A Warrior for Equal Rights

| April 7, 2022

Rob Parke, USC Viterbi associate professor of information technology practice, recently won the 2021 Access Computing Capacity Building Award for his advocacy for people with disabilities

Rob Parke (Photo/Courtesy of Rob Parke)

Rob Parke (Photo/Courtesy of Rob Parke)

For Rob Parke, B.S. CECS ’04, M.S. EE ’06 , childhood was often a struggle.

The associate professor of information technology practice at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or “brittle bones.” The painful condition, a collagen defect, weakens bones and causes acute pain.

For Parke, now 40, that has led to over 100 fractures and 25 surgeries to date, along with having to use a wheelchair for mobility.

Growing up, Parke spent a lot of time in hospitals or at home recovering from operations. Often isolated and alone, he found solace in computers. “Technology was for me sort of an equalizer,” he said. “It was something I could do, a way of learning and exploring when I couldn’t really move for a long time.”

That love of technology has only grown. So has Parke’s empathy for and support of people with disabilities as well as for other underrepresented and often marginalized groups. In recent years, Parke has found a way to fuse his affinity for technology with his commitment to inclusion: he has become a powerful advocate for making the field of computing welcoming and accessible to all.

Last November, he received the prestigious 2021 Access Computing Capacity Building Award. Parke co-won the accolade for his “work advancing the inclusion of disability and accessibility in the field of computing through leadership in the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference.”

“I’m very proud, excited and honored,” said Parke, who served as general chair of the 2021 Tapia Conference. He shared the award with program chair Patricia Ordóñez of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.

Added Jeffrey Miller, director of the USC Viterbi Information Technology Program, or ITP, where Parke teaches: “Rob’s efforts for improving inclusion in the field of computing is commendable. Within ITP, we have benefited from Rob’s knowledge and support of inclusion, and it’s great to see others acknowledge his contributions.”

The Tapia Conference
Tapia, which just celebrated its 20th year, aims to bring together undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, researchers, and professionals in computing from all backgrounds. Its goal: celebrate the diversity that exists in computing; foster networking to create lasting communities; and inspire participants who are historically underrepresented in computing, namely persons with disabilities and those who are Black, Latinx/Hispanic, or Native American/Indigenous.

Parke’s affiliation with Tapia began five years ago. Since then, he has served as a committee deputy chair, program chair and, most recently, as general chair, among other positions. At the 2021 conference, Parke played an integral role in planning the entire event, which included a heavy ethical component as well as topics that ran the gamut from cybersecurity to high-performance computing to leveraging peer mentoring groups to better support underrepresented computer science students. Under Parke’s leadership, the remote event attracted 2,500 attendees, an all-time high.

He believes that perhaps his greatest contribution was assembling a diversity of presenters. “I wanted to make sure there was representation in the speakers from all our key constituencies and beyond, especially so students could meet peers and professionals that looked like them and know that they belong in computing,” he said.

“As a disabled man, being a very visible face is also a sign of advocacy in a sense,” Parke added.

A social justice warrior
Although he landed his Access Computing award for his efforts on behalf of people with disabilities, Parke considers himself a advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion for all.

Who will fight for marginalized groups, Parke asks, if we don’t advocate for one another?

“If some of us are losing our rights or facing inequities, then all of us are,” he said, noting how in the 1970s LGBTQ activists marched in support of and the Black Panthers distributed free meals to disabled activists who were staging a sit-in in San Francisco, a seminal event in the history of the disabled rights’ movement.

At USC, Parke co-chairs the Academic Senate Faculty Committee on Inclusion and Equity; heads ITP’s Racial and Gender Equity Committee; and has led workshops on unconscious bias. Parke always seeks to educate colleagues and others about “the effects an initiative might have on students with disabilities,” he said, “or how we need to think about bringing more people to the table.”

To Parke, embracing diversity is not only the right to do but also makes commercial and academic sense.

Research shows, he said, that diverse teams of students or workers come up with more creative and innovative ideas and generally perform better than their non-diverse counterparts. In business, groups that include Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, disabled people and others are more likely to make goods with widespread appeal.

“If you’re going to build products or services, you can’t build them for everyone if the people working on the team all look and think the same, right?” Parke asked. “If it’s just a bunch of 23-year-old white dudes, they’re going to build products for that demographic, which is fine, if that’s what your market is. But if you want to reach other people, like people with disabilities or different genders, ethnicities or lived experiences, then you’re going to struggle to do that.”

More important, he said, striving for inclusivity is an ethical imperative.

“There is such breadth and dignity in humanity that if we don’t include all people we are really missing out as a society,” he said.

A big tent teacher
Parke had long dreamed of becoming a professor. After a stint as an audio engineer for TV and film, he seized the opportunity in 2009, becoming an adjunct instructor at Orange-based Santiago Canyon College. Three years later, he accepted a position with the Information Technology Program and came home to USC Viterbi.

Parke has left an indelible impression on the program.

He started the Connected Devices and Making minor to teach non-engineering students to create internet-enabled, hardware devices. He also created an Android development course for the Mobile App Development minor and serves as faculty co-lead for the introductory Python programming course.

Given Parke’s commitment to inclusion, he particularly enjoys stimulating an interest in technology among non-engineers. “It’s just really fun to connect with a broad range of students and expose them to technology, maybe programming, something they didn’t know they could do.”

More than anything, though, Parke wants everyone he comes in contact with to feel supported and valued, no matter their ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and physical or mental ability level.

“I hope people think that when I had interactions with them they felt heard, included, and encouraged,” he said. “And in a small way, I got to be part of their journey.”

Published on April 7th, 2022

Last updated on May 16th, 2024

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