EECS community comes together to commemorate Juneteenth

The department’s annual Juneteenth celebration featured remarks from community leaders and emphasized the importance of diversity in STEM.

This Friday, June 16, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department held its fourth annual Juneteenth event, called “Tech Empowering Communities.” The event brought together the U-M community for a virtual celebration of this historic holiday, which marks the end of chattel slavery in the U.S. In addition to honoring the important events that gave rise to the Juneteenth holiday, the celebration shined a light on the crucial role technology plays as an equalizing and empowering force as we look forward into the future. A recording of the full event is available for those who were unable to attend.

The celebration was hosted by Herb Winful, Diversity and Social Transformation Professor, and Joseph E. and Anne P. Rowe Professor of Electrical Engineering at U-M. Prof. Winful introduced the event and the significance of the Juneteenth holiday in engineering and beyond. “Today, we celebrate Black engineers and scientists who are making a difference in our communities,” he said.

The event opened with a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem, by University Carillonist and Associate Professor of Linguistics Jessi Grieser on the Charles Baird Carillon, the largest instrument at U-M.

Following this introduction was a statement from Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, an EECS alumnus, who spoke on the significance of his EECS training in empowering him to effect direct, positive change in his community. CSE DEI Project Manager Taj Williams then provided an overview of the history of Juneteenth, when soldiers landed in Galveston, TX, in 1865 and delivered the news that the Civil War had ended and that the 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were free.

The celebration proceeded with a panel discussion featuring three influential community leaders: Leon Pryor, EECS alum (BS ‘97) and Senior Game Producer at Meta; Madeline Miller, an entrepreneur and PhD student in the School for Environment and Sustainability at U-M; and David Tarver, EECS alum (BSE ’75, MSE ’76) entrepreneur, educator, and community organizer.

Each panelist gave a presentation about their work and answered questions from community members in attendance. Pryor’s presentation focused on the Motor City Alliance, a consortium that aims to support middle and high school level robotics teams in Detroit. Miller discussed her startup NexTiles, a textile recycling company based in Detroit that converts textile waste from the automotive and apparel industries into eco-friendly building insulation. Finally, Tarver spoke about his work at the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, which seeks to support entrepreneurs whose businesses serve urban communities. The panelists’ remarks not only highlighted examples of Black achievement in STEM but likewise demonstrated how technology can be used to drive change in the local community.

The Juneteenth event closed with remarks from two EECS division leaders, Michael Wellman, the Richard H. Orenstein Division Chair of Computer Science and Engineering, and Heath Hofmann, the Associate Chair for Graduate Affairs in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Wellman and Hofmann spoke to their goals, achievements, and action plans for fostering a diverse, supportive community within their respective divisions, as well as outlining each division’s annual report on the subject: the CSE Climate, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Annual Report and the ECE Annual Report to the Graduate Society of Black Engineers and Scientists.

The division leaders emphasized that, although progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to be done to make EECS and the field at large a more diverse and welcoming space.

“Today celebrates an important moment in history, but it also serves as a reminder of how far we have to go to achieve true equality for all,” said Hofmann. “We are committed to achieving greater diversity in the department, and have been working hard towards this goal. As part of that process, we have been partnering with faculty and staff throughout Michigan Engineering to ensure a community of inclusion and support for our students.”