My commitment to equity and justice in STEM

Over the past two weeks, the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has focused the national spotlight on systemic racism across many, if not all, of our national institutions. Relevant to this post, and my field, is the egregious lack of inclusivity in Evolutionary Biology.

Of course, for our BIPOC friends, students and colleagues, this comes as no surprise. Many of them have been speaking out about the lack of equity and justice in our country for decades, but it appears that only now are we beginning to listen in earnest. The momentum is there and the burden is now ours to shoulder; it is the job of those of us with privilege to use that privilege to fix the system. How can we do this? It’s admittedly not simple, but it is necessary.

  1. First, and perhaps foremost, we must support Black scientists. Hire Black scientists, invite Black speakers, recruit Black students, fund Black research.
  2. We must amplify Black voices. We must use our platform to help others be heard without speaking over them.
  3. We must be humble and listen to experts on the matter. We must follow their lead, even if it makes us uncomfortable or challenges our way of thinking and behaving.
  4. We must understand and accept that implicit bias exists. We must recognize when we use micro-aggressions against BIPOC and immediately begin changing our behavior to avoid doing so in the future.
  5. Do not expect our BIPOC friends, colleagues and students to do emotional labor for free. For example, do not expect them to lead workshops, write diversity statements, read your Broader Impact statement or participate in the search for a Diversity Hire simply because they are a BIPOC. By doing so you are asking them to invest emotional labor into doing your homework for you. Again, the burden is on those of us with privilege. Read. Educate yourself. Listen to the BIPOC voices already out there telling you how to improve, rather than soliciting work from someone who may not have the energy to do it to you. Value our colleagues for their contributions and expertise in their fields, not because of their ability to educate you on racial issues. A wonderful resource to get started, and one I have depended on heavily while figuring out my own strategy, is:
  6. People of the same race are not monolithic. Do not weaponize the words of one BIPOC to use against another with a dissenting opinion. Do not pick and choose who to support based on what is most in-line with your perspective. Learn from everyone.
  7. Hold your institution and colleagues accountable. Retention of Black scientists is very low. Why is that? Well, simply check out the hashtag #BlackintheIvory to see. I can think of several instances where I have seen behavior similar to what has been described in those stories where I didn’t say anything or intervene. Why? Well, I was “just” a grad student, or “just” a postdoc or “just” an untenured professor. But that excuse isn’t enough. The victims of what I witnessed were in the same tenuous positions as me, but more likely to be driven out of the system. I will hold myself and my colleges accountable going forward. Do the same.
  8. Be openly supportive. Make it the norm. It is not enough to be passively supportive. I currently have a rainbow flag with “Safe Space” written below it on my office and lab doors, with the intention of indicating I am someone for whom issues of sex and gender inequality are important. When NYC reopens, I will be updating those signs to the flag below, to further normalize my support for everyone on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, and knowledge the intersectional nature the queer community has with racial injustice. However, do not advertise yourself as Safe unless you have truly taken the time to learn what that means. Nearly everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community has a story about the trauma inflicted upon them by a self-anointed “ally”. Don’t be that person.
Flag credit: Daniel Quasar;
Support the artist, here:

As part of the #ShutDownSTEM event held on June 10th, 2020, those of us in academia were asked to evaluate our personal roll in addressing inequality and injustice. While I do not suffer the illusion that what I commit to here is in anyway enough, nor an exhaustive list of all I can do, I hope it is a launching point.

As part of my committment I will:

  1. Improve visibility of REU’s, paid internships/research opportunities and grants for our BIPOC students. For example, I have recently taken over as the Baruch College “home mentor” for the LSAMP REU ( run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. This is an opportunity exclusively for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Pacific Islanders. While the COVID-19 Pandemic resulted in the cancelation of this event for the summer of 2020, I am unsatisfied with my own recruitment efforts. Upon reflection, I only advertised in locations where students who are already engaged in the Natural Sciences would have seen it. For the summer of 2021 I will make sure my recruiting extends beyond this already limited bubble by reaching out to Black societies on campus, as well as by making personal appearances in classes outside of the Natural Sciences to talk about the program and answer questions.
  2. Discuss implicit bias and systemic racism during lab meetings. I have avoided the topic in the past, as I was worried about being a performative ally or a “white savior”. However, I acknowledge the burden is on me to do it, and to do it correctly, even if it is difficult (or, even if I don’t get it right the first time and must learn from my mistakes).
  3. I will cite more Black scientists. I have spent time today looking over the citation lists for some of my more recent publications and they are very white. As a starting point, I have begun seeking out and downloading publications by folx highlighted on @BlackAFinSTEM so I can begin reading them and have them readily available in my references manager.
  4. I will reference more Black research in the classroom. I often “joke” at the beginning of my History of the Field lectures that it’s my “old, dead, white guy lecture”. Upon reflection, this is simply me deflecting from what I already know; that I am white-washing the history of the field. I will rectify this. In lectures I often include a picture of the researcher when citing their work and my students deserve to see a more inclusive array of scientists.
  5. I will financially support organizations aimed at supporting and healing BIPOC who are experiencing/have experienced trauma from racism. An incomplete list of these organizations can be found here:

Again, I do not believe that this is all I can do, but these are actionable items I can immediately begin to address while I continue to learn and fight against my implicit bias. I hope this list will grow with time as I become a better ally.

My hope for this post is twofold. I hope to be held accountable, both by myself and by others. I also hope that seeing my actionable steps motivates you to generate actionable steps of your own, and to hold yourself accountable. As we’ve been hearing chanted at the protests over the past weeks, Silences Is Violence and we cannot be silent and complicit anymore.

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