September 22, 2020
Dear A&A Community,
I hope this message finds you healthy and safe.
We know that many in our community are suffering and do not feel safe. We have been working to use our capabilities and resources here at the University of Washington to move us to listen, hear, process and act. The COVID-19 pandemic threw us into uncertainty, vulnerability and mourning.
Then, the upheaval brought by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others helped to expose ever more clearly the shaky foundations on which our society and institutions have been built and which have been tolerated. We are all hurting, and we have heard from some of our Black students, that they are really struggling. We have serious challenges ahead to work on in Anti-racism, but as a department we are ready for the task.
The response to the pandemic of our students, faculty and staff, and the Class of 2020 in particular, is evidence of how creative and resilient our A&A community is. I want to take a moment to recognize the extraordinarily difficult close to this school year, but I know our students will take these lessons of adaptability and innovation with them as they start their careers.
Our department took to Zoom and made it work. Our seniors redirected, multiple times, the focus of their capstone projects to deliver the most value for their sponsors and their own learning under the circumstances. I was so proud to be part of our first A&A Capstone Film Fest to see the fun and creativity these teams brought to their three-minute videos.
Our graduate students continued their work as TAs and RAs to deliver quality teaching and research. Many of our grad students, after working for years to arrive at their exams or defend their dissertations, were suddenly bumped to Zoom instead of the traditional gathering together to present to their advisers, peers, friends and family for the culmination of their research.
The Class of 2020, both undergraduate and graduate, strongly told us that they were not interested in a virtual department graduation, but that they wanted to come back, together, to bring a close to their A&A education, properly, in person. I want to thank all of our students, faculty and staff not only for adjusting to the pandemic reality of 2020, but also for making this department and the academic experience special enough for the students to demand a proper closing. Mourning what we have lost at the end of this year is a testament to what we had. And we look forward to seeing the Class of 2020 walk in cap and gown at the Museum of Flight on March 27, 2021.
As we journey together in change and healing and process the events of the past few weeks, I would like to draw on the words of Ijeoma Oluo, Seattle writer and activist. In her talk at the UW School of Public Health back in October, she shared thoughts about engaging in conversations about race with People of Color:
“It is a painful topic. We are talking about issues of systemic racism. It is the lived trauma of human beings. We aren’t having thought exercises. We aren’t having debate. We are talking about something that people are living, even often in the context of the conversation itself. We are talking about the cumulative effect of a lifetime of racism and the harm of racism.”
“Everyday interactions are what are crushing People of Color. And it has been everyday interactions with our systems: How we support our systems; What we need from our systems. What we don’t get from our systems.”
As we look to personally and communally navigate our roles in the wider culture, I feel extremely fortunate to work within the context of the University of Washington where increasing diversity, equity and inclusion is a mission. We are imperfect people in an imperfect system, but I know what is happening here at the UW, in A&A and in our individual labs and classes will move the needle. And there is a need for all of us to reflect and act on what we can do as individuals.
Our department is working together as a community to take these steps. We are providing hosted activities to educate ourselves, we are actively assessing the places and means by which racist language, actions and behaviors are occurring in our classes, labs and events, and we are creating objective rubrics for assessment, accountability and action to be applied to all aspects of our spaces of influence.
Oluo closed her talk with words of inspiration and a call to action for us all:
“When I say that racism is in everything, it’s in every system we interact with, [but] that means that an opportunity to be Anti-racist is in every system you interact with and that’s amazing . . . And fifty times a day you get a chance to make a different choice that deconstructs racism.
“Start to look at the work you’re doing here on campus. Look at all your interactions. Look at where you’re sitting in your classrooms. Look at the work you’re doing. Look at your peer group. Your friend group. What could I being doing here from an Anti-racist perspective? Where can I insert a little of that discomfort that allows for honest dialogue? Where can I make change? Where can I look for what I am doing that is causing harm so that I can find what I can do to end that harm.”
So, as we congratulate the Class of 2020, we work with them and the rest of our community to build a better future for all. Let's make the adaptability of the last few months our trademark in the continuing fight as we work to be better, do more, educate ourselves, set actionable goals and be accountable to those goals for a more equitable and just society. There is much to be done.
Professor and Chair
William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics