This month's heavily attended conference focusing on black women academics culminated in an appeal to President Clinton asking him for action on a variety of domestic and international issues.
The appeal, drafted by some of the more than 2,000 attendees at the conference entitled "Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name 1894-1994," asked President Clinton to commission a blue-ribbon panel on race relations; to promote black women's research and extend the Glass Ceiling Commission to address women of color in academia; to extend funding for community-based social service organizations for the poor; to end covert actions against Haiti and restore President Aristide to power, and to continue to support democracy in South and Southern Africa.
"Critical aspects of this new public policy initiative must center on economic independence, not just welfare reform; the non-demonization of black youth in the anti-crime bill and elsewhere, and youth upliftment programs," the letter said in reference to domestic social initiatives.
Attendance was considerably greater than the 500-600 initially expected for the event, which took place on campus Jan. 13-15 and was conceived and planned by Assistant Professors Robin Kilson and Evelynn Hammonds. Attendees and more than 50 members of the media came from all over the country. The keynote speakers were Professor Lani Guinier of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, president of Spelman College, and Professor Angela Davis of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
At the opening of the conference, President Charles M. Vest called for accelerated and thoughtful programs of recruitment and mentoring to increase the numbers of black women academics at the nation's colleges and universities. Mentoring and career development are crucial for black women academics, "but it won't do the job alone-not until there are more black women on the faculty to share the load," he said.
Last year, Dr. Vest said, 25 percent of all the black women who earned PhDs in chemical engineering in the United States-four-joined the tenure-track faculty at MIT. "That was one woman. So you see my point," he said. The most important way to increase the opportunities universities have to recruit black women for faculty posts is by encouraging more young black women to pursue academic careers, he added.
"Science and engineering. are human endeavors. And they will reach their full potential only when their leaders and practitioners bring a wide range of experiences and perspectives to the profession," Dr. Vest said. "Thus, we need more women, and more black women, in advanced roles in order to be as successful as possible."
Conference attendees participated in more than 60 sessions many dealing with issues of how academia and black women relate to each other, such as the session entitled "Race and Gender Politics in Academic Culture." Many sessions also dealt with reaching into society in general. Discussions ranged from the welfare state to the power of Information to the portrayal of black women in Hollywood and the media.
The Jan. 14 panel session "The Political (Re)Awakening of Black Women: What's Feminism Got to Do With It?" was one of the most popular. Attendees crowded into the room to hear a discussion about whether feminism was a match for black women and the need to act together and in support of others such as Asian women. Panel members included Angela Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw of University of California in Santa Cruz, Gina Dent of Columbia and Wahneema Lubiano of Princeton.
Other large sessions included "Black Female Sacrificial Political Lambs: Anita Hill and Lani Guinier" and "The Truth of Our Lives: Black Women's Narratives as Primary Knowledge Sources."
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 20).