An independent study project this spring provided eight MIT students with a unique opportunity to learn about some of the most consequential events in US civil rights history.
The eight students — Courtney Jacobovits, Naman Galhotra, Clyde-Blaise Niba, Chavie Sharfman Sosa, Johana Muriel Grajales, Jordan Dominguez, Patrick Akujobi, and Vanessa Labrador — are all MBA candidates at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Early in the spring term, they proposed an independent study program, to take place during spring break, that would advance a deep understanding of the history, experiences, and journeys of members of marginalized communities — a project that would ultimately help to make them at once more informed citizens and better leaders.
After securing funding, the students developed an independent study program in collaboration with the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and with the MIT Environment, Health, and Safety Office (EHS). The program would take the form of an action learning trip through the Deep South, centered on experiential learning in key sites in the struggle for civil rights.
“I had an understanding of the facts, but this trip deepened my understanding of the emotions and the lived experiences of the Black Americans stories are still not being told, and which continue to resonate today,” recalls Grajales.
For both EHS and the Martin Trust Center, sponsorship of the project was a natural outgrowth of an Institute-wide commitment to education based in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as well as to MIT’s motto of “mens et manus” ( “mind and hand”), which may be translated into experience-based learning.
“Every member of the MIT community has a responsibility and a necessity to take action,” says Paul Cheek, entrepreneur in residence at the Martin Trust Center and lecturer at MIT Sloan.
“The expectation at MIT Sloan is for every graduate to become a principled leader with the potential to make a difference, impact solutions, and actually change the world,” says Tolga Durak, managing director of EHS — an office in which safety and wellness include an equitable and just environment for all. “We at EHS have a role in safety and compliance, making sure everyone is safe. But our North Star is safety and wellness, and we aim to be enablers, facilitators, and catalyzers of creating a safe space for everyone to thrive,” Durak adds.
In memorials, museums, and historical sites throughout the South, the students encountered heroes of the civil rights movement, from Martin Luther King Jr. to the students who staged sit-ins at lunch counters.
In Memphis, Tennessee, they visited the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination, and today the National Civil Rights Museum. In Sumner, Mississippi, they got a history lesson from a local guide inside the courtroom where the men who murdered Emmett Till were tried and acquitted. In Birmingham, Alabama, they toured the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church to honor those in the 1963 bombing, and in Selma, Alabama, they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where 600 civil rights marchers were violently attacked during what is now known as Bloody Sunday.
Several of the students recall visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. The museum focuses on telling the story of mass incarceration as an outgrowth of enslavement and systems of clerical rule. “The Legacy Museum had a big impact on me,” says Dominguez. “It made me think a lot about the human cost, the individual stories, and it made me ask myself, ‘What is my role?”
“There were numbers printed big and bold, commemorating the 12 million enslaved Black people, and describing their journey,” recalls Niba. “We witness the burning and lynching of Black people, and limits placed on their growth, bringing us right up to now with the current prison system.”
For Galhotra, the simplicity of posters of Black children at the Legacy Museum held a special emotional resonance. “The faces of these children will stay with me as a leader, inspiring me to be open to their experiences, and take the actions to ensure that it doesn’t carry on forever,” she says.
Jacobovits recalls in particular the Slave Haven Underground Railroad in Memphis, Tennessee, and the experience of walking through the museum in tandem with a group of high school students from Illinois. “I got emotional as I witness those kids together with us on this journey of learning history. We were building community among the eight of us, but with a broader community as well.”
In planning the trip, the students built in time each day for reflection and processing their experiences. They created audio recordings and took photographs documenting their experiences and reactions to them, preserving the trip in real-time.
“There was so much to unpack in what we saw and what we felt,” says Labrador. “When we went through Montgomery, for example, there was no mention of slavery at all on public buildings. Instead it was referred to as commerce and agriculture. This is how America erases history, by not acknowledging the wrong. And it’s not just history — it’s still happening today.”
Although he considers himself to be knowledgeable about the history of racism in America, for Akujobi, the trip was still eye-opening, and particularly valuable because of the diversity of the participants. The experience “fostered lots of conversations that would not have happened if it had only been with folks who are also of the same race.” While he often finds that he receives “performative responses” on the issues of racial justice, the trip was a way to build a community with fellow students who care deeply.
For Sharfman Sosa, the uniqueness of the Black experience was striking. “We all come from different backgrounds,” she says, “but there is a unique Black experience in the US Even if our families have felt and obstacles, we have to understand the impact that this history has had on the Black community, and this means that when we talk about DEI, we need to talk with specificity about what it means for Black people.”
When asked to describe the trip in one word, Labrador picked “transformative.” For all eight of the students, the common take-away was the need and the imperative to be proactive, to do more, and to do better, pushing for systems change, and understanding and working against complicity.
Another common thread from the group’s experiences was a refined understanding of the use of language when talking about DEI and racial justice. “The trip gave us language and facts and a strong foundation to explain better why this is so important, and why what is being done is not enough,” says Sharfman Sosa. In her post-graduation job for an executive search firm, she is committed to making DEI central to her work.
Galhotra also points to language as a key takeaway from the trip, giving the example of referring rather to “enslaved people” than “slaves.” “I gained the knowledge and the vocabulary to talk about these things in a way that isn’t offensive — that’s not something I had before,” she recalls. “With understanding history and stories better comes a better way to use language.”
In addition to a deeper understanding of appropriate language, Galhotra says that her experiences have led her to think about her work as a teaching assistant (TA), and how she can acknowledge and work to rectify systems of oppression. “I have increased the number of TA office hours I hold for Black students,” she says, “and I try to offer any kind of help that I can.”
For Akujobi, the trip has given him “a more vivid picture of the climate we’re in now, and how asinine it is to limit education on these topics in schools. Ignorance begets ignorance.” He says that the trip gave him the inspiration to foster and sponsor initiatives that support people learning more.
Jacobovits’ reflection on the trip’s impact on her is as simple as it is profound: “I found the inspiration to not quit,” she says. “The work is not done, and people had to overcome a lot more than I did, so I will keep going.”
In an echo of Jacobovits’ resolve, the students’ action learning trip became the seed of an ongoing project, conducted through MIT Solar, a collaborative program between EHS and the Martin Trust Center, according to Cheek and Durak. The departments have committed to continue sponsoring similar student-driven independent studies next semester, and plan to expand the project to include ongoing reflections, panel discussion, and a podcast series.
The aim is for these students to become campus ambassadors, sharing their experiences and insights, and giving fellow members of the MIT Sloan community this crucial leadership training.