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Conference for Black Women to Be Held at MIT

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

A national conference focusing on issues concerning black women in academia -- the first of its kind -- will be held at MIT this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

"Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name 1894-1994" will include keynote speakers in Kresge Auditorium and presentations around campus. Among the headline attractions is a keynote address by Lani Guinier.

"This is an extraordinary event for MIT," said Robin W. Kilson, professor of history and women's studies and one of the meeting's organizers. It will go "a long way to changing the image of MIT for minority faculty across the nation," she added.

Organizers are expecting about 2,000 people to attend, according to Kilson. "People are enormously excited," she said. She noted that it is quite an event to get people to come to Boston in the middle of January.

People are coming from all over the country, from community colleges to Ivy League schools, Kilson said. Scholars will also be coming from South Africa and the Netherlands. Though the conference is targeted at black women faculty, organizers expect a diverse group of people to attend.

Forum for sharing experiences

The main purpose of the conference is to create a forum for black women in academia to share their experiences and their work and to network with others in similar fields.

The conference has no central focus. Instead, about 200 participants will be presenting papers on a wide variety of topics, Kilson said. Presentations will concern topics such as "career issues, getting jobs, getting through graduate school," she said. Also, some presenters will discuss issues "of wider interest to black women in general." This includes politics, the fates of Anita Hill and Lani Guinier, reproductive policy, and welfare policy, she said.

Kilson said she does not anticipate one particular highlight for the meeting. Rather, "the whole conference is the highlight."

The conference will feature three keynote speakers: Lani Guinier from the University of Pennsylvania Law School -- President Bill Clinton's candidate to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department before he withdrew her nomination; Dr. Johnnetta Cole, president of Spelman College; and Professor Angela Davis of the University of California Santa Cruz.

In addition to these speeches, more than 60 panels, workshops, and round-table discussions will take place.

Original idea for the conference

Kilson came up with the idea for the conference "through [her] personal frustration through the sense of isolation as a black woman." There are few black female faculty members, especially here at MIT, she noted.

Furthermore, when she went to academic conferences, she felt isolated because few black women were present. With this conference, black women can have the "experience of being in the majority instead of the minority for a change."

She came up with the idea four years ago, then found collaborators to help her plan the conference. Evelynn M. Hammonds, professor of the history of science, is the other organizer. The conference is sponsored by MIT, Wellesley College, Radcliffe College, and several foundations.

If there were a prototype to this conference, it would be a small meeting held about 20 years ago at Radcliffe College, Kilson said. One hundred people attended the event.

Because of the great amount of planning required and the high costs, the conference will not be an annual event, Kilson said. Planning this conference has "taken up 14 months of my life," she said.

Kilson hopes another school will take on the project three to five years from now. A likely choice would be Spelman College in Atlanta, she said. Spelman is a college for black women.

Though it is still possible to register for the conference, people should be aware that registration has exceeded the capacity of Kresge, Kilson said. Interested people could still see the keynote speeches via video monitors in designated overflow rooms.