Remarks at the MLK Lunch

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Good morning!  Thank you, Paola for your introduction. And many thanks also to everyone who helped bring us together this morning, including:

  • Our hosts, the Committee on Race and Diversity
  • The MLK Planning Committee
  • And our Institute Community and Equity Officer, Ed Bertschinger
  • (Also – a reminder: Thanks to Ed and his many volunteers, the second day of the Institute Diversity Summit is coming up next Thursday, February 12. I encourage you all to attend, and to bring a friend)

And this morning, above all, a big thank-you to our student speakers -- our incredible student speakers! -- Dextina and NickYou make me proud to be associated with MIT.

As Paola explained, because of our latest blizzard, it was impossible for our keynote speaker to travel to Boston. It is disappointing that we will not have the chance to hear her ideas.

But I believe this turn of events has one positive consequence…because it gives us a little more time to enjoy each other’s company…and to listen to each other, as members of one community.

Let me expand a bit on that idea.

Last December, a number of MIT students, staff and faculty held a very compelling protest to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” Some of the participants are here with us today.

As we all know, the protest emerged in response to a series of tragic events -- in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and elsewhere. Here on our campus, it was a local expression of a national movement that produced a wide range of inspiring and impressive protests across the country.

In my view, the MIT protest was uniquely dramatic. I found the protestors’ silence intensely moving…and impossible to forget. Listening to that silence, I heard pain, and outrage… a deep moral purpose…a refusal to accept injustice…and the conviction that, as Americans, we must insist on fair and equal treatment for everyone.

And because the protest on our campus was unusual, unique, distinctively ours…it made me feel a special kind of hope.

As I said at the time, MIT is a microcosm of our broader society. It would be naïve to imagine that we are somehow immune to the problems of that society, including problems around race and justice.

We are continuous with that society. But we are also apart from it…in ways that can make an important difference.

At MIT, we are united as a community by our mission…by our values…and by our culture.  We are united in the work of advancing knowledge…educating students… and bringing knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. We are united in working together to solve hard and difficult problems, to benefit humanity.

And we are united by the fact that, for each of us, being here is a choice. No one is born belonging to MIT. We choose to be part of this community because it matters to us…and that helps to create a sense that we belong, it helps to create a sense of home.

I believe these qualities that unite us present a special opportunity.

Let me explain, starting with this observation – something I try constantly to keep in mind:  That the only way we make progress…is by listening with respect to people who don't think or experience the world exactly the way we do.

That is true in the classroom and the laboratory. It’s true in our own families! And it is certainly true for any community as complex as MIT.

Our community includes people of virtually every race, religion, ethnicity and background…speaking dozens of languages…including English with a myriad of accents! It includes people who know how to cook thousands of hot meals a week for hungry students – and people who know how to send a satellite to the moon. People who finished first in the Science Olympiad… and people who were the first in their family to finish high school. (And those are often the same people!) People who have lived in New England all their lives…and people who experienced their first snowstorm last week!

In this rich community of ours, we have a great deal to learn from one another. Fortunately – as different as we are, we are members of one community… so, most of the time, we can trust each other enough to really listen.




The evening following the silent protest, many members of our community came together for  “a community-based, solutions-oriented dialogue on race at MIT.”

As I understand it, the room was overflowing. The conversation was intense, sometimes even uncomfortable.  People spoke from the heart, and they listened the same way.  And… in the best MIT tradition…they left that evening focused on solutions.

I am particularly proud that several of the students who attended reached out to the MIT Police… and together, as members of our one community, they are exploring ways to begin a serious dialogue.  

For both sides, the first goal is to understand each other better, and to build stronger connections on our own campus. They want to see if they can use the strength of our community – the shared mission, values, respect and trust – to create a safe place to explore difficult subjects from many points of view.

A safe place for us to listen to each other, and to learn from one another.

To me, nothing could be more MIT. And I have high hopes that this beautiful act of listening could be the start of something very important for our community.


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I began by noting that the absence of our official speaker gave us more time to listen to each other. 

So let me close by sharing one more MIT voice – from a student who is enrolled in our Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, or “UPOP.”

As she wrote to her instructor:

“MIT is such an easy place to forget how valuable you are…to forget about the positives and keep focusing on what to improve, how to study harder, research more, socialize more, get higher grades, be better.

“But then to have others say, ‘I appreciate your compassion, or your energy, or your voice,’ reminds us that there is so much more than grades and school and success. There is humanity.

“And I think that’s very easy to forget about, especially here. What I liked about UPOP [is]… the ability to connect with people….and see things from their side first.”

So, in the spirit of Dr. King: Let us make 2015 a year in which we all take the time to listen… to appreciate each other’s humanity… to connect with people….and to see things from their side first. Thank you.