Culture News

LMI’s Britton, a Champion for Diversity in Engineering, Keeps Memory of the Civil Rights Era Alive

February 6, 2019

LMI Staff

February is Black History Month, but black history can resonate at any time. For Karen Britton, LMI’s vice president of digital services, black history comes to mind on Election Day.

“It was not long ago that you had people of color, and those who were helping them gain the right to vote, being killed. There are many times when I tell people—especially young people, regardless of race—when you vote, you have to know about Bloody Sunday,” said Britton, referring to the violent clash in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, which became a galvanizing event in the civil rights movement and spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act five months later.

Britton, the daughter of immigrants, grew up in an America reshaped by the civil rights era. She benefited from educational and professional opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) that years earlier would not have existed for her. Britton’s journey to the White House, working on behalf of the nation’s first African American president, is a testament to the future made possible by the civil rights movement.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I could be a part of something so big in our nation’s history,” said Britton, who served five and a half years in President Obama’s administration, including the last two as chief information officer. “My parents were very proud.”

— Karen Britton

Britton’s parents emigrated from Belize in the mid-1960s, at the height of the movement, and settled in Brooklyn. She attended Midwood High School, where her biology teacher and her counselor, both African Americans, opened her eyes to a future in engineering. 

The counselor recommended a summer program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst geared toward minority high school students. The experience would be “fairly significant because it set me on the path of a STEM career,” Britton said. The following year she enrolled full time at UMass, where she earned her bachelor of science in industrial engineering and operations research.

“I think the two of them helped to define my future. I did not know of anyone in the field of engineering,” Britton said. “My parents didn’t know how to navigate applying for colleges, writing papers, prepping for the SATs. If I had not had these specific black leaders in my community, in my educational system, I’m not sure what program or field I would have even applied to.” 

At UMass, Britton championed the diversity she embodied. She helped to establish the school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), serving as its founding president, and worked part time in the office of the Minority Engineering Program (MEP).

In 2017, Britton returned to Amherst to deliver a lecture titled, “Are emerging cyber threats stifling business innovation?” The night before, she had dinner with the student leaders of NSBE, the Society of Women’s Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. She told them how she came to Amherst and of her relationship with professor Dr. Ting-wei Tang, founder of the MEP, whom she first met in the summer program.

“The talk wouldn’t be complete without sharing how I got there,” she said. “It was special to be invited back where it all started.”

Karen at UMass

The next night, Britton delivered her lecture with the university president and senior leadership of the School of Engineering, including Dr. Tang, now professor emeritus, in attendance. She was the 18th speaker in the Shirley and Ting-wei Tang Endowment Lecture Series. “It really came full circle for me,” she said.

Much work remains to make the field of engineering more inclusive and diverse. Women and racial minorities remain underrepresented in engineering nationally. One study, published in 2018, identified obstacles that drive black men to disproportionately drop out of engineering programs. Britton frequently engages with the UMass School of Engineering’s outreach office to discuss ways to boost enrollment of men and women of color.

For Britton, celebrating Black History Month helps all Americans remember that greater equality and access to opportunity did not come easily—and we must stay vigilant to continue expanding those opportunities.

“Some of the most significant progress we have seen was not that long ago. People will stand in line [to vote] for hours, especially older people, because they know what it was like before,” she said. With the award-winning movie “Selma” in 2014 and the 50th anniversary of key civil rights events like the Selma march and the March on Washington, Britton is encouraged.

“That’s a time in history, I don’t think the younger crowd had a sense of it before,” she said, “but I think they do now.”

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