The 2021 Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics (DITE) Annual Meeting concluded Wednesday morning in Washington, D.C. This year’s conference of the mentoring program, now featuring its 13th cohort of junior faculty, brought together not just its current mentors and fellows but also a range of past mentors and fellows in a long overdue reunion. 

As William A. Darity Jr., the founding director of the Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke and the co-founder of DITE (with Rhonda V. Sharpe), put it in his closing remarks, “We thought it was time to bring the community together as a whole.”

If the conference’s Sunday and Monday program provided a focus on the recent state of things in 2020 and 2021, Tuesday and Wednesday provided a sense of past and future, both in the economics profession and America more broadly.

Tuesday morning began with a series of presentations on the black business ecosystem in Durham, North Carolina–from Raffi E. García, assistant professor of finance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; André D. Vann, coordinator of the university archives and instructor of public history at North Carolina Central University (NCCU); Henry McKoy, director of entrepreneurship at NCCU; M’Balou Camara, associate in research at the Cook Center; and Jim Harper, the chair of North Carolina Central’s history department. 

The presenters demonstrated how Durham’s history has provided an example of the adversity these communities faced throughout the country. “History is made up of the lifeblood of people,” said Harper, in explaining that when businesses and neighborhoods–for example, in the black community of Hayti–were destroyed in “urban renewal” projects, the destruction was more than just the edifices. “It took so much more than just buildings.”

The lunch keynote addressed similar themes through the lens of Tulsa, Oklahoma. John W. Franklin, the historian and researcher who has long specialized in the history and culture of Africa and its diaspora, told the story of his family and the city: how Tulsa’s unique ecosystem formed in the wake of centuries of displacement; how his grandfather moved there just before the massacre of 1921, which destroyed more than 1200 homes and left 10,000 individuals homeless; how the media–in remembering the centennial of Tulsa today–still miss the nuances of the economics that drive these stories. “You have to lift stories up out of their locale,” Franklin said, “and make people realize this is not just a local story–this is a national story.”

“This is an example of suppressed history.”

As on Monday, sprinkled throughout the day were presentations from scholars on various (in-progress) projects. Featured presenters included Belinda Archibong, assistant professor of economics at Barnard College; Alejandro Gutierrez-Li, assistant professor at North Carolina State University; Jose R. Bucheli, assistant professor of economics at New Mexico State University; Jorge Zumaeta, senior director at Florida International University; Dania Francis, assistant professor of economics at UMass-Boston; and Noelia R. Paez, associate professor of economics at Hawaii Pacific University.

Tuesday’s agenda concluded with a panel regarding some of the logistics of DITE’s themes: mentorship, time management, negotiation, and the process of promotion to a tenure position. In the conversation hosted by Omari Swinton, chair of the economics department at Howard University, the four panelists–Anusha Chari, professor of economics and finance and director of the Modern Indian Studies Iniative at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Trevon Logan, Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor of Economics and Dean at The Ohio State University; Linda Loubert, associate professor at Morgan State University; and Jose Fernandez, associate professor of economics and department chair at University of Louisville, made evident the importance of valuing oneself “You will be called on to do service to no end,” said Fernandez. “You have to protect your research time…your research is your only currency that advertises who you are.”

Equally important, however, is the building and fostering of connections. “These networks don’t happen by accident,” said Chari. And, as Fernandez pointed out, such upfront work has benefits down the line. “In academics, favors are intergenerational…the things I’m willing to do now are repayments for favors I’ve received in the past.”

Wednesday’s brief agenda–which initially called for small-group mentoring sessions before everyone’s departure–turned into a collective atmosphere, with the fellows and mentors each briefly summarizing their work in hopes to identify opportunities for collaboration. For many of those who have been involved in DITE from the beginning, however, the environment provided a moment to appreciate and acknowledge this project and the incredible scholars it has produced. “The best evidence that DITE has worked,” said Art Goldsmith, economics professor at Washington and Lee University, “has been in the past two and a half days.”

Sylvia F. Cook, who also spoke at Sunday’s opening remarks, perhaps summarized this ethos best. Speaking of her late husband Samuel DuBois Cook (for whom the Cook Center is named), she told the story of how in the 1940s Dr. Cook was sent from Griffin, Georgia, to work in tobacco farms in Connecticut in order to escape the dangers of the south and eventually afford university tuition–a decision that she said she now recognizes as economics in action. 

This conference was a reflection of “how far we’ve come,” she said. “I’m so thankful to be here and to listen to you and hear how you are contributing to the landscape of America and lifting us.”

“We have been through a stony road,” she said. “But I’m proud, and I want to thank you.”

Read more about the conference here.