From childhood, Tenisha "Ava" Williams loved taking things apart and reassembling them. Back then, that interest led Williams to hope she might become a “mad scientist,” the George Washington University alumna said Thursday evening at the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s annual Frank Howard Distinguished Lecture.
Williams graduated from GW Engineering in 2013 with a B.S. in systems engineering and is still interested in how things work and how to make them work better—but now she applies those skills on a more-than-material scale. She is the founder and CEO of Solution Consulting Co., where she is an “equity warrior,” teaching leaders to use processes employed by engineers and designers to make meaningful change on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Her work revolves around a central question, she said: “Can we engineer equity?”
To Williams’ mind, the answer is yes. She cited three problem-solving models—the engineering design cycle, design thinking process and liberatory design—as pathways by which to approach and dismantle institutional and structural inequities. Liberatory design is particularly meaningful for Williams because of its “petaled” approach, which emphasizes a pause to “notice and reflect at every step of the way.”
It's important to approach equity thoughtfully and from multiple perspectives, Williams said, because otherwise a so-called “solution” may not actually address the most meaningful problems.
“If you come with a certain perspective or a certain lens, you can miss it,” she said.
Williams returned to GW as part of the Frank Howard Distinguished Lecture Series, an endowed lecture fund established in 1945 by a gift from its namesake to bring outstanding leaders of science and industry to GW to discuss timely topics in engineering and allied subjects. Her talk was powerfully interactive and personal—not just for Williams, but also for her audience, some of whom shared their own emotionally-charged experiences of systemic repression and exclusion.
Williams’ own personal experience drives her, too. Arriving at GW as a first-year, first-generation college student, she said, she fell in love quickly: “There was that magic energy in the air that I still feel today.”
But despite her intelligence and drive, Williams struggled. She found a home with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), fellow students who were “just as nerdy and just as cool as me”—but she felt unseen, had difficulty finding mentors and almost had to drop out for financial reasons in her junior year. When she polled the audience about how many attendees had dealt with the same issues she described, several current students raised their hands.
“All of those experiences that I told you about happened over a decade ago, and we still see some of the same things happening with our current students—that to me is enough motivation to try to figure out how we can engineer equity,” Williams said.
Williams’ interactive approach to the lecture also emphasized attendees’ agency in potential changemaking.
“I'm opening the floor here because there are a lot of people in this room that can actually make these changes happen,“ she said.