2018th Stated Meeting | September 10, 2022 | Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The importance of public-private partnership; the assault on science and scientists; the attacks on knowledge, ideas, education, and democracy; the history of the American West and the American military; and the power of stories to teach, build bridges, and bring about social change – the class speakers at the Induction Ceremony for members elected in 2020 and 2021 addressed major issues facing the world today, with calls to action and calls for change. The ceremony featured presentations from engineer Lisa T. Su; neurosurgeon, medical reporter, and writer Sanjay Gupta; scholar and writer on civil rights and critical race theory Kimberlé W. Crenshaw; historian Patricia Limerick; and labor union activist Mary Kay Henry. An edited version of their presentations follows.
Lisa T. Su is Chair and Chief Executive Ofﬁcer of Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD). Over the course of her tenure as CEO, Dr. Su has transformed AMD to become a leader in high-performance and adaptive computing and one of the fastest growing semiconductor companies in the world. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2020.
It is such an honor to be here today, to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with so many distinguished members and colleagues, and to speak on behalf of Class I, the Mathematical and Physical Sciences.
Being in Kresge Auditorium on the MIT campus feels like a homecoming. In many ways, this is where it all began for me. I grew up in a family of mathematicians. My dad was a statistician, and my mom was an accountant and entrepreneur. They instilled in me a strong sense of respect for the sciences. For as long as I can remember, I have had a passion for math and science. But it wasn’t until I came to MIT that I fell in love with engineering and, in particular, semiconductors.
I was an undergrad working down the street from here when I built my first semiconductor chip. I remember distinctly thinking how amazing it was to have the ability to design and build a chip no bigger than a quarter that could have such a huge impact on the world. It has been incredibly exciting to be a part of the evolution of this industry for the last thirty years.
At dinner parties, when I told people that I worked in semiconductors, I would often have to work hard to explain what a chip was. Over the last several years, and especially during the pandemic, when I would tell people that I worked in semiconductors, people would ask me whether I could help them get a few chips for their car, or their new computer, or even the newest game consoles!
It has been incredible to see how essential and pervasive semiconductors have become, and it is inspiring to know there is so much more we can make possible over the coming years as advances in semiconductor technologies enable us to push the boundaries on scientific discovery further, and faster, than ever before.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a universal desire to collaborate across disciplines to understand the virus, overcome the pandemic, and adapt how we live. There were many public-private efforts with government agencies, in health care, and in other industries. For those of us in the computing industry, one such effort was a COVID-19 high-performance computing consortium, in which those of us in the computing world donated equipment and cycles on our machines to researchers around the nation and the globe to accelerate their learning about the pandemic.
Using high-performance computing, massive amounts of data were processed to simulate, predict outcomes, and create actions. Data analyses that used to take weeks were done in days or hours, enabling the rapid development of vaccines and mitigations that have played a large role in fighting the pandemic.
Computing also helped us adapt to how we work and learn remotely, while keeping us connected and entertained despite our need to be physically separated for extended periods of time. As we look forward to the next decade, there is no question that semiconductors are becoming even more essential to our daily lives as every aspect of our life relies on more sophisticated chips.
At Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), we are focused on pushing the envelope on high-performance computing, and operating at the bleeding edge of technology. Just a few weeks ago, I was at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to commemorate the launch of the fastest supercomputer in the world and the first to break the exaFLOP barrier. The new supercomputer was a close collaboration between Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and AMD. It is named Frontier because of the important role it will play driving science into new frontiers.
Frontier is able to perform more than one quintillion calculations per second. To put that performance in context, if each person on Earth completed one calculation per second, it would take more than four years to do what Frontier can do in one second. Not only is the Frontier supercomputer the fastest and most energy efficient in the world, but it is more powerful than the next seven fastest computers combined.
Frontier is so much more than a very fast computer. It is a catalyst to enable large-scale science research that was previously not possible, leading to new discoveries in physics, medicine, climate research, energy, and much more.
Let me close by talking about the importance of public-private partnership. Although there is a lot we can do as individual companies and institutions, this pales in comparison to what we can do when we can truly harness collective resources across government, academia, and industry. Recently, the United States has taken a significant step in that direction with the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act with strong bipartisan support.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to accelerate the rate and pace of innovation in semiconductors, and an incredible opportunity for us to come together across government, academia, and industry in public-private partnership.
I have never been more excited about the future of the semiconductor industry. There is so much more we can accomplish as we build more powerful and capable chips to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems. Together, we can turn what was previously impossible into the possible.
© 2023 by Lisa T. Su
Sanjay Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon, the Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN, and host of the CNN podcast Chasing Life. In addition to his work for CNN, Dr. Gupta is an Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at Emory University Hospital and Associate Chief of Neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021.
I am honored to offer these remarks on behalf of Class II: the Biological Sciences. I don’t think anyone who has been inducted into the Academy ever feels worthy of this honor, especially after you reflect on the remarkable history and legacy of this institution and read about its magnificent and extraordinary members. It is enough to induce both a great sense of pride and a full-on case of imposter syndrome. On top of that, I am the father of three teenage daughters, and they can be as brutal as they are beautiful. Despite being a trauma neurosurgeon and a war-zone reporter, there is no amount of Kevlar that can protect you from that. When I told them about the Academy, it quickly became a game of which of these does not belong with the other? Short answer, me.
So, I am honored, and I am humbled. And I am convinced, more than ever, about the importance of an organization like this – not only for what it accomplishes, but for what it represents.
I would like to use my few minutes today to address something vital, something I have thought and written about for a long time, and frankly, something that worries me. It is the ongoing assault on science, scientists, and the institutions of knowledge that produce both. I am not referring to skepticism or legitimate debate; they can make us better and more finely tuned. I am talking about misinformation, which can travel faster and cause more destruction than a virus. Misinformation can be dangerous, and it can be deadly. So, I thought I would offer five pearls of wisdom that I have gleaned over the last twenty years from living at the intersection between medicine and media.
Number one: be humble. Over the past few decades, scientists have been increasingly perceived as arrogant, and like many of you, this saddens me because the very nature of science is one of humility: the tedious gathering of data, the replication of findings, the sharing of conclusions, and the willingness to admit when those conclusions change. Too often people say, just trust the science; just believe the science. And I worry about that message. I worry about its lack of humility, but also the conflation and the intermingling between science and faith. Science is different. There is no Bible. It is a book that has not yet been written. If there is anything that should be trusted, it is the scientific process. So as often as we can, we should let people in on that process. We should show them the inner workings of that process, take them on a journey to explain the process, and along the way, with transparency and humility, be clear about what we know, and what we don’t know.
Number two: spend the time learning to communicate the message in a way that people really understand. This is not easy to do. One of the biggest concerns I hear from scientists who appear on television or have social media platforms is that it is too brief a time, too few a character count, too short to explain things well. That is a fair point. But it is no excuse to dumb things down or commit sins of omission.
One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Mark Twain, is, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” It takes work to be concise. For a five-minute television segment, I will spend hours. For a documentary, I will spend months, even years. Most of the best subject matter experts I have ever met were not natural communicators; it did not come easy to them. They practiced, and they trained, and they have tried their messages on all sorts of people, including their critics, and especially their critics. As it turns out, I have three teenage daughters who fit that bill very well. So, I am always making sure I can explain things to them.
Number three: read everything. Yes, there is a lot of noise out there, and it is true that some of the loudest voices have only one goal: to create chaos and sow doubt. We see that a lot when it comes to things like vaccines. But there are others who scream loudly because they have concerns born out of fear, and a desire to do the right thing for themselves and the people they love. They are the more honest skeptics, with their antennas raised high, constantly monitoring for any sort of threat, and yes, sometimes seeing threats where none exist, but also sometimes catching things everyone else missed. These individuals don’t see themselves as creators of chaos; they see themselves as the Guardians of the Galaxy. So read everything, and I would add, talk to everyone. Or at least to as many people as you can. Get out there, talk to your colleagues, talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors. It is remarkable to me that 80 percent of Americans cannot name a single living scientist. If they meet you and they know you, I think it could make all the difference.
Number four: understand that sometimes things are just novel. They are new. They do not fit neatly into any known pattern, as was the case with COVID-19. We humans, especially adults, are not very good at dealing with things that are truly novel. We are seized by this desire to put things into a context bubble that we understand, and that fits our narrative. Circulating virus among humans in China, oh well, that belongs in the SARS bucket from 2003. Or a new respiratory virus only spreads when someone is ill because it is going to behave like flu. But sometimes, things are just novel. They don’t belong in either one of those buckets because there is not yet a bucket. The lesson is to take the evidence as it arrives and, in a way, dispense with preconceived notions without dispensing with wisdom. It is not easy, especially if you have dedicated your life to the field, to treat something as novel because it can feel uncomfortable. After all, when is the last time you really experienced something for the first time?
Number five can also be uncomfortable, but it is very important: lean into uncertainty and embrace it. Most lay people think science is about proof. Science is about likelihood, given the evidence. In his critique of pure reason, Immanuel Kant, in 1781, right around the time this Academy was formed, described what he believed was one of the greatest ills of society: a false confidence bred from an ignorance of the probabilistic nature of the world, from a desire to see black and white where we should rightly see gray. Kant even proposed a solution to address false confidence using a scenario of physician and patient. In his example, after receiving a diagnosis, the patient asks the physician, how confident are they? Would they be willing to bet it is the correct diagnosis? And if so, how much would they bet? A few dollars, their horse, their happiness? This may sound ludicrous, but what Kant was trying to do was quantify confidence in a probabilistic world. Now to be clear, I am not suggesting anyone bet their happiness, but rather to be unflinching about uncertainty. I think it is perhaps one of the most critical ingredients to building trust.
Finally, take the time to relish the achievements, the remarkable progress, and the markers of a forward-moving humanity – moments like this – and share those moments with those you love. My wife is here today, and there is no one I would rather share this with than her. Also, this will shock no one, but my teenage daughters are not here. Truth is, my kids are marvelous, they are marvels, they inspire me every day, and they make me tremendously optimistic about the future. I have great hope in my kids, and I have great hope in all of your kids as well. Thank you to the Academy for this privilege. I am honored, and I am humbled.
© 2023 by Sanjay Gupta
Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Cofounder and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Faculty Director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) at Columbia Law School, is a pioneering scholar and writer on civil rights, critical race theory, Black feminist legal theory, race, racism, and the law. She is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and the Promise Institute Chair in Human Rights at UCLA Law School. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021.
First and foremost, I would like to thank the Academy for this incredible honor. I am simply awed to be in the company of so many of our country’s most brilliant academic, creative, and scientific minds. And because of this, I am exceptionally proud and incredibly nervous to have been tapped to speak on behalf of Class III: the Social and Behavioral Sciences.
As delighted as I am to be standing here today, celebrating the gifts that the sciences and the arts have given to the world, I cannot shake off the worry that the attacks on knowledge and on our very democracy have reached unimaginable heights in part because of the unfinished work of grappling with our nation’s racial history and our profound discomfort in talking about it.
This discomfort, of course, knows no political ideology. Yes, it is being weaponized by those who stand against societal progress and who wax nostalgic for a time when freedom was enjoyed by only a privileged few. But it is also shared by all too many who are truly horrified by our past, who are discomforted by its long shadow, and who choose to deal with our nation’s ugliness by ignoring it.
It is thus that colorblindness has become a sweet spot between a radicalized faction that seeks to return to the past by making racism and its continuing legacies literally unspeakable, and those who sincerely hope we can create a better future by circumnavigating that past.
Of course, the resort to being silent about endangering conditions would make little sense in the context of, say, the toxic consequences of substances built into our physical infrastructure, like asbestos or lead. It would make no sense at all to refuse to identify the presence of such toxins, to preclude the skills necessary for their removal, or to condemn the knowledge necessary to do so as divisive. And it makes no more sense to suppress vital knowledge about the toxic dimensions of our history that are similarly embedded in our economy, politics, and the law – stories that begin but do not end with the appropriation of land, of labor, and of the wombs of Black women to build the United States.
We are at a point where the colorblind sweet spot has created a bitter harvest. Racism has been a route through which antidemocratic politics have become mainstream. But in the same way that the overthrow of Reconstruction was not simply a product of the Confederate factions regaining power, but of the permissions granted by Unionists who sought reconciliation at the cost of our democracy, today’s crisis is also abetted by those who cannot see or refuse to name how White supremacy is again facilitating our descent into tyranny. The Confederate flag that entered the U.S. Capitol for the first time in history on January 6 was no accident; the men and women who sought to retake a nation they believed to be stolen from them were far from colorblind in their grievance about what they were losing and to whom. And yet, despite the clear and present danger that finds our democracy teetering on the edge of implosion, we have witnessed a discomfort in grappling with the White supremacist conditions of this possibility, a condition that disables the nation’s ability to sound the alarms that are now overdue.
In the face of insurrection, political violence, and a nearly successful political coup, we hear refrains that “this is not who we are,” despite the fact that violent coups, vicious repression, and utter tyranny are clearly part of who we have been. When I hear that “it” can’t happen here, despite the fact that it already has, I wonder what it is about racism that makes what is done under its hood unrecognizable as the denial of democracy that it truly is.
These are the questions that critical race thinking takes up. And it is perhaps why the manufactured moral panic over Critical Race Theory has been used to justify some of the most dramatic assaults on ideas, education, and democratic participation since the McCarthy era. Racial grievance is the Trojan Horse that has brought authoritarianism to the center of American politics; liberal discomfort is its enabler.
Want to ban books, discredit and defund public education, undermine democratic participation, and gain a greater toehold in the terrain of higher education? Create a racial boogeyman, load it up with the kind of frights that send your disgruntled base screaming into local school boards, and then count on the mainstream press to launder your disinformation by applying its “both sides” reporting to this newly minted “controversy.” Meanwhile, others simply wait to see whether the mob will come for them. Of course, they will, and they have. But as Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote, by the time they do, there will be no one left to speak out for them.
The damage that antidemocratic forces have been able to inflict is not because they are particularly stealth. They have been clear about their objectives to return to a mythic past, to dismantle public institutions that stand in the way, to change the rules so that they can win, and to generate alternative facts when the real ones don’t work for them. Majorities in this country oppose all of these moves. But our collective avoidance of uncomfortable conversations about race – and the negligence in teaching our children about it – allows this agenda to fly under the radar. When fewer than 10 percent of high school seniors can correctly identify that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, the clear and present threat isn’t too much education about our history, but too little.
If all of this sounds personal, I confess, these past few years have not been a walk in the park. To watch a community of ideas and scholarship that many of us in this room have contributed to for over three decades become recoded, appropriated, and burned, seemingly effortlessly, is sobering, to say the least.
Too many times well-meaning witnesses to this arson – pundits, colleagues, and allies – have paused before picking up a bucket or a hose to put out the fire, waiting to understand what the building actually holds before contributing to the effort to contain the burn. Well, what exactly is Critical Race Theory (CRT) they will ask while the arsonists slip away from behind their gaze. I tell them what I know – that CRT is knowledge from and about lives lived in the twilight of an aborted racial reckoning, in a nation that has yet to meet Dr. King’s demand to fund the promissory note. CRT is subaltern knowledge, elder wisdom, mother wit, survival literacy, description, prism, and practice. CRT is the reason some of us place our hands at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions when we see the flashing lights in our rearview mirror. It is the talk many of us must give our children to improve their odds of survival. It is the mirror we hold up to our whole society. It is the recognition that if people are unaware of the policies, politics, and practices that created segregated housing markets, the criminal injustice system, gaping wealth and health disparities, and more, they will default to understanding these conditions as natural, neutral, just there, leaving efforts to redress them to appear to be preferential. It is the knowledge brought into universities by generations of students who upon our arrival, set about to interrogate how our disciplines historically shored up an unjust status quo. If racism is the asbestos that is packed into our institutions, then Critical Race Theory is the blueprint that endeavors to reveal where it is, how it endangers us all, and what practices we all can learn to diminish its toxicity.
But here’s the problem: thinking that the issue is really about defining Critical Race Theory allows this racial panic to function as the Trojan Horse for antidemocrats to eviscerate the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, to reboot the last seventy years, and to destroy the democratic routes that brought us this far. While pundits scour European history for the “signs” of democratic collapse, they seem to overlook what is in plain sight: faculty being barred from testifying in lawsuits in Florida, teachers being made to take loyalty oaths in New Hampshire, monitors being placed in classrooms, and bounties being placed on teachers for exposing students to divisive subjects like the history of genocide and segregation. When we see the banning of more than one thousand books nationwide, including those by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and civil rights pioneer Ruby Bridges, when we see foreign nations exploiting our racist tendencies to execute disinformation campaigns to drive us apart, we can see that it is because of the unfinished business with our discomforting legacies.
I am grateful that the American Academy demonstrates how to put difficult history into context better than even the current majority of the Supreme Court, who consult the founding fathers not to correct their failings but to tie the possibility of what we can become to their cramped view of who deserves to be included. Imagine consulting the founders’ vision on whether someone like me would be voted into a community like this. Actually, most of us would be gone in a rapturous heartbeat.
What we celebrate here is not being forever bound to the practice, myths, and beliefs of the past. But we can and should do more to protect the legacy of the last seventy years by defending academic freedom in our faculty senates, real reporting in our editorial desks, real accountability in our boardrooms, real history in our classrooms, and sustained actions to diversify our institutions. If we blink in the face of what we are confronting, give into the ambivalence grounded in discomfort, we will leave it for another generation to solve our unfinished business, with fewer tools to do so.
When my students ask me where in the midst of this unfolding crisis I find room to hope, I remind them that the founding mothers and fathers of the nation had no concrete reason to be hopeful for a better America. But Frederick Douglass, Charles Hamilton Houston, Fannie Lou Hamer, Pauli Murray, and others knew that the very possibility of a future that reflects our highest aspirations turns on sustaining our belief that such a future is right and worth fighting for.
The pursuit of knowledge, like freedom and democracy, is a constant struggle. It is not a one-and-done scenario; we don’t get to keep what was won in one generation without struggling to name it, retain it, institutionalize it, and protect it. I for one do not want to be that generation that failed to pass the baton to the next in a better position than the one I received it in. I hope we will not be the generation that the future will judge as a failure because we could not muster the wherewithal to lance the boil that has disfigured our nation. Du Bois said that the challenge of the twentieth century was the color line; its descendent that we must come to terms with in the twenty-first century is the distortions of the color-blind.
© 2023 by Kimberlé W. Crenshaw
Patricia Limerick is Professor of History of the American West, Director of the Applied History Initiative, and the former Faculty Director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021.
Speechless is not my normal condition, but getting elected to the Academy left me in search of words. And then the invitation to give these remarks – with so many amazingly accomplished folks in my Class, the Humanities and Arts – sent me off on another round of speechlessness. But then this date approached, and staying speechless did not seem tenable, and so I am now, I fear, speechful.
I begin with a limerick.
Divided into fragments and parts,
This nation burdens our souls and hearts.
So we’ll need all hands on deck—
To save democracy from wreck—
By deploying the Humanities and Arts.
And, no, in case you are wondering, President Biden did not ask for my help in preparing his now famous speech at Independence Hall, nor did he ask me about the propriety of stationing Marines in his proximity for that speech.
Speaking of Washington, D.C., let me tell you what I love most about the U.S. Congress. When a Member of Congress stops speaking, he makes that clear by using this beautiful phrase: “I yield to the gentlewoman or gentleman from somewhere.”
I love that phrase, “I yield to,” and that feeling has now taken shape as a limerick:
Those in right OR in left field
Cannot be persuaded to yield.
So those in the middle
Are now stuck with the riddle—
Will our nation EVER be healed?
In fact, it is my dream that, over the next hours, many of the people I am now speaking to will introduce themselves to me so I can then “yield to them” and listen to any remarks they would give in response to what I am going to say in the next few minutes.
Here is an experience I have had that I think is distinctive, if not unique. I once predicted the future, and I got it right. In the late 1980s, I predicted that the field of Western American history was on the edge of a renaissance. After the publication of my book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, I placed these prophetic remarks on public record as if I knew them to be true.
And yet, in the late 1980s, I was fully aware that my predictions met all the criteria for “unlikely,” “implausible,” and “improbable.”
What did I know, and when did I know it?
When I started attending the Western History Association, I learned that the drop in attendance at annual conventions had been tracking the trajectory of the stock market in October 1929. And, in professional folklore, stories circulated of departments in which the retirement of the Western American historian would be greeted by the statement, “Now we’ll be able to hire someone in an important field.”
There was no reason in the late 1980s for me or for anyone else to predict that a renaissance in the field of Western American history was about to dawn.
And history – or, I guess, historiography – proved me right. I can report this finding with confidence because the Mellon Foundation has made it possible for me to host “Academic Skills Repurposing Workshops” in applied history, and so I spend a good share of my time, in-person and on Zoom, with a dazzling and very diverse pool of young Western American historians.
So, really, with one big triumph in prophecy, why not try for another improbable success?
Here is my implausible prediction for the third decade of the twenty-first century. Even though the great majority of Americans have paid only sporadic attention to the deployment of American soldiers in the “forever wars” of the Global War on Terrorism, that condition of obliviousness is about to be transformed. At universities and colleges nationwide, humanities and arts professors – working in alliance with student veterans – will be key figures in that transformation.
What leads me to make that prediction? Through a sequence of improbable events, I now hold the official title, at the University of Colorado, of Campus Partner for Academic Affairs at the Veteran and Military Affairs office.
Here is what I have learned since I took this position. Many of the student veterans, enrolled in universities and colleges nationwide, have emerged from military service as high achievers in narrative art, in the appraisal of human nature, and in the survival skill of keeping humor in play even when – especially when – they are navigating through perilous situations. In other words, whatever their majors, there is a very good chance that student veterans have cultivated practices of expression and reflection that bear a very direct resemblance to the customs of the inductees in the Arts and Humanities class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
I will restate this with more brevity: the student veterans I have come to know are agile and nimble operators in the terrain of the arts and the humanities, even though this was not an explicit or designed part of their military training.
Let’s say that professors in a humanities or arts department are concerned about declining enrollments in their majors and about a lack of appreciation from the general public. Let’s say that these professors realize that they and many of their colleagues need their sense of vocation refreshed.
Here’s what they can do. They can visit the Veteran and Military Affairs office on their campus, and they can build an alliance between their home department and the Veteran and Military Affairs office. And if there is no such office, there needs to be one.
And now for a limerick that sums up the transformation I envision:
The civilian/military divide
Must be bridged, challenged, and defied.
But if the magic of alliance
Receives our compliance,
Empathy will finally preside.
And now to give this speech coherence. It is time to reveal the tie between my commitment to Western American history with my commitment to relieving the misfortune of civilian obliviousness to the Global War on Terrorism.
Published in 1987, just twelve years after the fall of Saigon, my overview of Western American history was called The Legacy of Conquest.
And yet, undertaking to replace the terms “frontier” and “westward expansion” with the honest word “conquest,” this book said next to nothing about the military in the history of the American West. The author of The Legacy of Conquest was strangely evasive when it came to a reckoning with the official conduct of violence in American history.
Well, better late than never.
Two University of Colorado student veterans, Domenick DeMartini and Bob Draughon, are both history majors. The three of us are now in the beginning stages of planning a co-authored book, premised on this recognition: we cannot understand the history of the American West unless we understand the history of the American military, and we cannot understand the history of the American military unless we understand the history of the American West. My co-authors were deployed in the Global War on Terrorism, and the plans for this book are constantly enriched by their grounded, experienced perspectives and reflections.
Taking advantage of my obligation to write a monthly Denver Post column, I have co-authored op-ed pieces with these two student veterans. Here is a short passage from a column co-authored by Domenick DeMartini and me in July 2022.
The testimony of veterans can help civilians recover from their inattention to this nation’s heavily freighted history of violence; [the veterans’] spoken and written words can replace obliviousness with a forthright reckoning with our heritage. . . . In a time when innumerable lines of fracture run through the nation and meaningful conversation collapses at the fault lines, it is our conviction that finding a remedy for civilian inattention could benefit the nation in ways beyond estimation.
And now a final prediction, with this vision condensed into a limerick and with the particular intention of addressing the alliance between the sciences and the humanities and arts:
We swing from gloom to defiance,
From resistance to passive compliance.
But as despair and fear
Get worse every year,
Our very best choice is alliance.
© 2023 by Patricia Limerick
Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021.
You have all heard by now that a group of Black, Brown, and immigrant fast-food workers – mostly women, mostly family breadwinners – won historic legislation in California that puts them at the table with fast-food corporations.
I was in California when it happened, celebrating with workers who took incredible risks to win change. I celebrated with Crystal Orozco and Maria Bernal, who both worked two jobs at McDonald’s and Jack in the Box. They took part in leading hundreds of strikes, lobbying legislators, and facing down multi-billion-dollar, multinational fast-food corporations.
Early in the pandemic, the big fast-food companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s lobbied to be declared “essential,” meaning Crystal and Maria were going to work while most of us were staying in our houses. Their coworkers at other stores were told to wear doggie diapers as masks. Told that heat exhaustion from 120-degree kitchens was just “hot flashes.” Told if they objected to their managers touching them – grabbing their breasts or buttocks – they would lose hours on the schedule, hours they need to feed their children. Told that they weren’t worth keeping safe.
Crystal and Maria decided to go on strike, to take a risk and make a demand with their coworkers. Their managers threatened to call ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
It reminds me of Tina Watson in South Carolina, who worked through the pandemic for $8 an hour at Wendy’s. Tina told me about a police officer handcuffing her eleven-year-old son and frisking him on their front lawn. The sheriff was evicting the neighbor next door and saw her son holding a toy gun.
“Next time, something bad will happen,” the sheriff told her little boy.
Tina filed a report on the police officer who violated her son. And Crystal and Maria went on strike again.
These women are part of the Fight for $15 and a Union. They knew other workers, union organizers, and community members who supported them. So, they called them. They weren’t alone. They could take a risk to demand dignity because they are part of a union and part of a movement that demands better.
These stories resonate deeply. Tina’s determination to safeguard her son in the face of violent racism. The power Crystal and Maria find in uniting with other workers to make their jobs and community safer and better. Their wisdom as women fighting for justice. The risks they are willing to take to win it.
These stories have power.
We are all storytellers. That is how humans connect. It is how we cover the distance between us, how we teach each other, and how we build bridges. The best policy for social change – for social good in a civil society – is built from a deep engagement with people’s stories, with our lives, and with the real impacts on our communities.
But stories can also separate us. They can create deep division and even hate.
Being a storyteller is a responsibility. Hearing and sharing stories across race, faith, and generations requires real care. I ask you all here today: what story will we build together? Will you work with me to build a story of hope? Will you take the risks required to tell a new story?
I am honored to be here with you today as an inductee of Class V: Leadership, Policy, and Communications. The work of the Academy – to build America’s democracy, to lift up justice, to find the solutions that will build thriving communities, to write the story of America – is all of our lives’ work.
So let me tell you a story. It’s a good one.
It’s about power. The unchecked corporate power that threatens to unravel the fabric of civil society. The power of CEOs willing to sacrifice human lives to pad their profits. Who pay so little that tens of millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck without health care or paid leave. Who exploit Black and Brown communities, extracting resources and joy, leaving behind pollution, asthma, and cancer. Who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying to keep workers of color from having a seat at the table.
The divisive power of scapegoating immigrants, of anti-Black racism enforced by police brutality, of structural racism built into the bones of our country, and White supremacist ideology packaged as “pro-business” policy. The power of racist voter suppression laws, of gerrymandering, of billionaires buying politicians, of packing the courts with political extremists.
But wait. It isn’t just the villains who have power in this story. Because this is also a story about taking risks. About being brave enough, about believing in what we can achieve together through collective action, about a North Star of justice.
It’s about Polly Henry and Black women working at nursing homes who go on strike to demand PPE (personal protective equipment) as their residents and coworkers are dying of COVID.
It’s about Erika Morales and Latina janitors who banded together to put a stop to rampant sexual assault for nightshift workers.
It’s about women workers demanding the right to autonomy – because choice is about abortion and it’s also about having access to health care and earning enough to care for a family.
It’s about the determination of workers of every race, bolstered by the incredible leadership of Black and Brown women workers, to win good union jobs and stop being invisible.
This is a story about power, about Unions for All, and everyone here has a part to play in this story.
I grew up in Michigan, just outside Detroit, one of ten kids. I learned early on, in that union town, the power working people have when they come together to tell the story of how our jobs and our communities – how our economy and our democracy – could be.
Even then I knew that getting there – getting to a just, inclusive America – required being willing to take big risks. And I learned early on – and kept learning – that the folks who are willing to risk the most, to be the bravest, to push the hardest, are almost always the most at risk themselves.
Melissa Duze was a single mom who worked at a hospital in California back when I was starting out as an organizer. There was a huge hole outside Melissa’s trailer, and you had to walk around it to get to her door. It looked like if you fell in, it would swallow you up.
“Why don’t you tell the landlord to fix it,” I asked.
“I’m deciding between buying my kids clothes or school supplies,” Melissa told me.
You decide which holes you can live with. And then she decided to win her union.
Melissa could live with the hole outside her trailer, but she couldn’t live with a job that paid her too little to take care of her kids, with staffing that put patients at risk, or with bosses who didn’t respect her.
The two million members of the Service Employees International Union picked a hole to fix ten years ago when we took on multinational fast-food corporations that make billions but pass out employee welcome packets that include instructions on how to apply for food stamps.
The Fight for $15 and a Union was a big risk. Plenty of people told us not to take it, told me not to take it. But by telling their stories, by taking militant action, by putting their livelihoods on the line to join strike after strike, by lobbying and voting and marching and acting like a union, fast-food workers turned that risk into a reckoning.
A reckoning on race, on the economy, and on our democracy. A reckoning to disrupt centuries of racism, generations of corporate exploitation, and decades of anti-union attacks, with the goal to build a just, inclusive America.
Will you let them risk more than you?
This is where you can use your power as storytellers, as organizers, as policy-makers, as leaders in this country. This is where you stand up and take a risk. Demand Unions for All.
In building a civil society, we work to fill in the holes that threaten to swallow working families.
We can no longer ignore the deadly impacts of structural racism in America’s economy and democracy. We must demand solutions from government that dismantle racist policies. We must challenge corporate power so that the private sector contributes to our communities and our country rather than extracting resources, labor, and joy without accountability.
What workers have won in California is just the beginning. We must rewrite all the racist, sexist, outdated rules to make sure every family is healthy, safe, and secure, no matter our race, our job, or where we live. And the right for every worker to join a union must be embedded in every effort to fix our economy, so working people can build – and hold – economic and political power.
Our story – the story of working people across America – is a story of hope. But it is not finished.
Fellow inductees of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as we write together the story of this country, as we use our position and privilege to create a more just, equitable America, as the White leaders in this room reckon with our responsibility to uproot structural racism and White supremacy and lift up our fellow leaders of color, I ask that you remember always your power as a storyteller. And alongside Tina, Crystal, Maria, Melissa, and millions of workers fighting to win their unions, I encourage you to embrace your power as a risk-taker.
© 2023 by Mary Kay Henry
To view or listen to the presentations, visit www.amacad.org/events/2022-Induction-September.