometown. I was drawn to his life story because he accomplished a great deal, despite having to face deep-rooted prejudice in areas then (and perhaps now) deemed unusual for an African-American. But, he did not let it defeat his drive to develop his intellect, to engage with the world, and to leave his mark upon it.

Another prominent African-African who inspired me was Dr. Ernest Everett Just, one of the most highly respected scientists of his time. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1907, then earned a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1916. He taught at Howard University from 1909 until his death in 1941. His summers of research studying the fertilization of the marine mammal cell at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, received international acclaim. He wrote one of the most important text books of the 20th century, Biology of the Cell Surface, published in 1939. He also helped to nurture the next generation of African-American scientists by becoming a mentor to Roger Arliner Young — the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in zoology.

My parents raised me to believe that my own success was not the only goal: I should help others, along the way, to realize their dreams, too. To enable others to make their marks. So, throughout my career, I have tried to do just that. Yes, as president of a university, I do have a platform from which my voice can be heard, and from which I can effect change. But, what I want to stress to you this morning, especially to the young people here, is that this is something you can do now, regardless of your age, or your role, or what you believe is your sphere of influence.

Let me explain.

I am the beneficiary of the convergence of two historic events:

  • One was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, which outlawed the prevailing practice of racial segregation in public schools. My own life reflects its impact, and the movement toward social justice and civil rights which followed.
  • The other was the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the former Soviet Union in 1957, and the subsequent "space race" between the U.S. and the Soviets for dominance in arms and in space technology.

When I was in the early elementary school grades, the public schools, of the District of Columbia, were segregated. After Brown and desegregation, I was able to attend the local public school, instead of one several miles away. There, I was tested, along with others, and placed in accelerated classes, and my education began to unfold accordingly. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class (at Theodore Roosevelt High School), and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), where I studied physics and eventually received my doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics.

MIT was a tough, rigorous university, but it, also, was a very exciting place to be for a budding scientist like myself. However, this venerable institution did lack something very important: that was diversity. It was the mid-1960s — the height of the civil rights movement in this country — yet, there was only one other African-American woman in my class. In fact, we were the first African-American women to graduate with bachelors degrees from MIT. I will not take this time to tell you tales of how we were singled out and left out — in the academic and social arena. But rather, I want to tell you about how we worked to change this reality.

I was a senior at M.I.T. in 1968, pondering where I would go for graduate work, when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. His death was a turning point in my life, as I decided to remain at M.I.T. for graduate school, and to work to recruit for admission to the university more African-American students and more minority students in general, and to create a better environment for current minority students. Dr. King's life and work enabled me to believe that I could be a force for positive change. To bring about change at M.I.T., I joined with other students, and with school officials, who also were moved by Dr. King's death and felt impelled to take action. The result was the formation of the Black Students Union, which still exists today. As a result, M.I.T. did change for the better, as the number of minority students increased, and the campus became more welcoming to African-Americans than it had been in my undergraduate days.

I tell you this story because it is an example of how we — women and men — can make our marks wherever we are in our lives. At M.I.T., as a student, I was at an institution where I had little power and not much support. But I did have my intelligence; I had benefited from opportunities which had been denied many who came before me; and I had a determination not to be defeated by outside forces of prejudice or negativity. I encourage the young people here today to think about what you can do to change your school, your neighborhood, you community, for the better, and about positive ways to do that.

Now, let me return to the launch of Sputnik, and the national furor which it caused at the time, because that moment in history reverberates still with a lesson for today. Sputnik launched the "space race," which really was a defense-based "science race," particularly between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union.

The result was a new national commitment to, and emphasis on, education, especially science, engineering, and mathematics. The nation invested heavily in science and engineering education, and in research. Young people actively were encouraged to study these subjects, and grants and scholarships for advanced study of science and mathematics became more readily available.

This new emphasis launched a generation of scientists and engineers, which, although they comprised a mere 5 percent of our 140 million-person workforce, has driven the powerful engine of American innovation for the last five or six decades. Their contributions advanced our nation's technological leadership, improved our health and our standard of living, and secured our national well-being.

But, there are trends active today which threaten this progress and our global standing.

  • This generation of scientists and engineers — the ones inspired by the launch of Sputnik and aided in their studies by government support — is soon to retire. There are an insufficient number of young scholars in the "pipeline" to replace them.
  • Our national demographics have shifted. Young women and ethnic minority youth now account for more than half of the U.S. population. These youth traditionally have been underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. It is from this nontraditional group of young people — this "new majority" — that the next generations of scientists and engineers also must come.
  • Yet, we have failed to excite and inspire our young people to achieve to the highest levels in these critical subjects, as their scores on international science and mathematics examinations demonstrate.
  • U.S. immigration policies and new opportunities abroad have slowed the flow, to this country, of international students, scientists, and engineers — who have been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise.
  • Finally, federal investment in basic research has declined by half since 1970, as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while other nations are ramping up theirs.

I have termed this convergence of trends the "Quiet Crisis," because it takes several decades to educate and prepare a scientist or an engineer, and although there is not now a shortage, there will be unless we address these trends.

Concern over the impact of the "Quiet Crisis" has been building. A series of joint reports by corporate, academic, and government interests have pointed to the difficulty of finding the highly technically skilled workers which are needed if the U.S. is to remain globally competitive.

President Bush took a step toward addressing the situation in his January State of the Union address, announcing an American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) to improve mathematics and science education.

Over the last months, members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, on both sides of the aisle, have introduced more than a dozen bills designed to improve America's ability to compete in the global economy. They include support for mathematics and science education, and scholarships for teachers in these disciplines; support for graduate fellowships; increased appropriations for basic research and research infrastructure in science and engineering; and stronger basic research programs at the Department of Energy, among other related actions.

In addition, many of the bills address the research and development (R&D) tax credit, immigration and visa issues, energy security, and other issues affecting American corporations.

Several components of the ACI were included in the FY 07 Presidential budget request. These include increased research funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. Money is allocated in the Department of Education budget to improve K-12 mathematics teaching, to train teachers to teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, and to evaluate mathematics and science education programs conducted by federal agencies.

This is a beginning. We must remain watchful that every new program embraces the young women and ethnic minority youth who comprise the "new majority" of our new demographics — "the underrepresented majority." Diversity in science and engineering is more than an issue, or an option — or a cause. It is a national imperative, on the success of which rests our continued global leadership in innovation, our pre-eminence, our national security, and our economic well-being.

For the young people here this morning, who already are leaders and achievers in the arts and the liberal arts, I want you to know that there is a very important place for you in this future. Indeed, the future of innovation requires a diversity of knowledge, of understanding, of research. Increasingly, the arts, the sciences, and technology will intersect. At Rensselaer, we are constructing a unique program in a unique building — the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC. When EMPAC opens in 2008, it will serve as a platform where art will inform science, engineering, and technology, and vice versa. Engineers, scientists, and artists working together will use leading-edge media tools and technologies, to create new visions, new art, new concepts. They will debate questions of art and science which defy conventional answers, create solutions to known, and as yet unknown, challenges, and develop new understandings and new ways of looking at concepts, images, and sounds. The result will be a lively interdisciplinary dialogue, with discovery and innovation as end products. EMPAC will be both a creative performance platform and program, and a research platform in areas such as visualization, animation, disaster modeling, and national security.

Artists are important to our future, too. Just as the artists of the Harlem Renaissance have helped to shape this country, so, too, can the artists and educators, here this morning, carry on this rich tradition and leave your marks. The contributions of the people who came before you have made your work — and your dreams — possible. Find ways to carry that forward, to inspire others, to be role models, to lend a hand, and to lift someone up, so that they can participate and benefit. This is how we, as a community, will move forward. Follow the examples of the "living legends" whom we honor today.

Langston Hughes, poet and friend of Zora Neale Hurston, wrote: "An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose." May you move forward with courage and with creativity, as you honor those who came before you, and blaze the trail for those to come.

Congratulations again to the honorees here this morning, enjoy the festival, and continue to live the dream.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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