A catalyst for change
December 15, 2020
Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science Kevin Deluzio and Nicholas Ramsubick, a fifth-year biochemical engineering student and co-president of EngiQueers, sat down for a frank, virtual discussion on Nov. 26 and Nov. 27 to discuss the topic of EDII (equity, diversity, inclusion and indigeneity) and how it relates to engineering.
The conversation was organized by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, as part of a two-day conference on #EDIAdvantage, focusing on the benefits and strengths that diversity brings to engineering. In front of a national audience of close to 600 engineering professionals, students, and government officials, Dean Deluzio and Ramsubick spent a half hour talking about institutional barriers and allyship, followed by a lively Q&A with attendees.
It’s a topic Dean Deluzio and Ramsubick have been discussing since early this summer when a number of important questions were thrust into the spotlight within the faculty, through the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the faculty joining a national “Shut Down STEM” day of action in June, and Ramsubick’s creation of the Erased by FEAS Instagram page.
“As a Black student in the engineering faculty, I often felt I was living in a state of racelessness. That’s when Black students or racialized students may have to give up their identity to succeed, and conform to spaces where they aren’t seen,” says Ramsubick.
His feelings were further enforced after leaving campus for an internship. It was around this time that other similar pages, both at Queen's and at other post-secondary institutions were created, and students were taking notice.
“I realized this was the time to start having those conversations within engineering,” says Ramsubick. “It was meant to be healing; a catalyst for change.”
As the Instagram project began to generate interest, Ramsubick says he started to see a real interconnection among students in the faculty and learned more about what they were going through.
“Stories that were shared on sexual violence, queer identities, different racial abuse — those same students were the ones making the change.”
When Dean Deluzio first read the stories he admits he was overwhelmed by feelings of empathy and appreciation.
“The narratives were so strong. They were students; they were my students and they were part of our community,” he says “The stories are difficult to read, and they must be difficult to experience. Writing them down, putting them on a public platform is going through that experience again.”
Dean Deluzio admits there is a strong sense of cultural identity within the faculty.
“I’ve been at Queen’s a long time and know it is a predominately white campus with issues around diversity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field. We focus a lot on it being an issue of gender but it goes way beyond that,” he says. “I did not understand the degree that these issues were affecting students. But I believe the work we are starting now is the change that is needed.”
Ramsubick believes there needs to be a shift in the work being done to invoke change.
“We need to centre BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) voices and make sure they are heard," he says. "We shouldn’t force them to do the work. It isn’t the job of the oppressed to fight that systemic racism. We need to create culturally competent engineers. They can’t be blind to the racial inequalities that exist in the communities where they work.”
Several future faculty initiatives were discussed, including the need for equity and diversity training in engineering programs. Diversifying STEM by bringing in more racialized engineers, and continuing to accept more women, are viewed as steps in the right direction.
In recent months, Queen’s engineering has created a new Chair for Women in Engineering, held by Heidi Ploeg, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. The faculty's mandatory first-year APSC100 course now features videos and readings related to anti-racism, and other curricular updates are being examined. Dean Deluzio has also committed to creating dedicated space in the Integrated Learning Centre, in Beamish-Munro Hall, for marginalized students to connect in a ‘safe space’.
Dean Deluzio says engineers are trained problem solvers and are called to answer some of the most complex problems of our time including COVID-19, as well as complex societal issues that are identified through the Black Lives Matter movement. He is calling for leaders in the profession recognize the issues and take steps to understand and address them.
“If we don’t train them to be proactive in the areas of equity, diversity, inclusion and indigenization and the problems understanding that, the solutions will be less impactful, and the change won’t be fast enough," he says.