By MURPHY BROWNE
I was awed and just bursting with pride recently at the sight of thousands of young and some not-so-young mostly African-American and African Canadian men and women who attended the 36th Annual National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Convention.
The majority of people attending the convention were engineering students from universities in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, North and South America. Many others were engineers working for private companies, including Fortune 500 companies as well as the U.S. government. The convention, which was held from March 31 to April 4, mainly at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, was the first time that an NSBE annual convention was held outside of the United States.
The organization which has a membership of 33,000 was founded in 1975 at Purdue University by a group of six engineering students (now known as the “Chicago Six”), Anthony Harris, Brian Harris, Stanley L. Kirtley, John W. Logan, Jr., Edward A. Coleman and George A. Smith.
NSBE is one of the largest student-managed organizations whose mission is “to increase the number of culturally responsible Black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community”. At the first national meeting held April 10-12, 1975, there were 48 students representing 32 schools in attendance. Today, the NSBE comprises more than 450 chapters worldwide. These include junior, pre-college, university/college, alumni/technical professional chapters which offer academic excellence programs, scholarships, leadership training, professional development and access to career opportunities for its members annually.
I was contacted last year by a representative of NSBE and through that initial contact I met with Tanya Stephens who was the Marketing and Promotions Manager for the NSBE convention in Toronto. Stephens, who attended Concordia University, is a systems manager at Proctor and Gamble. I interviewed Stephens for the radio program I host on Tuesday nights at CKLN.
A few weeks later, on February 21, I interviewed Stephens and Evelyn Mukwedeya, who is a third-year student at the University of Toronto studying chemical engineering, after I convinced my co-hosts of Frequency Feminisms, a radio program I co-host on Sunday mornings, that it would be worthwhile interviewing African Canadian woman engineers since racialized women are under-represented in the field.
We were very impressed with the work that these two young women are doing, not only with NSBE but also with what they have achieved academically. At the NSBE convention I met several of the students and even some engineers including Njema Frazier, an African-American woman who is a nuclear physicist with the U.S. government’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Anthony Harris, one of the members of the “Chicago Six” who spoke about those early days of organizing and is proud of the work that the younger students are doing.
The convention was a huge success thanks to the many people who worked tirelessly including 2010 convention’s planning committee chairperson Ainsley Stewart Jr., whose parents are Guyanese and Anne T. Griffin, the public relations chairperson who was extremely helpful answering my many questions.
These young people did an amazing job organizing this first international convention which featured motivational speakers, workshops, executive roundtables and panel discussions with experts in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, as well as representatives from several Fortune 500 companies.
It was a unique experience for the few public school students who attended to witness the thousands of African university students who are engaged in pursuing post secondary education. I proudly wandered the south building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre observing and chatting with some of the thousands of articulate, intelligent, motivated African students who are a testament to the excellence that we are capable of achieving when given even half a chance.
Even the weather cooperated, taking us all by surprise and really impressed our American neighbours, many of whom had heard of dreadfully cold Canadian winters that carried over to spring.
It was therefore very disappointing to note the lack of media coverage. There was a marked absence of Toronto’s many media outlets. There was no mystery to their absence; these were positive images of young Africans and therefore not media worthy. It was also disappointing to note that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) missed a golden opportunity to give our students the benefit of seeing what they can achieve when they graduate from the public school system.
I was expecting to see busloads of students. Alas, I was bitterly disappointed. The NSBE convention had been widely advertised and the administration at the TDSB were well aware of the significance of our children observing positive examples of people who look like them and for students from other groups to also see this.
There were a few students in attendance whose teachers took the initiative to take those students to the convention. One of these groups was from the Ryerson Public School (Dundas and Spadina) who were taken to the convention by the very dedicated African Heritage Kiswahili instructor Lisa Skeete and another staff member.
The students and the two teachers were there because they understand the importance of attending events that showcase our achievements. They attended even though they had to pay their own way (transportation, food, registration fees). How sad that the people in positions to make a difference at the TDSB missed this golden opportunity to inspire some of those 40 per cent of our children who are at risk of dropping out of school.
Regardless of the lack of interest from the White media and the TDSB, the NSBE convention was a resounding success. It was superbly planned with meticulous attention to details. One week later I am still beaming and glowing with pride. We do have a long way to go but look at how far we have come as a community since NSBE was founded in the 1970s.
The dedicated work, the sacrifices of our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand and on whose backs we crossed over much adversity (Marcus Mosiah Garvey, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Martin Luther King Jr., Viola Desmond, Fannie Lou Hamer, Chloe Cooley etc.,) have not been in vain. With so many of our next generation continuing the work, fighting the good fight, our future looks bright.