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  • “Experiences of Black STEM in the Ivory” event examines inequities, calls for action

    August 19, 2020

    Adapted from a University of Chicago news article by Chloe Della Costa

    On July 14 and 15, faculty, students, and staff from five academic institutions came together to share their perspectives on the current barriers facing Black scholars in STEM fields, and to inspire participants to take action to address racial inequity in STEM.

    The two-day conference, “Experiences of Black STEM in the Ivory: A Call to Disruptive Action,” was held virtually and organized by the Molecular Engineering and Sciences Institute (MolES) at the University of Washington (UW), Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, Georgia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin, and Boston University. Roughly 3,500 individuals from over 300 institutions registered to attend. Recordings of the event have collectively received over 10,000 views on YouTube.

    The event takes shape

    The event came about after worldwide calls for racial justice prompted the organizers to postpone a virtual scientific poster session and change course. Among the organizers were Patrick Stayton, director of MolES and professor of bioengineering, and Alshakim Nelson, a MolES faculty member and associate professor of chemistry at the UW.

    “The murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement ignited protests against systemic racism,” said Nelson. “We felt it was important to support students’ needs to engage in this national dialogue.”

    At that time, more and more Black scientists began openly sharing experiences of racism in the academy on Twitter using hashtags like #BlackInTheIvory or #BlackInSTEM. In support of calls to #ShutDownSTEM, faculty and students across the country took a break from their usual academic activities to reflect on how they could work to fight anti-Black racism at their institutions.

    Seeing the eagerness of his colleagues and students to take action, Stayton proposed a virtual conference to highlight Black experiences in STEM, with the aim of catalyzing change across engineering disciplines.

    “We really wanted to create a space that centered Black students, scholars, and staff, allowing them to share their experiences and honest assessments of the current state of diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM,” said Stayton. “It was also important to us to give those in positions of power and influence at our institutions, such as deans, the opportunity to reflect on what was said, especially in the context of how they plan to address racial disparities.”

    Staff, students and faculty share their stories

    The first day of the conference consisted of panel discussions with staff, students, and faculty sharing their experiences and unique perspectives as Black scholars and professionals in STEM. 

    “Staff perspectives are not often represented in discussions of racial inequality in STEM fields,” said staff panel moderator Rovana Popoff, senior associate dean and dean of students at Pritzker Molecular Engineering. “This is in spite of the fact that staff administrators are most often the ones who have experience and expertise in the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

    Staff panelists implored those in positions of power and influence to utilize staff, to bring them to the table and to give them the resources to successfully implement programs and initiatives to meet diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

    Students spoke of their experiences at predominately white institutions, offering suggestions for what institutions could do to create more inclusive environments.

    Graduate students, many of whom had come from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), spoke of how their experiences at HBCUs differed from their experiences at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) and the need for PWIs to create supportive and intellectual communities for Black students. Several students mentioned how certain campus programs were instrumental to making them feel a sense of belonging on campus.

    “I found my home at UW through the Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program (GO-MAP),” said UW electrical and computer engineering graduate student Jordan Drew. “The GO-MAP program brings together students of color in the graduate school to share space, to share their experiences, and really create family. I can say I probably wouldn’t be going into my fourth year if it wasn’t for that family I found through GO-MAP.”

    Faculty panelists shared their experiences with the livestream audience. Said one attendee, “It felt like we were all sitting around the dining room table with peers having a good heart-to heart.”

    Faculty shared instances in which they had been racially stereotyped despite their credentials and intellectual scholarship, the challenge of tenure and promotion in the absence of adequate mentorship, and the way in which mentorship is not valued as part of the tenure and promotion process. For some, mentoring Black students “feeds the soul” and ignoring it is like compartmentalizing one’s identity.

    “As a Black faculty member, you want to provide these students with a sense of belonging, to give back, pay it forward, and when you are told that you should not spend too much time on [mentorship], it takes an emotional toll. It’s like basically being told to ignore a part of who you are,” said Tyrone Porter, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Faculty panelists suggested that one way for graduate students and postdocs to better support Black and minority faculty is to nominate them for awards and offer to write letters of support for their tenure file.

    Resolving to do more

    The second day featured a panel of deans who talked about how colleges might take action, followed by a Q&A discussion on ending racism in academia. Nancy Allbritton, Dean of the UW College of Engineering, spoke of taking a holistic approach to addressing the structural inequities within academia that oppress Black people – transforming institutional policies as well as holding individuals accountable.

    “I am encouraged that we have reached a moment where we are going to see real action,” said Allbritton. “While diversity, equity and inclusion efforts need to be owned at every level, ultimately it is really those at the top, like us deans, that need to say that this is important, that we are going to do this.”

    Dean Allbritton emphasized the need for institutions, including UW, to not just increase access, but to also put in place the different support systems and opportunities to help Black scholars succeed once they arrive on campus, and to change merit and promotion criteria to encourage a cultural shift in how faculty teach STEM and approach equity.

    In the final Q&A session, moderators from the previous four panels gathered to reflect on what they had heard and discuss disruptive actions that individuals and institutions could take to combat racial injustice in STEM.

    Over the course of the 2-day event, panelists mentioned disruptive actions that individuals and institutions could take to combat racial injustice in academia, such as abolishing tenure, firing faculty who practice or promote racism, making faculty recruiting and promotion contingent on commitment to and participation in DEI efforts, academic reparations, protecting those who call out racism, issuing fines for racist behavior, redistributing funds to DEI initiatives, ending tokenism in public relations efforts, and anti-racism training for faculty.

    “We were truly in awe of the overwhelming interest in this event and the positive response we got from attendees,” said Stayton. “Ultimately this is just the beginning. We hope to find additional ways to collaborate with our peer institutions across the country and work to accelerate the changes that are necessary to make STEM a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive space.”

    Recordings of the event are available on the Molecular Engineering & Sciences YouTube page. In addition, a list of resources from the panelists can be found here: IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, Anti-Racism) Resources.