ECE Stands with Black Lives Matter

Members of our community share their stories, their fears, and their hopes for a more inclusive, just future.

The horrific killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade have sparked protests across the country, fueling the movement to address white supremacy and the foundation of anti-Black racism in America. ECE stands in strong support of stamping out systemic anti-Black racism.

Here, members of ECE share their stories and experiences as we continue to strive for a more inclusive, supportive community. You will find additional resources, supportive actions, and initiatives at the end of this piece.

Community gatherings and stories

On June 3rd and June 5th, the EECS community gathered virtually to support one another, to listen to one another, to commiserate, to express outrage or concern, and to speak of action and hope in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“We hope that this is the beginning of constructive dialogue,” said Mingyan Liu, Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of ECE. “We are all shaped by our individual experiences. Sharing that experience can be extremely powerful.”

During these gatherings, Herbert Winful, the Joseph E. and Anne P. Rowe Professor of Electrical Engineering, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and ECE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead, shared some of his personal experiences and gave us permission to publish them here:

As I watched that horrifying video of George Floyd with the policeman’s knee to his neck, what I thought to myself was, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”

When I was a graduate student at a university on the West Coast, I kept being stalked by campus police who would stop me and ask me if I was a student and if I had an ID. They would do this all hours of the day, morning, noon, and night. I counted at least eight times that I was stopped and asked to show ID. I asked my white friends, ‘Have you ever been stalked?’ And they said, ‘No, why? Do the campus police stalk people?’ They didn’t even know it happened.

So finally, after about the ninth time, I decided that I wasn’t going to show my ID. I was sitting in front of my lab building one afternoon, and I saw the campus police pass by, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, here we go again. I’m sure they’re going to come and harass me.” Sure enough, they got out of the van, three of them came up to me and asked me to show ID. 

This time I said, ‘No. I’m a student, and I’m not going to show ID.’ Well – the three of them wrestled me to the ground, put handcuffs on me behind my back, put me in cab of the police van, and took me to the station, where one of them stuck his paw into my back pocket, pulled out my wallet, breaking my watch in the process, and then pulled out my ID. They finally let me go – and they didn’t even apologize for what they had done. 

I reported it to the Dean, and of course nothing happened. This was back in around 1979 or 1980. That was just one of the more egregious acts of racial profiling that I underwent, and it still happens. I’ve been stopped by police here in Ann Arbor when driving while Black, so I know these things still happen.

We need to do something about it.

It seems like when the police swear to serve and protect, they’re swearing to protect white people from Black people. We shouldn’t let that happen any more.

Prof. Winful's TedX Talk on his research, his teaching, and his symbiotic relationship with the arts community on campus.

Demba Komma, a PhD student who is co-advised by Liu and Prof. Hun-Seok Kim, attended the gatherings. 

“If we want to continually improve the nation, these conversations have to be had, and we need to hear from perspectives that have not been amplified for a long time,” Komma said. “Given that the percentage of people of African descent is very low in engineering, having these conversations will help many other people understand the challenges that people of this background face. Everyone wins if we try to create a more just society.”

Komma grew up in The Gambia, West Africa, and came to the U.S. in 2013. One of the challenges for him was learning that his experience in the U.S. would be largely impacted by his race in ways that fellow immigrants may not experience or understand.

Demba Komma Enlarge
Demba Komma conducts research on wireless systems. His current research project is designing a narrow-band radio frequency(RF) indoor localization system with accuracy within tens of centimeters

“I learned a bit about the Civil Rights movements from school and my own readings, but I still found myself very uneducated about actual race relations,” Komma said. “As an immigrant, I have a lot of similarities to other immigrants, but I also have a lot of other challenges on top of that. I had to do a lot of learning myself to be aware that I still might be judged on how I look, which has never been the case where I was from.”

Komma said that even small gestures like the community gatherings are helpful.

“I’m really grateful to the EECS department and to our department chair,” Komma said. “Organizing a town hall at this moment in time actually shows that the department does really care about the wellbeing of students, and that actually meant a lot.”

Komma hopes that this moment marks the beginning of truly systemic, transformational change. 

“The hope is that we actually move forward into a more equal society,” Komma said. “We could actually start to live the ideals of the United States constitution. Because, for the most part, people internationally actually love the United States because of the Declaration that was enacted and the ideals of Liberty, Justice, and Equality for all. In trying to make a perfect union of states, we should strive to get better and make sure the values of Equality, Justice, and Liberty actually apply to everyone regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or country of origin. So, I hope this movement propels us in that direction.”

We should strive to get better and make sure the values of Equality, Justice, and Liberty actually apply to everyone regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or country of origin.

Demba Komma, ECE PhD student

Also in attendance at the community gatherings was Nathan Louis, a PhD student who is advised by Prof. Jason Corso. Louis serves as the Graduate Student Advisory Committee Representative for the U-M chapter of the Graduate Society of Black Engineers and Scientists.

“I think it’s important that, when things like this happen, we’re educating ourselves and are being open to understanding what someone is experiencing, although you may never have seen that yourself,” Louis said. “For some people, a lot of the anger that we’re seeing now  may seem unwarranted, but this isn’t happening because of this one specific issue. It’s an accumulation of issues where there’s almost no accountability and there’s nothing being done to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Louis said most of his friends in engineering are non-Black, and social issues aren’t usually a main topic of conversation. 

“Engineers tend to shy away from social issues as much as possible, and I think that might need to change,” Louis said. “When something like this comes up, you have no choice but to address it and discuss it. So talking with my friends, you can kinda see where people stand, and it’s nice to see that people understand the situation for what it is, and they can see that it’s an ongoing issue and that something needs to be done.”

Nathan Louis Enlarge
Nathan Louis conducts research in the area of Computer Vision. His current project focuses on visual object tracking with applications for medical training videos.

Many people are wondering how to support their friends and peers. Louis said he really appreciated that his advisor made a point to acknowledge the situation during a recent lab meeting. Corso offered messages of support and solidarity to his students and welcomed conversation to be held either publicly or privately. 

“I think he addressed the situation appropriately,” Louis said. “Saying nothing, especially when you’re in a position of power, is definitely a non-starter.” 

As for how we move forward, Louis championed the individual political power that we have.

“We should use this opportunity to focus a little more on local voting opportunities,” Louis said. “One thing we can do is identify or recognize who our District Attorneys are and what their viewpoints are. Addressing issues like this is broken up into multiple steps. The first step is protesting to bring awareness, because it definitely has an impact on how everybody else sees the situation, and the next step is to focus on different types of legislation or political power that can ensure some specific actions to bring about the actual future change.”

We should use this opportunity to focus a little more on local voting opportunities.

Nathan Louis, ECE PhD student

Why it matters in engineering

While it is easy to say that racist attitudes, actions, and the structures that support them must end, we must do more. Importantly, we must examine our own culture, both in engineering and here at U-M, and ask “How can we be better?” It is not only crucial to helping our friends, mentors, and peers, it is crucial for improving all the work that we do. 

“I did a focus group with African American students,” Winful shared, “and they get signals or actual statements from peers that make them feel that they don’t belong. They [non-Black people] wonder how they [Black students] got admitted, whether they are capable. And this leads to a lot of stress and sense of isolation. How do we combat that?”

Electrical Engineering undergrad Camille Burke, who graduated this past spring, said one of the biggest challenges for her was often being the only Black person in a class. 

“It was a little difficult feeling comfortable working in that environment and feeling like the only person, feeling a little isolated, and feeling like I had to question my own self, like, ‘Am I supposed to be here?’” Burke said. 

Burke also shared:

Personally, for me, I was always ashamed of being behind, asking the stupid question in class, getting lower grades because how synchronous that would be with the way I look. I remember for one class I stopped going to my labs because my GSI made me feel so inferior because of the confusion I would have at times (which is natural studying this subject). But I did not see him treat any of my other peers like that. I was the only female and the only Black student in that class. So I think it is important for instructors at all levels to take an extra step with their Black (and minority students in general) to show that you see them, whether that’s getting to know them, where they came from, asking them how the feel in the classroom, where they’re at with the material, remember our names. Because we really believe often that you all could care less if we get through the class. It’s important for instructors and peers to understand what it took for us to be there and the pressure to remain there. It truly makes all the difference in your performance when you are not constantly questioning whether or not you should be there. 

Being a Black female engineer, I am not just doing it for my own interest necessarily. I have to be a body in that space, a face they see, oftentimes the only one, to show that we do belong in these spaces, you should see us in these spaces. And everybody is waiting to see you quit/fail, nobody believes you made it past freshman/sophomore year. So many times people have been skeptical that I was in my senior or junior year, that I was even an electrical engineer period. So I can’t quit, I can’t show weakness, I have to be here and finish to make a point. And that can be a lot of pressure especially when at times you don’t feel welcome or acknowledged by your professors and peers.

Camille Burke talks about her work with GRID Alternatives, her experience as president of student activism group "ONE," what it's like to be a minority in STEM, and how her mom inspired her to pursue electrical engineering.

Burke found community in several student organizations on campus. She served as president of the U-M student chapter, ONE, which is a global advocacy organization that works to mobilize governments to push legislation to eradicate issues such as extreme poverty, educational inequality, and more. Burke also served as an executive board member for U-M student group, GRID Alternatives Students for Sustainable Energy, an affiliate of the NGO GRID Alternatives. GRID Alternatives sends students to underprivileged communities around the world to install solar panels to provide clean, affordable energy to homes and communities. Burke was drawn to GRID for they understand that you cannot separate engineering or science from social justice. They are one and the same. 

“Engineering is not just about the numbers, it’s not just about the lab results, it’s about the impact, it’s about who it’s delivered to in the end, it’s about how it’s applied in real life,” Burke said. “I don’t think I could walk away from my engineering experience not being at least conscious of environmental justice [and social justice] and how important it is and what we do as engineers.”

I don't think I could walk away from my engineering experience not being at least conscious of environmental justice [and social justice] and how important it is and what we do as engineers.

Camille Burke, Electrical Engineering undergrad

Burke also had a role model encouraging her and helping her navigate her own path.

“I was inspired by my mom, who was an electrical engineer,” Burke said. “Just seeing someone who looked like me that could do it, really inspired me to go for it.”

The importance of role models who share a similar identity or background has long been emphasized in STEM fields. In 1971, Prof. Leo McAfee was the first Black professor hired by the College of Engineering. Among those for whom he served as a role model and would later give remarks at his retirement party were David Tarver (BSE MSE EE 1975 1976), who went on to start the company Telecom Analysis Systems (which he later sold for $30M), Prof. Rhonda Franklin (MSE PHD EE 1990 1995), and Prof. Rashaunda Henderson (MSE PHD EE 1994 1999). They saw Leo as a role model for their own future success and as a symbol of hope when times were tough.

“Research shows that if you have diversity then you’re more able to come up with a better solution because you have different points of view leading toward the solution,” said Franklin, who co-founded the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society’s International Microwave Symposium (IMS) Project Connect, which aims to provide science, technology, engineering, and math enriching opportunities to underrepresented undergraduate college students.

Prof. Franklin speaks about how to increase diversity in engineering.

Tarver, whose motto is “Change the world, and have fun doing it,” became a community organizer and entrepreneurial activist after growing a telecommunications business to a market value in excess of $2B. He established the Fred and Louise Tarver Scholarship Fund to honor the sacrifices made by his parents and help others achieve their dreams. Dreams can be elusive when it can be dangerous to take a walk while Black.

David Tarver talks about his memoir, "Proving Ground."

The ECE Willie Hobbs Moore Alumni Lecture series was the brainchild of Professor Winful. The series brings to campus distinguished underrepresented minority PhD graduates of ECE to give seminars and interact with and mentor students of color.  Moore (1934–1994), named one of the 100 “most promising black women in corporate America” by Ebony magazine in 1991, was the first Black woman at Michigan to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Electrical Engineering (‘58 and ‘61), and the first Black woman in the country to earn a PhD in physics (‘72). The many other activities Winful has taken on to improve opportunities for underrepresented minorities would seem to be a full time job, but for Winful, it’s just a part of being human. 

What next?

“While there is hope for change with the level of involvement by people of all races across our country,” said Prof. Fred Terry, Chair of the Committee for an Inclusive Department, “it is frightening how similar the current situation is to the 60’s and 70’s – excessive force from police leading to riots, political leaders calling for ‘law and order’ and advocating even more aggressive use of force by police. The similarities are chilling.”

Here in ECE, we will continue to talk about this and work toward justice and authentic inclusivity in our department and our field. We recognize that we have poor representation at all levels of our institution. Some of the current efforts we’ve taken to address this disparity include:

  • Partnering with the National Society of Black Engineers for recruitment and additional programs
  • Recruiting at the Atlanta University Center Consortium Graduate, Professional and Engineering School Fair, the largest consortium of historically Black institutions in the world
  • Requiring all faculty (and optional for staff) on recruitment committees to attend an ADVANCE training, which is a U-M program designed to address necessary institutional changes to support the needs of a diverse faculty in all fields
  • Actively organizing programs and hosting faculty from Morehouse College and Prairie View A&M University, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to explore cross-collaboration opportunities
  • Expanding our Electrify summer tech camps for high school students by adding camps that are taught at the Michigan Engineering Zone in Detroit
  • All staff and faculty are encouraged to attend (and many do attend) DEI trainings each year
  • Participating in the College of Engineering’s Dual Degree in Engineering partnership with the colleges of the Atlanta University Center Consortium (Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College) 
  • ECE will be partnering with Detroit Middle Schools once the pandemic crisis is past
  • Establishing a variety of committees and initiatives to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive department, and including DEI efforts for recruitment for students and faculty as part of our Strategic Plan
  • Professors Heath Hofmann and P.C. Ku, the ECE Graduate and Undergraduate Chairs, are holding office hours on Tuesdays, from 11am-12pm, during the month of June. These office hours are open to all students with the goal of addressing any and all concerns including racial injustice, the pandemic, and the presidential proclamation that directly affects some of our international students.
  • View more of our initiatives and resources, and stay up-to-date on our DEI news

“I think we are doing more each year at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and we always welcome new ideas and suggestions, but I also feel that we really need to be starting young, at elementary school level, to truly dismantle many of the barriers,” Liu said. 

Resources for those who want to combat, or are negatively impacted by, anti-Black racism