A recent article by LMI, a consulting firm dedicated to improving the management of government, focused on a UMass alumna and graduate of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, Karen Britton ’87, who is now LMI’s vice president of digital services. She earned a B.S. in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from UMass. Britton returned to UMass on November 30, 2017, to give the 18th annual Tang Lecture.
The LMI article was released in February, which is national Black History Month, reminding Britton of the most recent elections.
As Britton told the LMI writer, “It was not long ago that you had people of color, and those who were helping them gain the right to vote, being killed. There are many times when I tell people—especially young people, regardless of race—when you vote, you have to know about Bloody Sunday,” said Britton. As LMI observed, she was referring to the violent clash in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, which became a galvanizing event in the civil rights movement and spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act five months later.
The LMI article noted that Britton, the daughter of immigrants, grew up in an America reshaped by the civil rights era. She benefited from educational and professional opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) that years earlier would not have existed for her. The LMI article explained that Britton’s journey to the White House, working on behalf of the nation’s first African American president, is a testament to the future made possible by the civil rights movement.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I could be a part of something so big in our nation’s history,” said Britton, who served five and a half years in President Obama’s administration, including the last two as chief information officer. “My parents were very proud.”
Britton’s parents emigrated from Belize in the mid-1960s, at the height of the movement, and settled in Brooklyn. She attended Midwood High School, where her biology teacher and her counselor, both African Americans, opened her eyes to a future in engineering.
According to the LMI article, the counselor recommended a summer program at UMass Amherst geared toward minority high school students. The experience would be “fairly significant because it set me on the path of a STEM career,” Britton said. The following year she enrolled fulltime at UMass.
“I think the two of them helped to define my future. I did not know of anyone in the field of engineering,” Britton told LMI. “My parents didn’t know how to navigate applying for colleges, writing papers, prepping for the SATs. If I had not had these specific black leaders in my community, in my educational system, I’m not sure what program or field I would have even applied to.”
At UMass, said the LMI article, Britton championed the diversity she embodied. She helped to establish the school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), serving as its founding president, and worked part-time in the office of what was then called the Minority Engineering Program (now the Diversity Office).
In 2017, Britton returned to Amherst to deliver her Tang Lecture titled, “Are emerging cyber threats stifling business innovation?” The night before, she had dinner with the student leaders of NSBE, the Society of Women Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. She told them how she came to Amherst and of her relationship with Professor Dr. Ting-Wei Tang, founder of the MEP, whom she first met in the summer program.
“The talk wouldn’t be complete without sharing how I got there,” she said. “It was special to be invited back where it all started.” (April 2019)