October 11, 2022
Partnering with Kendall Square Association and HBCUs to expand what’s possible for the young people and industries of Cambridge.
Kendall Square has been called the most innovative square mile in the world, and it is also home to one of the country's oldest public housing communities. Despite their proximity, the distance between these two worlds can seem insurmountable to many.
Through its vision of “Engineering for Everyone,” Olin College seeks to help close that gap through building an impact studio in Cambridge called The Mirror in a former bookstore at 934 Massachusetts Avenue. Here, students from local schools and community organizations will be able to experience an extension of the Olin campus that is more accessible to them in more ways than just geographically.
Olin has joined the Kendall Square Association (KSA) and engaged in discussions with Cambridge city officials, community organizers, and corporate leaders to further the work and impact of The Mirror.
“Joining the Kendall Square Association puts Olin in a position to leverage the organization's convening capabilities to develop stronger partnerships with members dedicated to ensuring that innovative minds in all corners of Cambridge (and neighborhoods like it) are afforded opportunities to shape the future of Kendall Square companies, colleges, and communities,” says Amon Millner, senior advisor to the president for community strategic initiatives and associate professor of computing and innovation.
Bringing More Equity to STEM Fields
Long known for his development of technology and community platforms to empower learners from underrepresented backgrounds to make a difference in their neighborhoods, Millner is the driver developing the concept of The Mirror.
“The idea grew out of the strategy at my EASE lab, which aims to ensure that people of all backgrounds and experiences can shape STEM fields and benefit from what they produce,” says Millner. “We see many opportunities for members of the Olin community to engage with entities across Cambridge—from those who spend more time in mixed-income housing settings to those who occupy executive suites in industry-leading companies—in ways that have positive effects on the culture of all groups involved.”
A bold vision guides the work: giving folks from Olin community and those from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) who are participating with Cambridge-area companies a studio space for community-based meetings, educational experiences, projects, performances, and more.
The idea grew out of the strategy at my EASE lab, which aims to ensure that people of all backgrounds and experiences can shape STEM fields...
We see many opportunities for members of the Olin community to engage with entities across Cambridge—from those who spend more time in mixed-income housing settings to those who occupy executive suites in industry-leading companies—in ways that have positive effects on the culture of all groups involved.”
The Mirror strives to create a more inclusive perspective by honoring and incorporating aspects of what makes HBCUs throughout the U.S. exemplars that predominantly white institutions (PWIs) can learn from.
“HBCUs have been considering some of the systemic issues that serve as barriers between underrepresented minorities and success in innovation companies, and Olin aims to continually learn from these partners to create high-expectation, high-support programs in our new footprint in Cambridge and beyond,” says Millner.
Students from Olin and STEM students from affiliate HBCUs (such as early collaborator and thought partner in the project, Xavier University Louisiana) rotate through living in and serving as stewards of The Mirror.
“Creating More Mirrors than Windows”
The Mirror name reflects the concept that Olin cultures and experiences can be replicated in this new space, and Cambridge community cultures and experiences can take hold on Olin’s main campus. Once the concept matures, Millner expects that such partnerships can be mirrored at other locations. Millner shared a quote that captures why the name has additional significance to him.
“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.”
Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990
“Right now, students need to see more mirrors in STEM and business—more representation of people who are like them,” Millner adds. “The expectation of traditional outreach programs is to assimilate future employees from different backgrounds into a prevailing life sciences or information technology culture. Instead, we want to explore novel internship and co-op arrangements that have community engagement and additive cultural components—where we intentionally challenge a subtractive culture status quo that compels too many people practicing engineering to believe that they must shed important parts of who they are to participate.”
To that end, The Mirror intends to help companies consider the opportunities for growth and innovation that can result from an accommodating approach—welcoming, embracing, and celebrating interns and employees bringing knowledge gleaned from navigating different paths to the company, that were likely influenced (all-too often in adverse ways) by their race, gender, class, or place of birth.
Preliminary Partnership Work Underway
Currently, several Oliners and community partners are in the initial stages of planning how they can transform the space at 934 Mass Ave into a platform conducive to prototyping The Mirror over the next few years.
Over late summer and early fall 2022, Jerry Goss ’22 spent time scouting the planned space and developing the vision while working with community organizations Innovators for Purpose and Citizens of the World on volunteering and mentorship activities.
“Olin is trying to create a bridge between the community in Cambridge and many of the technology corporations who aren’t engaging with the neighborhoods they’re moving into,” says Jerry Goss '22.
“The Mirror will be a resource for the local public to have a say in their own community, and it is exciting to be a part of including them into the planning of what The Mirror will become because we want to make the biggest impact possible.”
The Mirror expects to launch pilot activities in summer 2023.