Sunday, April 18, 2010


I was awed and just bursting with pride last week Wednesday, March 31st 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 American government. The Convention which was held from March 31st to April 4th mainly at the Toronto Convention Centre was the first time that an NSBE annual convention was held outside of the United States of America.

The organization which has a membership of 33,000 was founded in 1975 at Purdue University by a group of six engineering students 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."

The idea of starting a group to support African American engineering students was first considered in 1971 when two Purdue undergraduate students Edward Barnette and Fred Cooper approached the dean of engineering at Purdue University with the idea of starting the Black Society of Engineers (BSE). They wanted to establish a student organization to help improve the recruitment and retention of African American engineering students because of the high drop-out rate of these students. In the late 1960's 80% of African American students entering the engineering program dropped out. The dean agreed to the idea and assigned the only African American faculty member on campus, Arthur J. Bond, as advisor.

Barnett served as the first president of the BSE. The group gained momentum in 1974, with the direction and encouragement of Bond and the active participation of six students who were to become the founders of NSBE. The six students now known as the "Chicago Six" are Anthony Harris, Brian Harris, Stanley L. Kirtley, John W. Logan, Jr., Edward A. Coleman, and George A. Smith.

Encouraged by their on-campus success and in an effort to combat the isolation and lack of an organized support system for African American engineering students nationwide, Anthony Harris, president of the Purdue chapter, wrote a letter to the presidents and deans of the 288 accredited engineering programs in the country and asked them to identify African American student leaders, organizations and faculty members. Approximately 80 schools responded; many of which had student organizations with similar objectives. At the first national meeting held April 10-12, 1975 there were 48 students representing 32 schools who attended.

It was at that historic meeting that the SBE became the NSBE and where the now familiar and distinctively recognizable NSBE symbol "N" with lightning bolts was chosen. NSBE was eventually incorporated in Texas, in 1976 as 501©3 non-profit organization. The organization’s first female National Chairperson and the first to serve two terms (1978-1980) was Virginia Booth.

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. With over 2000 elected leadership positions, 18 regional conferences and an annual convention, NSBE provides its members with many opportunities for success. These opportunities are facilitated by NSBE promoting public awareness of engineering and the opportunities for African and other racialized students to study engineering at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Through mentoring, tutoring and community outreach NSBE members encourage students as young as elementary school age to consider mathematics and science as subjects to prepare for eventual entry into engineering careers. There are several NSBE student-run chapters in Canada, mainly at universities in Ontario and Quebec including Carleton, Concordia, McGill and the University of Toronto.

I was contacted last year by a representative of NSBE representative and eventually connected with Tanya Stephens who was the Marketing and Promotions Manager for the NSBE convention. 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 88.1 FM. There was another interview a few weeks later after I convinced my co-hosts of Frequency Feminisms, a radio program I co-host on Sunday mornings that it would be worthwhile interviewing a young African Canadian woman engineer since racialized women are under-represented in the field. On Sunday, April 21st we interviewed Tanya Stephens and Evelyn Mukwedeya, a 3rd year student at the University of Toronto studying chemical engineering. 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 physicist (nuclear physics) with the American 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 Planning Committee Chairperson Ainsley Stewart Jr whose parents are Guyanese and the Public Relations Chairperson Anne T. Griffin who was extremely helpful answering my many questions. These young people did an amazing job organizing this first international convention. This very well organized convention 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 those elementary and high school students to witness the thousands of African university students who are engaged in pursuing post secondary education. I proudly wandered the southern part of the Toronto Convention Centre observing and chatting with some of the thousands articulate, intelligent, motivated African students who are a testament to the excellence that we are capable of achieving when given even half a chance.

It was therefore very disappointing to note the lack of media coverage. As I looked around I noticed the absence of the television cameras or even the members of Toronto's daily newspapers. There was no mystery to their absence; these were positive images of young Africans, 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 from TDSB schools or at the very least a busload of students from the Africentric Alternative School. 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 see this also. I did see some students in attendance whose teachers took the initiative to take their 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 our children observing those positive images. They were determined to be there even though they had to pay their own way to get there (transportation, food and 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% of our children who are at risk of dropping out of school.

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