Excellence in STEM with Dr. Emmanuel Johnson
Kicking off the first Excellence in STEM interview of the year, a series bringing voices and experiences to the forefront as we work to dismantle prejudices and barriers within the computing community.
Dr. Emmanuel Johnson, a Computing Innovation Fellow at the University of Southern California, highlights the long legacy of black scholarship, with names like Benjamin Banneker, Elijah McCoy, and George Washington Carver given the racism and challenges they faced. So it leaves the question, how much more could be achieved when taking an active stance against prejudice and systemic barriers?
In this interview, Dr. Johnson shares his educational background starting at an HBCU (historically black college), then across the pond to England, and now in Southern California along with recommendations to start a foundational understanding of the challenges of black researchers through the writings of several prolific scholars.
What is your definition and meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering?
To me, equity, diversity, and inclusion in computer science and engineering mean creating a space where people feel welcomed to bring their true selves ( e.g. hairstyles, music choices, food, inside references, etc) wholistically, and that the work we are doing is addressing the problems of all members of society and benefitting one group at the expense of another. It means creating an environment where people can see themselves at various levels in the field.
What barriers to inclusion have you experienced throughout your career?
I believe that I’ve been blessed to have gone to North Carolina A&T for undergrad, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Southern California for my Ph.D. and to now work here. I think these environments have provided a safe space for me to learn and grow, where I have felt supported and included. However, I have had colleagues who have not been as fortunate, and many of the barriers they’ve faced are related to colleagues misunderstanding their identity as well as preconceived notion people had of them.
What are some ways the computing community can work together to prevent these experiences from occurring to future professionals?
I believe we could work together by supporting places and researchers who are building an inclusive environment and making that something we frequently highlight through publications and awards. I would also suggest the continued promotion of diverse voices. The truth, oftentimes, it is hard to speak about a problem others are facing, and we need to ensure proper representation to bring all the problems all groups face to the forefront of our field.
A lack of understanding of others’ experiences may sometimes lead to unintended consequences. What recommendations can you make to the community to help them increase their understanding of your culture and/or background that would help individuals feel more welcomed?
I would recommend that the community understands being black is not one size fits all label and that, often, we come from very diverse backgrounds and life experiences. A general understanding of the challenges that black researchers go through would be a good place to start. Scholars and writers such as James Baldwin, W.E.B. Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, and others have written quite extensively about the black experience in America. Many of those problems highlighted over the years still exist today. There are quite a lot of documentaries now on these topics, such as Netflix’s 13th, Who We Are, and Descendants, that could be a helpful place to start. I think these authors and documentaries will provide a good sense of the diversity of opinions in black America and would be a good place to start.
Can you share an example from your education or career experiences where diverse voices had, or could have had, a significant impact on a project?
I think when we think about where virtual humans and even chatbot technology are right now, I often try to interact with these systems similar to how I may interact or communicate with my friends, and they all seem to break down. I think more diverse voices would allow these systems to consider wider use cases or interaction patterns.
Given the importance of computer science and engineering becoming and being a more diverse and inclusive community, we strive to hear the perspectives of persons from equity-seeking populations. What are some ways in which such diverse perspectives and experiences can be solicited and heard without making the persons who share them possibly feel tokenized or otherwise made uncomfortable?
Ask for their opinion on more than just diversity issues. Often we only reach out to diverse groups for opinions and topics relating to diversity as if it is the only topic they are knowledgeable about. In my opinion, this is what creates the feeling of being tokenized or may make people feel uncomfortable. If we were including their voices in other things, that would not be the case.
Stand up for those diverse voices. People are more willing and open to speaking with allies and advocates. If we support these voices through their career by standing up for them and providing a safe space for them to innovate, they will be more than willing to share their story as well as perspectives with you. If we create an environment that is unwelcoming, most of our diverse talent will leave and discourage others from coming to our institutions.
More About Dr. Emmanuel Johnson
Dr. Johnson is a Computing Innovative Fellow at USC’s Information Sciences Institute, where his work focuses on building AI systems to teach 21st-century skills. He holds a Ph.D. and Masters’s in Computer Science from the University of Southern California, a Masters’s in Robotics from the University of Birmingham in England, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Engineering from North Carolina A&T. He is a Fulbright Scholar and was the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, the Dr. Dorothy J. Harris Exemplary Leadership Award from North Carolina A&T, the USC Center for Engineering Diversity Leadership and Service Award, and recently inducted into the New Brunswick High School Hall of Distinguished Alumni. Furthermore, he serves on the board of the New Brunswick Education Foundation, the Foundation for Women, and as an advisor to the InSTEM program through the National Science and Technology Medal Foundation.