Wednesday, May 22, 2013

We Believe

In My Family We Believe 
My life is a life of firsts. 
I am the first to tell this story – my story.  I grew up in a small town in the south, in DeRidder, Louisiana to be exact, population – 10,639.  One of those “one stop light” towns you read about in old novels. I am the third of eight children (four boys and four girls) born into a single parent home. My mother was a strong black woman, and as the Apostle Paul might say, this is a true saying - my mother loved each and every one of us. However, on most days, I don’t think my mother liked us very much.  I believe she spent far too many days feeling sad and angry, because she saw us as her burdens to bear.  Yes, she had created each of us; but the weight of caring for us alone took its toll on her daily.  My mother worked whenever she could, but truth be told, she raised eight children by the grace of God and with some much needed assistance from the church/community.  And lest I paint an unfair picture of my mother, I must also share that my Mother did three things very well, and I will always love her for it – she made sure that we had food, clothing, and shelter; she made sure that we graduated from High School; and she made sure that we attended church every time the church doors were open (I can thank God and my mother for my strong Christian foundation).
For the greater part of my childhood, I don’t remember having a father; however, I know that God has watched over me and taken care of me better than any earthly father could that’s why Psalm 23 is so special to me.  It reminds me that God is not only looking out for me…it reminds me that He loves me and that He is protecting me (this gives me peace in difficult times).
Many years ago this story (at least these very personal aspects of my story) would have brought me to tears, and I must admit that throughout my childhood, it often caused me pain.  But today, I’m not sharing my story of very humble beginnings with you to gain your sympathy. I have chosen to share my story, because it’s extremely important for you to see where I came from in order to even begin to appreciate where I am today.  In my family, we believe in the following:
1)     We believe in family - It takes a village to raise a child – relatives (near and far), community, church, school (teachers); I think that’s why I believe that collaboration helps you achieve goals…
2)     In my family, we believe that - you should Respect your Elders – in the south and in particular in the church, children were taught to respect everyone in authority.
3)     In my family, we believe that - Education is important (my mother only had a high school diploma but she made sure all eight of her children graduated from high school, and she encouraged us to go to College as well).
4)     In my family, we believe that - Faith in God is paramount.  It is your rock, sword, and shield.  We believe Jesus is the Son of God.  We believe in the Holy Trinity.  We believe in the character of God (who God is) as well as the power of God (what God does).
5)     In my family, we believe – that you can do anything you want to do if you work hard, treat people right, believe in yourself, and trust in God…AND SO CAN OTHERS.  In other words, we were taught to encourage others to do their very best (while growing up, this applied mostly to my siblings, but today, particularly as a leader, I take this teaching to heart as I strive to help my staff, co-workers and colleagues achieve their goals).
6)     In my family, we believe – in telling it like it is.  My Mother used to tell me that I was the child that really didn’t like “stupid” stuff; she said things needed to make sense to me…I think that still applies to me in my work…I tend to be more practical, pragmatic, logical, tactical…so sometimes that means that I am less creative than I would like to be; so, when I hire people I look for people who are creative, who think outside the box…who complement my strengths.
My life is a life of firsts. 
My mother, when she was alive (she died in December 2008), loved to tell the story about how I was the first “little black girl” to truly integrate what was then known as the “white” pool.  If this incident is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, then this was certainly a preview of what was to come (particularly my focus on diversity, equity).   In 1987, I became the first of my mother’s eight children to graduate from college.  In 1988, I became the first of my mother’s girls to enter and serve in the military (all of her sons did). I served in the US Air Force during Desert Storm.
My professional life followed a similar path.  In 1991, I became the first Director of the Business Education Science Team (BEST) program started at California State University, Sacramento. I was also the first Director of the Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) Program at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA.   In 1998, I became the first Associate Director of the Statewide MESA Program housed at the University of California, Berkeley; and in 2001, I became the first Director of Education, Training, and Outreach for the National GEM Consortium then housed at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.  From there, in 2005, I became the first Director of Diversity Programs in Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.  This position opened the door for me to serve in my current role as the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education and Director of the Office of Minority Education here at MIT. I joined the MIT staff in August 2009.

So how did I do it?  How did a little black girl from a small town in Louisiana make it from there to here?  Well, my path was not some mystical yellow brick road. It was a path of prayer and faith in God.  My mother was a praying woman.  She prayed for us, and she read her Bible every night. She may not have regularly attended church herself, but as I stated earlier; she made sure that her children did.  My faith in God and my love for Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of my life, and as Maya Angelou once said, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now”.   In my family, we believe that it is okay to want more…that where you start doesn’t necessarily determine where you will finish.  We believe, much like Dr. King and Dr. Angelou that “A person is the product of their dreams. So make sure to dream great dreams. And then try to live your dream.”  This is the ilk that I am made of – a fabric woven with cords of faith, hope, strength, perseverance, power, and determination - and it is this foundation that prepared me for the “first” that would change my life forever…

On Sunday, April 25, 2004 (the day after my 39th birthday), I preached my first sermon and became the first woman preacher in the history of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in South Bend, In. This is my calling.  This is my charge.  I carry it out in all areas of my life, even here at MIT if I am led or called upon by students, staff, or faculty to do so.  Like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”   Thank you and God bless you.

 DiOnetta Jones
 Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education and Director of the Office of Minority Education

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

In My Family

The events of the past week have jarred us all.   Now, I am wondering what a lot of people are wondering.   How is it that a 19-year-old who is remembered from high school years as a “sociable, compassionate, friendly, wonderful kid” is drawn, seemingly out of the blue, into committing the horrible acts we have just witnessed?  This, of course, is an extreme case, but raises the broader question of how to help young people enter adulthood with a strong moral compass.   It’s not enough that they don’t blow things up; we need to raise a generation of people who will build a civilization based on values of justice, compassion, and universal recognition that the human race is a family.

This brings us back to our theme: our families of origin.   For those who are fortunate, this is one’s very first experience of what a community should be like and how it should function.   And I count myself among the fortunate ones in this respect.    I grew up as the fourth of five children in a middle class suburban Catholic family.   My father was a mechanical engineer who attended college during the Great Depression, paying expenses by waiting tables.   My mother grew up on a farm.   On paper, my background sounds pretty ordinary.

Now I’m being asked to reflect on what it was about this family that taught me about how to engage the world.   Where do I begin?   As always, my parents’ actions were far more important than their words.    First, there was an atmosphere of unconditional love.   As children, my siblings and I were always made to feel that we were intrinsically good people.   And by this I don’t mean a false preoccupation with making us feel good all the time or being afraid that criticism might hurt our self-esteem.   Indeed, when I made mistakes or did less-than-good things, I had to own up to it; but it was always clear that it was my action that had fallen short, not that I was inherently bad.  Second, my parents cultivated a strong sense of teamwork and responsibility to the family.   I never saw them quarrel; they would always discuss things in an attitude of mutual respect.    On Saturday mornings the household chores would be divvied up among us all.   Third, they used situations that came up in our lives as opportunities to convey their values.   I remember that for a time I was kept from watching The Man From Uncle, a popular prime time spy show.  My parents were disturbed by the cavalier attitude toward deadly violence on the show and expressed this to me; I’ve never forgotten this.   A lot of what made my family what it was are intangible things.  During a visit to my parents when I was in grad school, a friend of mine entered the living room and saw each of us doing our separate things:  I was reading a book, my mother working a crossword puzzle, and so on.   This friend later said to me that even though we were not doing something together, it still felt like we were together.

And now I realize that the characteristics I hope to promote in the functioning of society at large, justice, compassion, solidarity, are modeled and taught in the context of the nuclear family.    This is what equips children to grow into adults who can see that a new kind of civilization is possible and who have the capacity to build it.

Brian Aull
Bahai Chaplain