Inequity is everywhere and its rapid escalation perhaps is humanity’s greatest challenge.

Academic scholars can lead the way in helping to solve this problem, said Sylvester Johnson, Virginia Tech’s assistant vice provost for the humanities, during a lunch at the Inn at Virginia Tech on Tuesday to kick off the university’s first Advancing the Human Condition Symposium.

“It will only happen with a new model of collaboration and placing equity in the center,” said Johnson, who also will direct the university’s Center for Humanities, which has not yet been established.

This was the purpose of the annual three-day symposium, hosted by the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. It brought together scholars from throughout Virginia Tech’s academic community, along with several other colleges and universities.

The event consisted of more than 18 sessions that explored the question of how interdisciplinary research and scholarship advance equity and eliminate social disparities. The session topics included everything from robots and autonomous systems and the nation’s opioid epidemic to disabilities on campus.

Graduate students also presented their research related to advancing the human condition during a poster session.

The symposium highlighted one of Virginia Tech’s four strategic growth areas – Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition. This area is focused on identifying and addressing social disparity issues as they relate to diversity and the ways that people interact in various cultures and settings.

The symposium’s approximately 319 participants spanned numerous colleges and disciplines at Virginia Tech, which is key to generating interdisciplinary discussions, said Michele Deramo, assistant provost for diversity education and organizer of the symposium.

“There’s no one lens to look at to address a problem,” she said. “We want this to be something where we generate new questions.”

During his lunch address, Johnson, who also is a professor of religion and culture at the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, discussed instances of inequity across the world, including in Saudi Arabia, which recently granted citizenship to a robot named Sophia, but does not reserve this right to all of its population.

“Should we have to think differently about who is fully human and who isn’t fully human?” Johnson asked the crowd. “How do we deal with the growing divide between those who have rights and those who do not?”

Mass incarceration in the United States also poses concerns about inequity, along with the use of certain technologies, such as facial recognition software, in law enforcement and government, he said.

“Equity cannot be a slogan,” Johnson said.

Ultimately, he encouraged participants to consider a question – “How can we come together and be deliberate in creating a society that is just and more equitable?”

Aakash Gautam, a third year PhD. student at Virginia Tech, studying computer science, headed to one of Tuesday’s symposium’s sessions, “Story making as cultural work.”

Gautam studies the interaction between humans and computers, and he said he was interested in how the symposium would inform his research.

“We get our identities through stories,” he said.

Deramo said she plans for next year’s symposium to highlight research collaborations that are happening across the university.

Ultimately, the event gives Virginia Tech a unique platform.

“We should be inspired by repeated instances of universities advancing equity, disrupting injustice, and promoting more equitable futures,” Johnson said. “We have to place this aim at the very center of all of the work that we do across the entire university.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone