Escape Velocity Episode 1: Conversations with Black Faculty

The experiences of Black engineers in the academy – featuring Professors Timothy Pinkston and Stacey Finley

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s podcast series “Escape Velocity” originally launched in 2016 as an audio drama series capturing the intersection of engineering and everyday life — stories of love in a time of algorithms, unlocking the human body and even an old school radio drama about AI buildings as friends.

Now, it has been reimagined in partnership with Brandi Jones, USC Viterbi vice dean of diversity and strategic initiatives, to capture the intersection of race, academia and STEM.

Conversations with Black Faculty

Dan: Before we start, a quick warning that today’s episode contains the use of a racial slur within the context of one of our stories.

 “Escape Velocity” intro music

Dan: From the USC Viterbi School of Engineering in Los Angeles …

Brandi: This is “Escape Velocity.” I’m Dr. Brandi Jones.

Dan: And I’m Daniel Druhora. Usually, when we think about escape velocity — it’s something about rockets —

NASA audio: “10…9…Ignition sequence starts..6…”

Sound of rocket launch

Dan: 25,000 miles an hour. That’s how fast a rocket needs to go to break free of earth’s gravity. But in the summer of 2020, that idea of “escape” took on a whole new meaning —

Audio montage from protests: chants, police sirens

Brandi: How to escape from the influence of something as invisible and powerful as gravity —

Various people say “systemic racism”

Brandi: In these next few episodes, we will explore the intersection of race, academia and STEM. Today’s episode: the stories of two pastor’s kids from the Midwest who found their way to the City of Angels…the only two black professors to receive tenure in the 115 year history of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

 Dan: We start off with Professor Timothy Pinkston. Electrical engineer. Expert in computer architecture. The USC Viterbi vice dean for faculty affairs.

We met him in his home in View Park, a historic black neighborhood in South LA.

Brandi: That’s not an accident. He used to live in Santa Monica. He got tired of being viewed with suspicion by his neighbors. So he moved to View Park. 85% black. Former home to Ray Charles. Tina Turner. Now, even a princess.

British news reporter: Royal Highness Meghan Markle, congratulations to you both.

Meghan: Thank you

Reporter: Can we start with the proposal…

Dan: To understand Timothy Pinkston, you might start with these guys…

Audio of Pastor Pinkston giving a sermon

Brandi: That’s Pastor Harold E. Pinkston Sr., Timothy’s dad. And then there’s …

Audio of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving a speech

Dan: Timothy’s dad knew Dr. King very well. They both were assistant pastors at the same church in Boston, marched together on Selma, and then on Washington. Timothy was there, too, a year before he was born. As he says, in his mother’s belly.

Brandi: From the beginning, things were challenging for Timothy’s family —

Timothy: I was born in the year in which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Okay. And although I was just a newborn babe in arms, and unaware of racism, obviously, my parents feared for our family’s lives in the Mountainside, New Jersey neighborhood in which we lived, being the only black residents surrounded by neighbors who some of which were overt members of the KKK.

Daniel: At age 4, Timothy is walking with his parents to kindergarten, and he notices something. This strange 10 foot, mile long wall.

Timothy: My first awareness of racism occurred when my parents explained to me as a young child, what was behind the 10 foot walls, 10 foot wall premises that I walked pass, going and coming to school every day. It was in kindergarten, first grade in Philadelphia where we had moved to.

Brandi: Behind the walls is the 43-acre campus of Girard College, a private, white-only boarding school, created by Stephen Girard, one of the four richest men in American history (who profited directly from slavery in the 19th Century). The school was still segregated in 1968 – 14 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.

Timothy: Seeing this 10 foot wall building which I was not permitted to even look into or even have access to was my first you know, I guess, becoming aware, realization of the stripping away of  access and opportunity for persons like me, black people that systematic racism that I first came, came into contact with.

Brandi: Soon after, Timothy’s family moves to rural Ohio. To be clear, they are the only black family in their town. Hostile neighbors on both sides (one proudly displayed on his front door: “No niggers, spics or Jews allowed.”) At age 6, his parents give him “the talk.” How he should behave and interact with white people.

Timothy: And so, my parents did not want their children, I’m the youngest of four, to get lynched. It was a very real possibility in rural, rural central Ohio. And so, growing up, I understood that there are these kinds of viewpoints out there that could be detrimental to my life, if I didn’t you know, remain conscious about it in my interaction with people.

They said you know you should never, interacting with adult white people, never refer to them by the first name and always be very polite, don’t come across in a way that they might, might take your confidence or your self assuredness as being, I’ll just say the word uppity, as being something that they don’t expect you to be able to act this way in their presence.

So the talk is about being cautious. But not being overly cautious to the point of cowardly, and that’s the key. You want to disarm, you want to de escalate, you want to not cause or actually you want to mitigate racial tensions but at the same time, not lose your own self dignity and respect.

Dan: This way of thinking about the world and oneself was ingrained in Timothy’s DNA for the rest of his life.

Timothy: In my interactions with faculty, students, staff, people outside of USC, I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m a black man, and that people may view me in a way that, you know, stereotype me, perhaps again, from the prejudices that they may have or their, you know, stereotypes that that I, you know, might be a threat to them. And, and so, when I’m walking down the street, passing by, let’s say on campus or anywhere passing by, you know, white women or, you know, white people, I go out of my way to be to come across non-threatening, you know, being extra polite and kind, or, you know, perhaps looking away. But I am conscious of, of how I might be perceived, which, which is a burden. It’s a burden that that I carry every day as a black man.

Brandi: After two years as the only black family in a more affluent, white school district, the lines are redrawn to remove them. Timothy and his siblings must now go miles further away. They’re always the last to exit the bus.

Dan: Then in high school, 1980, he leads a boycott of the black players from the football team. He and his brother and other black athletes are denied the chance to start even though they outplay their white peers in practice. The story made the news and was covered in the local Delaware Gazette. Soon after, the coach got fired.

Brandi: In college, at THE Ohio State, Timothy saw more effects of systemic racism.

Timothy: I went to Ohio State University 1981, and studied engineering, electrical engineering. And I saw the systemic racism in–the effects of it, let’s say–in the success or lack thereof, of my fellow African Americans who, and minority students who were in my class, you know, of I was, I believe the only African American I believe the only minority, who graduated in my class, you know, on time out of dozens who, who, who joined me in that first year.

Brandi: So, again, Timothy fights back. At Ohio State, he creates a new student group, the Rome Retention Honorary Organization, to help underrepresented students prepare for engineering courses.

Dan: At Stanford, as president of the Black Graduate Student Association, he builds a coalition of student groups to successfully lobby for a multicultural theme house, a safe place for graduate students during a time when racial tensions at Stanford make national news.

Brandi: Now, In 1992, Rodney King is beaten by the LAPD. The LA uprising erupts soon after. In 1968, Martin Luther King—Timothy’s father’s friend—is assassinated, leading to the 1968 riots. Both moments are big turning points for Timothy’s family. Here’s how he tells it…

Timothy: I joined USC in 1993 in the fall of 1993. After graduation from Stanford and then having a short postdoc there at Stanford. It’s I think, interesting to note that there were some race riots in 1992, rising from the verdict and the Rodney King beating case. And it might be interesting to note that just as my father was hired into, you know, Ohio Wesleyan at the time of some, you know, racial tensions and riots and actions taken by that academic institution to further diversify its faculty. Coincidentally, I was hired at USC, within a year’s time of the race riots that occurred here at, in LA.  Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not.

Brandi: Timothy became the first African-American tenure track faculty in USC Viterbi history.

Dan: Now, his father’s university in Ohio – Ohio Wesleyan – produced Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who helped Jackie Robinson integrate major league baseball.

Sports announcer: This is truly an historic day here in Jersey City. A 27-year old Negro named Jackie Robinson is playing his first game for the Montreal Royals, the Dodger Farm Club. Robinson steps to the plate. Here’s the pitch! Swing around, drive into the deep left field. It might be… home run, Jackie Robinson!

Dan: Timothy’s not a huge baseball fan, but he can’t help but feel some connection with Jackie Robinson.

Timothy: One that I certainly faced, which I’ll gladly and I’m not ashamed to say is the Jackie Robinson syndrome where you’re the first. And you realize if I don’t succeed maybe that destroys it for everybody else who comes behind me.

Brandi: But there’s a burden to being the first, right? There’s the whole idea of “token licensing,” which Timothy says USC is not immune to. This idea that, hey, we’ve done our diversity hire – we’ve checked that box – now let’s go hire who we really want. There’s also the service tax, or as Timothy puts it, “black tax.”

Dan: That’s something that came up in both of our stories.

Brandi: I mean, it’s pretty simple. When you’ve only got one black person, or just a few women, a lot more service is going to be asked of them. Join this committee, speak at this event. We need a diverse face for this or that. You’re doing all this extra work for the greater good, and it’s not taken into account, it’s not valued for promotion purposes. It’s a burden that’s placed on a person that’s not placed on the majority.

Dan: And then there’s the Timothy Pinkston that exists in Olin Hall. The vice dean of faculty affairs. The George Pfleger Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering. But all that changes when he leaves campus and crosses Exposition Boulevard.

Timothy: I have experienced multiple times while at USC as a tenured, full professor, member of the dean’s office, I would say harassed and terrorized by the police. By being, you know, stopped for nothing other than driving while black.

Brandi: Two years ago, Timothy’s at this dinner. He’s part of this USC honorary degree committee, and they’re honoring Charlie Beck, then the LAPD chief. It’s a fancy dinner on the USC campus.

Timothy: That evening, as I’m leaving campus around 8:30/9 o’clock, from that degree, honorary degree banquet where the chief of police of LA was being honored. I’m driving a nice car, Tesla, leaving campus on exiting I guess gate six onto Expedition Expedition Boulevard and so I can make a left turn on to Vermont to come here to my home, and there’s a police car that’s in the far right lane.

Dan: The police officer follows Timothy immediately. The LAPD car continues to follow without flashing lights for several turns.

Timothy: So I pull into a driver a driveway, to allow him to pass me. He doesn’t pass me he stops behind me blocking me now into the park driveway. And so, at this point, I realized okay, this is one of those instances. For some reason this person is curious about me. I don’t know why. And I’m sitting there in my car and then within a few minutes, the policeman comes knocking on my window with his partner, you know, with his hand on his gun. And I pulled down my window and he asked me what are you doing? I am now sitting here reading my emails. No, no. I mean, why are we driving all crazy? I wasn’t driving crazy officer. No, I mean, like, you just turned and you turn again and you turned again. I said, I’ve done I’m not i have not done anything wrong officer. And I was very tempted to say other than driving while black. But I didn’t say that.

Dan: Timothy’s nice suit, his credentials, his brand new Tesla Model X had one problem…

Timothy: So I’m saying this very calmly, but you don’t know how angry I was. So when he was talking to me, I was very upset. But my training kept me to be polite, be courteous, and to not escalate or to cause any kind of racial or any other kind of tension between me and the officer, because people die from that.

Audio from death of George Floyd

Brandi: They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Another news cycle. More Black deaths. More rhyming. For Timothy, each one builds upon a previous trauma.

Timothy: When incidents like the George Floyd or the Rayshard Brooks or other kinds of incidents is even if they aren’t to the death of brutality of police or just harassment by the police occur, it brings up these kinds of traumatic experiences. I would say it’s, over the past few weeks, I’ve been going through post traumatic stress. Experiencing things that you believe you’re experiencing, only because of your race, not because you’re Timothy Pinkston, and I’ve done something, you know, to deserve it, but rather, because of that component of Timothy Pinkston that some other Timothy Pinkston by the same name who happens to be a white person may not and probably does not experience.

Dan: Now, in the aftermath of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and more recently Rayshard Brooks, Timothy is feeling it all over again.

Timothy: The stress and trauma that I’ve been experienced does conjure thoughts in my mind of, you know, protests. Not a desire to riot to the point of you know, looting but of pushing back, of standing up and saying enough. And, you know, and that’s what’s happening all across America. It’s happening at USC. You know, it’s happening in a lot of different neighborhoods. And across the world, you’re seeing that as well, where people are just saying, I’m tired. I’m tired of this burden. You know, of, you know, acting a certain way to try to I wouldn’t call it appeasement, but rather de-escalation, disarming, you know, not being the source of tensions. I’m tired of it, you know, I, it’s enough. You know, I’m just going to be myself, I’m gonna be just like the person next to me who doesn’t have to go through that. Who doesn’t have to take those extra precautions, or those extra, you know, steps. They’re privileged not to have to do that. I’m going to assume that same privilege.

Brandi: Timothy protested back in 1992 after Rodney King’s brutal beating. He’s trying to decide, as a leader in a top 10 school of engineering, what protest should look like for him in 2020. He’s been working with his professional organizations, with his fellow faculty at USC Viterbi, but he wants to get everyone in the fight.

Timothy: What we saw with George Floyd and what we’ve seen with many other cases is an affront of all of our values and truths and beliefs and what we hold dear. It’s everyone’s issue. Everyone should be protesting or everyone should be seeking justice or a path towards making a more equitable and and a just society, one that is not oppressive to certain others, certain groups, whatever the route may be, it’s everyone’s issue.

Dan: He wants USC Viterbi specifically to combat racism in this historic moment.

Timothy: There’s plenty of resources in terms of financial resources to help make a change, whether it’s to hire more African American or minority, underrepresented minority faculty, or to provide mentoring or development of them or students, this funding exists, or can be found. What’s lacking is not the financial resources, but the human resources. What’s lacking, and what the call to action is, is for all faculty to take this up as something that’s dear and near to them. The faculty are the gatekeepers, they are the ones who can make a difference in terms of how do I make sure that my courses that I’m teaching are inclusive that that everybody in my class, feels comfortable to be able to raise your hands ask questions come to my office hours.

Brandi: But he does have a specific message for faculty, students, alumni and staff who want to be helpful.

Timothy: I would say a first step that someone who’s interested in making a difference or change here would be to examine for themselves, articulate and come to an understanding for themselves. Why is this issue important? Why does this matter? Why, why should I take an action? And I believe there would be an avalanche of ideas and actions that one can do once they really understand why it’s important. There’s actions that can be taken within their own spheres of influence. Whether that’s in their own community. Whether it’s in their own household where they’re talking about issues with their family. Whether it’s within their church. Or synagogue or other place of worship. Whether it’s in their place of work. Of course, within reason, when there’s open discourse that’s allowed. Whether it’s in the way they do their work, the way they interact with their professional organizations. There are ways in which their voices can be heard to be allies, advocates, aligned champions of this, even if they aren’t let’s say, quote unquote, protesting. As I’m saying, that is not my approach right now. I’m not in the streets. I may be soon, but I’m not. I’m protesting, or let’s say advocating, in other ways. I think trying to leverage my position and my sphere of influence.

Dan: But through it all, Timothy remains an optimist. Maybe it’s NASCAR banning the Confederate flag. Or maybe it has to do with his first childhood memory of systemic racism.

 Timothy: As to my optimism. I mentioned Gerard College earlier, right. segregated. Don’t you know that today Gerard College is like 95% African American and half women and half men.

Dan: Toward the end of our interview, Timothy takes out his handwritten notes. And he begins to read…

Timothy: I’m optimistic. And I want to share with you one of my favorite poems by Langston Hughes entitled, I too sing America. It goes like this. I too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen, when company comes, but I laugh and eat well and grow strong. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody will dare say to me eat in the kitchen then. Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I too, am America.

Perhaps this is a point where we are ashamed of our lack of action to this point. You know, perhaps this is a point where we’ll see an embracing of all of America and an adoption and a affirmation of all America, where everybody will have a seat at the table and and everybody will be viewed as equal and as one that’s, that’s my hope. I’m optimistic.

Musical interlude

Dan: Meet Professor Stacey Finley. She leads USC’s Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer. So, what exactly is that?

Brandi: Stacey and her team use computational tools to create detailed mathematical models of biological systems. In particular, to help us learn more about cancer. These mathematical simulations can actually predict how cancer will respond to new treatments.

Dan: So using math to fight cancer. That’s pretty cool.

Brandi: Well in case leading a major lab isn’t enough, Stacey is also a mom to two daughters aged nine and seven,  Jillian and Jayla, and a 14 month old son, James. Her husband, Professor James Finley directs USC’s Locomotor Control Laboratory.

Dan: Right now it’s story time for Stacey, Jillian and Jayla. Stacey is reading from Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison. They’re learning about engineer and physician Dr Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space.

Stacey: Mae also wanted to be a dancer and throughout her youth she studied every type of dance. In college in the 1970s Mae double majored in chemical engineering and African American studies. Do you know any other chemical engineers?

Daughters: You!

Stacey: Mommy!

Brandi: Stacey grew up in Kansas City. Like Timothy, she’s the daughter of a pastor. Her mother worked as a teacher.

Dan: So Stacey and her brother spent a lot of time within the nurturing church community. And they also had to meet the strong academic expectations that came from having a teacher for a mom.

Stacey: That shaped also my sense of community seeing a lot of people who look like me at church. That’s where I really gained a sense of understanding of what black people do and who they are and this cultural and social aspect of growing up in a community that looks very similar to me. And so I always felt connected to my history connected to my race, and definitely that was reflected in my church and my family as well.

Brandi: Unlike Timothy, Stacey’s parents didn’t feel they had to have “the talk” with her about how to de-escalate confrontations from white people and authority figures like police.

Dan: Although they did have the talk with her brother, Steven. They expected that being a young Black man, he’d experience the world differently to Stacey. This talk only happened after a particularly frightening ride to school.

Brandi: Imagine this. Stacey and Steven are in the car with their dad. A pastor. A man highly respected in his community. And then, those blue and red flashing lights appear in the rearview. The ever-present threat of driving while Black.

Stacey: First of all my dad, he’s an excellent driver. He never speeds. He’s just he’s just a really good, really good person in general. But on his car, the tail light was out. And so it had been out for a couple of days. It was like the middle of the week, and we weren’t able or he wasn’t able to fix it.

Brandi: At first the officer lets them go with a warning to get the tail light fixed immediately.

Dan: But getting same-day auto repairs is easier said than done, right? Especially when you’ve got a busy work life. When you have kids that need to get to school on time.

Brandi: So the very next day, the same officer is waiting on their regular route. He sees the car and pounces, pulling them over again.

Stacey: And that’s where I felt very scared and nervous because it was the same place the same police officer, he knew that he had pulled my dad over the day before. And so this time, he wasn’t so understanding. And it got, you know, my dad was not trying to escalate the situation is very much trying to de-escalate and, and, you know, use a very calm tone, especially, you know, my brother and I were in the car as well. So he’s trying to, I think, just show a good example. But it’s hard to do right when the police is very much antagonizing and trying to get him to respond in a very anger driven manner. And so that’s one place where, you know, the police officer said, not great things, demeaning things, racist, inappropriate things.

Dan: Up until 7th grade, Stacey was one of maybe three Black girls in her class at her parochial private school. It was a Lutheran school. So it was completely different to the church experience she had grown up with.

Brandi: She felt that in order to fit in, she needed to code switch. To make changes to the way she acted and interacted, including the way that she spoke. Stacey thought that if she didn’t,  she might “stick out like a sore thumb.”

Stacey: You know, we talk differently and have more colloquial sayings. When I’m around my family around my church members and I wanted to, especially at school to, I wanted to show my teachers that I was very smart. I wanted to show my classmates that I was smart. And so I felt like I had to speak differently around them and not let my guard down too much.

Dan: Naturally Stacey gravitated toward the other two Black girls in her class. Sarah and Cynthia became her closest friends, and they bonded over their shared experiences.

Brandi: Stacey also developed friendships outside their core group. She became well versed in navigating the interactions with her mostly white classmates.

Dan: This is one of the reasons Stacey says her parents didn’t feel the need to have “the talk” with her. Because she was living it. Learning to manage these interactions on her own.

Stacey: And I would go to my parents with questions like, why are we different? Why do I have like, especially we had a swim class. So that means we have to swim every single day. And that was something that was you know, I already knew how to swim. But it was an interesting experience because, when black people go swimming we have to do all of this washing of our hair. And it’s really a process of, you know, after you go swimming, to get back into your normal clothes, back into the classroom, and so it’s like right in the middle of the day, I was so nervous about going and then everyone in the class seeing my hair and then seeing how their hair was different and trying to have these conversations. And it was an experience that I would probably not want to relive.

Brandi: At school Stacey fell in love with science and math. She moved to a science magnet high school. It was a much more diverse environment, both in terms of students and teachers.

Dan: Stacey gravitated toward the teachers the other kids found too strict. The ones whose homework was too hard. Stacey saw it as a challenge, to win over the toughest teacher in school.

Brandi: Her algebra teacher, Mr. May, was definitely one the other students found intimidating. But he became Stacey’s role model.

Stacey: Mr. May was very influential in me gaining more confidence and excitement about math. And I know that that played a huge role in me saying, Okay, how can I do something or make a career out of the things that I’m good at. So that was one example where I had a really strong mentor who is also an African American male, who was really helpful in me knowing my own abilities and getting more self confidence in doing that.

Dan: As a young Black woman forging her career in chemical engineering, Stacey continued seeking out the mentors and environments that could help her flourish.

Brandi: She found an ideal place to explore her future path at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, or FAMU.

Marching band music plays

A historically Black university. Here, Stacey qualified for a full scholarship.

Dan: She also found herself in the class of Dr Sonya Stephens. Dr Stevens was another teacher that the other students warned her was no walk in the park. But this only made Stacey want to impress her.

Stacey: When I went into her classroom, she was maybe six or seven months pregnant, and she was lecturing and I fell in love with Dr. Stephens. She was the most amazing professor. Very hard, very rigorous, but I went to her office hours every time that I could and she was very encouraging and supportive. And I saw myself in her at the front of the class commanding this classroom six months pregnant. And so even though it was really hard class, I, I enjoyed it. And when I finished from FAMU, when I went to Northwestern, and got a doctoral degree in chemical engineering, I emailed her and told her, you might not know it, but me seeing you in the front of that classroom my freshman year, left a huge positive impression on me and it helped me to see what was possible.

Brandi: Florida A&M was more than just a great academic experience, it was here where Stacey met James Finley, the love of her life.

Dan: They launched their academic careers in tandem, following each other to Northwestern and to USC, where Stacey started in 2013.

Brandi: But it was at the predominantly white Northwestern University where a fellow graduate student refused to work with Stacey. He hadn’t heard of her previous college and as such, he made racist assumptions about her background.

Stacey: He made it really clear that I couldn’t join his group because he thought that I was not there to contribute, but that I would only be there to take, to get answers from them and to get information from them and not to provide and contribute to the study group. And so, of course, I ended up, you know, making my own study group with other people who were more inviting and welcoming.

Dan: But even as Stacey rose as an emerging leader in her field and became the head of her own center, she still finds herself frustrated by situations with academic peers.

Brandi: Many of these are implicit biases or microaggressions, which when built over time, can have a significant negative effect.

Stacey: So for example, when I was talking to other faculty members, at Northwestern besides my advisor and other students in my class and saying, you know, I think that I could go on and be a faculty member, I could be a principal investigator and run my own lab. And so some of the microaggressions were well, do you really think that you can do that? It’s like, Well, why not? Why? Why couldn’t I do that? Well, you don’t have the right background. There aren’t many people who look like you, you would be like the only one in your department in terms of saying I would be the only African American faculty member in my department. And that would be hard for me and maybe you don’t have what it takes to persevere through that experience. So like microaggressions and, and biases like that is certainly something that I’ve experienced as an academic, as an African American woman in academia. Other cases or other examples are just people you know, when I go to a conference and introduce myself and someone will say, Oh, well, whose lab Are you in? And well, I’m in Stacey Finley’s lab.

Brandi: For Stacey, microaggressions like these go with the territory of being Black in the Ivory. The assumption from her peers that she is still in training. Still completing her degree. Not that she is actually the leader of a major research center.

Dan: Other times, academic colleagues at conferences might comment on how well and clearly she can present her science. As if this is something to be surprised by.

Stacey: And so at the surface, that seems pretty benign. But underneath it, it’s more coming from a place where I didn’t think that people like you could do the things that you’re doing. And that’s the sense that I get in many different circles in many different conferences, and many different meetings that I just feel, people think, and they say in different ways that I’m not supposed to be here, or that they’re surprised that I’m here. And that it’s out of the ordinary, which it is. I mean, we have to be very honest. It is out of the ordinary to have an African American faculty member with tenure in engineering. Right? At USC, I am the second African American faculty member to gain tenure as far as the, in in engineering, as far as the history of the school is known. And so they’re right that it is different, it’s exceptional. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t have the ability and I don’t have the right to be exactly where I am right now.

Brandi: There is clearly much that needs to be done by all academic institutions to advance racial equity. Stacey says that those that want to be true allies need to take the time to educate themselves about the historical and political forces that create these barriers.

Stacey: That’s really where I would ask allies to start. It’s just to understand what are the numbers? And why, why are they so low? And some of that has to do with just, you know, it starts early on, it starts in, you know, elementary school education. It starts, depending on where your family happened to live, and whether it was in a good school district or bad school district. And it’s not where your family happened to live. That’s also part of some of the issues with the educational system in the United States is where was your family allowed to live? Right. And so there’s this whole history that influences where we are right now. And so I think that if there are people who really want to support African Americans and people of color in increasing diversity in academia specifically, then we have to understand the history that that got us to this particular place.

Dan: In the current climate, Stacey and her husband James are naturally worried about the safety of their children. Particularly their 14 month old son, also called James, in a world where police violence against black men is still a stark reality.

Brandi: They recently started to watch Ava DuVernay’s series When They See Us, about the wrongly imprisoned Central Park Five. Stacey and James couldn’t bring themselves to finish the series. They could see their own son in the innocent protagonists.

Dan: As such they haven’t spoken about when they might have “the talk” with their son, to offer him advice on how he might de-escalate confrontations as he gets older. At the moment, it’s all too raw.

Gentle music plays

 Stacey (singing): It’s time to go to sleep

 Baby coos

Stacey: Right now he’s the cutest that he can be. And everyone comments on how cute and adorable and you know his smile just lights up the whole room. But maybe in 11 years, they won’t have those same sentiments. He’s not going to be a cute black boy, he’s going to be a boy who might seem menacing and threatening to other people, and that that is hard to swallow. And I don’t see in that timeframe that things will change significantly enough to where I don’t have to worry about his safety. And don’t have to worry about him going out at night in a car maybe being pulled over by the police. Or just being where he supposed to be in his own car.

Dan: For many in the Black community the relentless cycle of distressing news following the murder of George Floyd has created a huge emotional toll. For Stacey, spending time with her family has brought her comfort.

Stacey: I think one bright light is the fact that we are at home, my husband and I are at home with our children, and we get to see still their innocence. We get to see that they’re still very naive that they just enjoy being around each other and being around all together as a family. And so that’s something that at the end of every day, despite what happens workwise or what happens in the news or in our community, we still can fall back on and enjoy the time that we have together.

Brandi: For Stacey and her daughters, storytime is coming to an end. The girls have some takeaways after learning about Dr Mae Jemison.

Stacey: So even today people are still making history. Do you think that when you get older you’ll be the first African American woman to do something?

Daughters: Yeah!

 Stacey: You think so? What do you think that might be?

 Daughter: Um, maybe paint something or draw something? I want to be an artist.

 Stacey: Yeah, that would be cool.

 Daughter: When I grow up.

 Stacey: Nice. So I just want to read one more thing to you, which is the introduction to this book. It’s written by the author, and it says: To all the women whose stories are in this book. Thank you for being leaders. Thank you for being brave. Thank you for being bold. We are grateful and we are inspired. To all the leaders yet to come, big or little, like you two girls, I cannot wait to hear your stories.