MIT's First Black Female Student Body President on Campus Racism — and Returning to School amid Coronavirus
PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice
Miami native Danielle Geathers is a rising junior mechanical engineering major at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Geathers, 20, was recently elected the 2020-2021 Undergraduate Association (UA) President. She is the first Black woman to serve in MIT's 159-year history. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.
When I found out I won the election, I was in the same spot I had been sitting in for weeks: my living room couch. The results came out on a Sunday in May. It was a quiet morning. I screamed when I opened the email and startled my mom. We hugged, jumped around together and ordered an ice cream cake to celebrate.
I am MIT’s first Black, female student body president. It still hasn’t hit me. Black women continue to make up only a small portion of MIT’s student population [about 6% of the student body identifies as Black or African American]. I am really excited to bridge that gap and make the campus more inclusive. So many Black alumni have reached out to me, as well as other students and alumni from underrepresented groups at MIT, asking: “how can we help?”
In high school, I helped a couple of my friends with their presidential runs as their “campaign manager.” The work was fun, but I didn’t consider running myself until one of my friends, Kelvin Green II, who I met through MIT’s Black Student Union (BSU), became vice president my sophomore year. He appointed me as an officer on diversity. I saw the large potential impact for change in the student government, how they interacted with the undergraduate students, and thought I could lead that change.
There’s still small, constant reminders that you are a minority at MIT. The worst incident of racism happened my freshman year, when someone drew a swastika on a banner the Black Student Union had hung in a campus building for Black History Month.
I was shocked: I couldn’t believe someone would do something so bold like that, in a public space. They never caught the culprit. In my experience, there hasn’t been a ton of offensive, blatantly racist incidents at our school. It’s more systemic issues in the sense that MIT was built to serve white men. For example, in the mechanical engineering department, students get a list of advisors. On a list of more than 50 advisors, there was not a single Black person.
I’ve found really strong support systems on campus, like the BSU and a predominantly minority student dorm. They make me feel so welcome and safe at MIT. I want to prioritize these resources and spaces for other students as president, too. We’re actually introducing a five-point plan centered on diversity initiatives, and one of the first things we’re working on is switching from MIT celebrating Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
I think my running mate, Yu Jing Chen, and I faced some covert racism in the campaign. There were a lot of anonymous attacks on social media, like: “All Danielle and her running mate care about is diversity, the other platform actually has important things on their list.” The implication there was that diversity wasn’t important. We also faced other personal attacks and people discredited our involvement in different clubs and activities.
Running a campaign remotely during the pandemic was stressful, too. All of our outreach was virtual. We depended a lot on Instagram and other social media; a lot of Zoom calls with student group leaders.
Yu Jing Chen and I haven’t had much time to bask in our win. We’re on calls for hours each week, checking in with administrators, students and our co-council to plan for this upcoming semester amid the continued pandemic.
We created a “COVID committee” of 30-plus students, too, specifically working on ways to keep students safe and happy next semester.
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MIT has announced a couple protocols for the fall semester: only rising seniors are invited back to campus (others who need special accommodations can apply), most classes are online, students are getting a $5,000 COVID grant applied to their tuition and we’re sending iPads and WiFi hotspots to students who need it.
We’re floating an idea right now to help people cope with the isolation that the pandemic can bring: students living in on-campus “pods” or one-person bedrooms in the same building with a shared living room space, where they can study and socialize together in a small group.
We’ve heard all kinds of concerns from students heading back to campus: people who are afraid of being in their dorm room by themselves all day; seniors who have to break off-campus leases because MIT is asking all students to live on campus to limit the chances of infection; students who are afraid to live on campus but want to attend class.
MIT’s administrators have been really receptive to our suggestions. They listen to us. We have recurring meetings with administrators and they always do their best to incorporate our suggestions. MIT does a really good job of prioritizing students; obviously, it isn’t perfect, but they do their best to engage students and families in policy conversations.
I think most people would definitely rather be on campus then taking classes remotely. But I also think once people realize how restrictive life on campus is, they’ll think, ‘Okay, remote learning isn’t so bad.”
I finished my spring semester classes at home in Miami. A few more hands-on classes were a little awkward to transition, but luckily it’s 2020, so we have so many different engineering software programs to mimic labs. A few friends and I have been discussing the idea of renting a house in the New England region and quarantining together during the fall semester so we can study and hang out together.
But I also see how the pandemic emphasizes inequality at MIT. I was blessed to come home to a good working environment with WiFi, but not everyone has that privilege. That’s where our iPad, hotspot and grant programs come in, but we’re still working hard to find more ways to help bridge the gap between students.
We’ve all been disappointed by the pandemic and how it’s affected school, but health should be a number-one priority. So I hope we’ll figure out the best way to support people on campus, and everyone attending class from home.
This summer, I’m balancing my presidential duties with a remote internship at Procter & Gamble. I’m still really excited for this school year. I’m going to start thinking about law school, because I’ve been interested in a career with intellectual property for a while. I’ll also be helping young, Black female high school students fill out their applications to MIT through a program I created, called “Talented Ten,” which mentors Black women who want to attend MIT. Hopefully, some of them will get in, and I’ll get to watch them thrive, too.
- As told to Morgan Smith
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.
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