Being a minority myself, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what my life would have been like had I been born just a couple of decades earlier. My father came to the United States from Argentina and is a successful engineer who created the opportunity for me to go to college. Hispanic individuals and many other racial groups were not granted protection under the Constitution until 1954. The right to vote was only legally given to women a little less than 100 years ago. Considering this, much has changed in favor of equality for minorities and women, but the fight isn’t over.
As of February 2010, blacks account for 38 percent of the prison population, and Hispanics account for 32 percent, even though each group accounts for only 12 percent of the total population. Furthermore, minorities are significantly less likely to go to college, and those who do are less likely to graduate than their non-minority counterparts. Nevertheless, women and minority groups have accomplished many significant achievements in the last 100 years, and those at RIT are no different.
The Early Days
Educational opportunities for women prior to World War II were limited at RIT (then the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute), as the Institute was dedicated to technical training for local residents. Before the war, women were largely excluded from the workforce, and as such, the Mechanics Institute was in no position to provide women with educational opportunities outside of the Domestic Science Department and School of Home Economics. The Institute did provide some technical training for women through their partnership with Kodak, however.
“Kodak was quick to use women in their workforce, as women were perceived to be able to do small delicate tasks, such as working with film,” said Timothy Engström, a professor of RIT's Department of Philosophy, who insists the Institute is too often characterized solely by its technical model. “RIT has always been multi-cultural in the intellectual sense, which has always included women in some form.”
World War II created millions of jobs for women; accordingly, many needed to be trained for these new jobs that were available to them. The effects of World War II completely changed the social setting of the U.S., with Rochester and RIT being no exception. RIT's administration saw the opportunity to transition from a technical training institution to a university of higher education — the caveat, however, was that RIT needed to radically change its image. In order to become a full university, RIT would be required to incorporate minorities and women into the university — something the Institute is still working on today. “Developing the kinds of programs and support structures that actively and sufficiently create the conditions for gender and racial integration are a slow, but necessary part of RIT's move,” said Engström.
Show Boat and Race Riots
The 1960s were a time of great unrest on campus. Despite the fact that many community members viewed them as a radical organization, FIGHT (Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today), a community organization formed in the aftermath of Rochester's Race Riots of 1964 to work for the rights of blacks, was given permission to hold their annual meeting in the George H. Clark Gymnasium for two consecutive years.
The campus unwittingly inspired controversy and resentment in 1966 by theming its annual Spring Weekend around “Show Boat”, a 1929 novel that contains racist stereotypes of southern blacks. At the time, Rochester was in the predominately black area, and many found the theme to be quite offensive. The editorial board of Reporter added fuel to the fire, characterizing those in protest as “oversensitive minorities who would not face the facts of their American heritage.”
The Rise of Multiculturalism
In 1993, the Women's Center was established to help create an environment where women could achieve success academically and after graduation. 1998 brought the collaboration of RIT and the Rochester City School District with the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering to create the Vanguard program, which assists minority students in engineering programs. “Creating an environment that students can be familiar with is essential,” said Kevin McDonald, Chief Diversity Officer. “These people [minority supporters] serve as pillars of strength during times of adversity.”
As an institute, RIT continues to push to support a multicultural environment. In 2003, WE@RIT was formed to address the lack of gender diversity in the College of Engineering. According to Margaret Bailey, executive director of WE@RIT and director and faculty associate to the provost for female faculty at RIT, the school realized that it needed outreach to women in order to draw them in to the major. “We wanted women engineers to be able to grow and thrive at RIT,” said Bailey.
Though many improvements have been made, the discussion about diversity continues at RIT. “Historically and traditionally, RIT has focused on obtaining cultural diversity,” McDonald. “There are wonderful opportunities for RIT to explore and improve.”