Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Where Are Our Priorities??

I work at a research 1 university in a NASA sponsored program in a college of engineering. We are focused on space - the final frontier. Our students work on space hardware missions ranging in complexity from balloon payloads (launched on weather balloons) to sounding rocket payloads, all the way up to low earth orbiting satellites. Most of the students who come through our program are interested in working at NASA or supporting industries. Nevertheless, many are recruited into the defense industry. We are a tiny program that works on a budget of approximately $1M (which is huge compared to other departmental programs in the humanities, but tiny in the engineering world). We write grants and beg for funds constantly, and yes, we ask defense corporations for money to support student programs all the time. For the most part, I try and forget that we have direct ties to the defense industry by focusing on the inner-city, low-income K-12 programs I oversee and our alumni who now work at NASA centers around the country. Today I played "Token" at a meeting at one of the leading defense companies in the U.S., where we traveled to beg money to support students. I've been to defense industry buildings before, but never to as massive a campus as I was at today.

It was HUGE. Countless buildings, people everywhere, very strict security to gain access. As I was sitting in a meeting (the only woman and person of color surrounded by 20 white guys - most over the age of 45) I grew more and more sad as I listened to intelligent people talk about doing good things, with the knowledge that they would all go back to their offices and do their part to make killing people (mostly brown, poor people) be done more efficiently and effectively. Also, knowing that I'm doing my part to get the next generation of folks in their ranks. (Ward Churchill's "little Eichmann" kept running through my mind - as I am one.) All I kept thinking about was that if we threw this much money and resources at ANYTHING, we'd be really good at it. What if I was in a huge campus of buildings and thinkers who were working to eradicate poverty, or to find a cure for AIDS, or even to figure out how to make sure all people on Earth started on a level playing field, or how to stop the ice caps from thawing... In fact, several of the men around the table are amazing humans. I've known some of them many years now. I'd be willing to bet that 90% of the people working on that campus would rather be working outside the defense industry, but that's where they work for the money. Some of them probably even enjoy the challenges they face when they're working to solve problems and design innovative solutions. Imagine how much more satisfying it would be to put that same effort and expertise toward benefiting humanity instead of contributing to the killing machine. (Honestly, although I consider myself a space geek and love science, I even question spending so much on space initiatives when there are other things that could use the money we're spending to get humans back on the moon.)

I talked about this with an office mate when I got back to the university campus. She said, "People spend money on the craziest things." All I could think was that I spend money on defense as a U.S. taxpayer. I spend a hell of a lot of money on defense. What is wrong with us!? Why are we so obsessed with "defense"? I don't think it's a new thing - I think it's been around for a long time. And it's not just a U.S. obsession (although we're working hard to perfect it).

I am a radical feminist of color who does what I can to make the world a better place and to contribute to change, but being surrounded by the collection of wealth and expertise working toward "defense" today, I wondered how we can ever change the direction the machine is headed with minuscule grassroots efforts? I know this feeling will pass, but it is sure strong today.

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