An interview with Birney Robert ’04, College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology
First off, tell us a little bit about your background. What all have you been doing since you graduated Paideia, and where are you now?
I am an Atlanta native – born and raised in Midtown, where I still reside today. I came to Paideia in the sixth grade and continued through high school. I went to college at Birmingham-Southern, where I studied studio art and came back to Atlanta after graduating. My first job was at Emory University in MARBL, the manuscript, archives, and rare book library. That job was temporary and only lasted 6 months due to all the layoffs from the economic crisis. My second job was for the City of Atlanta working for two council women. After City Hall, I went over to Sandler Hudson Gallery to manage their contemporary art gallery. After 4 years, I transitioned over to Georgia Tech to be the event coordinator for the College of Computing, where I have currently been for 7 years. Georgia Tech (GT) is where I developed a lot of career confidence because of all the opportunities for growth and education. GT has allowed me to return part time to school for a graduate degree in anthropology, thanks to the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) (which makes schooling free if you keep a certain GPA). After 5 years of school at Georgia State University (GSU), I will finally graduate with a Master of Arts in anthropology in the spring of 2022. My concentration at GSU is in museum anthropology and my thesis is centered around museums at the intersection of art, science and technology. My dream is to build, or help build, a contemporary museum and residency program for art, science and technology here in Midtown.
In the spring of 2021, I decided to apply for an accessibility Microsoft grant offered through GT, which was advertised to anyone associated with GT. I applied with my research on exhibits at the innovative intersection of art, science and technology. In the fall of 2021, I heard back from GT and Microsoft that I had successfully received the grant to fund the curation of two exhibits at the intersection of accessibility, art, science and technology at GT. These exhibits will be feasibility studies for a museum and residency program in Atlanta.
With regards to the GT-Microsoft Accessibility Research Seed Grant Program, can you tell us a little bit about how it works?
This is a grant from Microsoft and Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities and “the program seeks accessibility-focused research and projects in digital accessibility/assistive technology, diverse student backgrounds, and campus life.” Four proposals submitted will receive around $40,000 for their research.
How about your winning proposal for accessible exhibits at the intersection of art, science and technology? Why do you think this is important right now?
These exhibits are designed for artists and researchers working at the intersection of science and technology with a distinct focus on accessibility.
When using the term “accessibility” I am referring to the United Nations definition, which is: to ensure persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas. These measures, which shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility.
When thinking about accessibility, these exhibits will be ADA compliant in terms of the space and location; the exhibits will be free and open to the public; there will be a public call-for-artists for both exhibits; a committee will review the submissions; the content and curation will be accessible to a large age range of audience members; and there will be video recordings and IRL options for the artist talk, which will have closed captions and a sign language interpreter. Accessibility protocol will be applied to the website, exhibition text, and marketing materials.
If you could go back in time and give the high-school version of yourself advice, what would it be?
To not let the use of tutors or labels such as “slow reader” “slow learner” and “ADHD” somehow steal your confidence. To know that absolutely anything is possible when you are passionate and dedicated to what you do!
Any favorite teacher(s) you want to give a thank you or shout out to?
Catherine Springer – Seventh and eighth grade are synonymous with Catherine Springer. Catherine put play, laughter, and engagement into my education. She made me appreciate my humor and quirks, and to not feel alone. Catherine became a dear friend after junior high.
Catherine Tipton – Catherine wrote one of my three letters of recommendation for GSU grad school in 2017, which says a lot because the last time I was in her class was 2004! It really illustrates how dedicated Catherine is to her students, to write about them 13 years later. She was the one who taught me how to write papers – I have so much to attribute to Catherine’s classes and mentorship.
Susan Erhardt – Everything I know in math is because of Susan. Susan took the time to tutor me one-on-one on various occasions. She made math fun. I miss her dearly.
Joseph Cullen – I (and Katie Nall ‘04) will never forget Joseph’s classes – he gave me a love and appreciation for English and Irish literature such as, Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, Shakespeare, James Joyce, and many others. My only regret is not going on his Ireland trip – Maybe after Covid…
Elana Himmelfarb – Elana is the one who got me through Paideia. She took the time to help me unpack each course in high school when I needed guidance and assistance with difficult concepts and workload. She gave me encouragement and support that helped me develop confidence.