Michigan Engineering News

young girls at a computer

Myth 6: It is not engineering’s problem when communities are left behind

In the final myth of the series, we discuss how good ideas and creative people aren’t always met with equal access to education and resources.

This is one of six topics covered in our series about how increasing diversity is necessary to improve engineering.

The median white family has $100 in wealth—savings, houses, cars and so on—for every $10 the median black family has. Wealth and race together have a strong correlation with the quality of K-12 education a child can expect. The experience for a Black child in many low-income communities is so poor it’s been dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Whose job is it to fix the opportunity gap? Whose job is it to create a diverse pipeline of top engineering talent if not top engineering schools? Is engineering supposed to wait for the equity gap to close on its own?

The belief in fundamental differences between people of different ethnicities excuses us for overlooking the effects of the suppression of wealth, through segregation and other forms of discrimination. It also ignores the missed opportunity for businesses that could benefit from diversity as well as the costs—to businesses and to society—when a product is bad at its job due to the absence of diversity among its developers (see Myth 4).

Most of all, it lets us write off talent that was never developed as—instead—talent that never existed. We don’t notice that we’ve lost anything when we see so few engineering leaders who are Black, Hispanic or Indigenous.

U-M has the Go Blue Guarantee, which waives tuition for any Michigan student whose family income is under $64,000. The university is also developing inroads with neighboring communities we conventionally left behind. 

In engineering, we participate in the Wolverine Pathways program in Detroit, Southfield and Ypsilanti to help prepare students from seventh through twelfth grades for college. Participants who are admitted get 4-year scholarships. We also run the Michigan Engineering Zone, a robotics maker space in Detroit, to help students from underserved schools participate in robotics competitions—gaining skills such as designing, building and coding.

These aren’t enough, as Susan Montgomery (BS ChE ’84), the G. Brymer Williams Collegiate Lecturer, points out. The Go Blue Guarantee doesn’t pay for housing, food, books and other expenses, and loans feel like a gamble to many prospective students. While we have recruited students through Wolverine Pathways and the Michigan Engineering Zone, Michigan Engineering’s falling proportion of Black students reflects the national decline in Black students completing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

“I know a number of minority students working full time while carrying a full load of courses, but all a professor sees is the performance in courses,” said Montgomery. “Students need mentors to remind them that what they are doing is extraordinarily hard and search for additional funds so that they don’t have to work as many hours to support themselves.”

While some students who qualify for specific programs have access to holistic help in balancing academics, finances and work, Montgomery has seen others slip through the cracks in U-M’s support system for economically disadvantaged students. Her new role, an academic coach in the Engineering Center for Academic Success, provides that holistic support for students in their first semester back on campus after a semester off. She is also focusing on first generation college students, transfer students, and underrepresented minorities, and she would like to see this type of support expanded further.

Usually, universities focus on programs like those above, helping students from underrepresented communities get admitted and reducing the barriers of poverty for those who do, but a new effort tries to improve the quality of life in urban communities by supporting the creation and growth of sustainable businesses.

The Detroit-based Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, led by David Tarver (BSE EE ’75, MSE ’76), is showing what investment and innovation can achieve. It helps entrepreneurs who are interested in engaging with urban communities, translating the problems and needs they find into economically sustainable solutions that deliver new products and services to residents.

Connecting ideas with resources in Michigan’s segregated cities

Tarver saw his own neighborhood written off. He grew up in a Flint that is very different from the one we know today, now world-infamous for the poisoning of a generation of children with lead-tainted water. His Flint was a prosperous city of professionals and well-paid blue collar workers, fueled by the auto industry. An engineer who made millions co-founding a tech company, he can name doctors, lawyers and other high-prestige professionals who grew up on his segregated street.

There is a wryness in his voice when he contrasts sensitivity training at U-M today with the proportion of Black students on campus.

“There were classes that I was in where the professor would all but say, ‘You don’t belong here,’” said Tarver. “But at the same time, if I look at the representation of African-Americans in the College of Engineering, I think it was actually greater then than it is now.”

He’s right. The enrollment data from the year he graduated show that 6.2% of domestic engineering students at U-M were Black. For 2020, that figure was 3.6%.

Tarver headed east to seek his fortune in New Jersey, where he started his company, Telecom Analysis Systems. Returning to Michigan in 2007, he says his neighborhood and others looked like, “…they had been bombed out in a war zone or something.”

The bomb was white flight. Flint passed a fair housing act, the first of its kind in the nation, in 1968. But in a story that is familiar across the nation, when Black families moved into white neighborhoods, white families left for the suburbs. Industry jobs followed the white workers, house prices plummeted, and retail and service jobs in the city dried up.

But this process was only beginning when Tarver attended Flint Central High School in the late 1960s, when the school was 70% white.

“It was one of the top high schools in the state. And now it doesn’t even exist anymore,” said Tarver. “A lot of it is because of the choices that we made, as a community and as a society. A lot of those choices were based on racism and racial fear.”

In Michigan’s big cities, and elsewhere around the country, the laws outlawing segregation ended up intensifying segregation and impoverishing Black families. Racism runs too deep to be cowed by law.

Now, the rest of Michigan looks at these communities and tells itself that the students don’t get into U-M because they lack the talent, rather than because they lack the resources. We don’t see the businesses that don’t get started because capable people with ideas lack the resources—we just assume that they lack ambition.

The lack of resources is easy to quantify. Earlier this year, Sara Pozzi, Robert Scott, and Gabriella Fleming at Michigan Engineering did so with maps that show poverty levels in Detroit and how high poverty lines up with Black neighborhoods. Black people also face higher odds of ending up in a lower economic class as adults than they were in as children. People inclined to believe in Black inferiority take this as all the evidence they need, overlooking the role of racism in creating and maintaining communities segregated by both race and class.

Tarver is fighting back with a business approach. He started a course in the Center for Entrepreneurship in which students partner with entrepreneurs in cities like Detroit and Flint to develop new, groundbreaking business models.

One of the businesses from the spring is Social Impact Philanthropy Investment, or SIPI, based in Flint. It helps people with business ideas get started or improve their organizations, providing help and expertise in areas like getting grants and other investment, managing finances, and other technical areas that can make or break an organization.

“A lot of times a person will come up with an idea of something they want to do in the community, but they don’t have the wherewithal to pull it all off,” said Tarver. “SIPI tries to provide a package of services for these kinds of businesses that lets them focus on what they’re trying to do in the community.”

The students helped SIPI evaluate the feasibility of a suite of back office services that could be offered to local social impact startups on a subscription basis.

It was one of the top high schools in the state. And now it doesn’t even exist anymore.”

Another recent participant was Michigan Health Specialists, a medical facility that blends conventional care with holistic practices such as nutrition and chiropractic. Rather than refusing to treat those who can’t pay, they offer reduced cost services and connect patients with available government resources. The students helped Michigan Health Specialists identify operational and marketing improvements that would help attract new patients.

Tarver is expanding the synergies harnessed through his class in the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, which he leads as president.

“Entrepreneurs who want to serve urban communities must be creative, because often the people who are experiencing the need are not able to pay for a solution. So you end up having to build partnerships or multi-sided business models in order to address those kinds of opportunities,” said Tarver.

If good ideas can be matched with resources, they could make cities better for everyone. And he points out that it’s possible to turn a profit while serving the needs of low-income communities. He mentioned innovative approaches to low-income housing, such as tiny homes3D-printed houses and the shipping container architecture firm Three Squared.

A tech example he gave was ShotSpotter, a company that aims to reduce the problem of over-policing in Black communities by pinpointing when and where police need to arrive. An array of microphones around the city listens for gunshots, while software analyzes the signals for the fingerprint of a gunshot. 

When a gunshot is detected, the software figures out where the sound came from by analyzing the direction and angle from which the sounds arrived at the microphones. Before police are notified, the incident gets flagged for review by human analysts at ShotSpotter. If they are sure of the signal, the notification goes on to police. The whole process takes less than a minute.

“These communities, in general, want to see control over gun violence,” said Tarver. “Over the years, ShotSpotter has been received well. They’re in over 90 cities.”

During the Fall 2020 term, Tarver’s Urban Entrepreneurship course is engaging entrepreneurs not only in Southeast Michigan, but also in Accra, Ghana; Beijing, China; Seattle, Washington; Oakland, California; and St. Petersburg, Florida. 

“Students are realizing that the challenges and opportunities of serving urban communities are global in nature,” said Tarver.

Return to the main myth page

Media Contact

Kate McAlpine

Research News Editor