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Meet 5 black researchers fighting for diversity and equity in science

When the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum this year, black scientists jumped in to call for inclusion in school and work.

A few days after the news that a black bird observer, Christian Cooper, had been harassed in New York City's Central Park, the campaign was launched on social media #BlackBirdersWeek (SN online: 04/06/20), followed closely by #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInSciComm and many more.

Young scientists have led many of these efforts to bring about change. Science News spoke with some of these new leaders, as well as with some researchers who have spent years pushing for diversity in the sciences and seeing new opportunities for progress.

The following conversations have been edited for greater length and clarity.

Deja Perkins
Jason Ward

Deja Perkins

Urban ecologist
North Carolina State University
President, BlackAFinSTEM
Co-organizer, #BlackBirdersWeek

What prompted him to act?

After the May 25 incident that happened to Christian Cooper, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, another member of BlackAFinSTEM (a collective of black professionals working in STEM fields), thought it would be wise to highlight other black observers. BlackAFinSTEM organized a week of events within approximately 48 hours. It was a great way to capture the momentum and draw attention to the experience of blacks outdoors. Any of us could be Christian Cooper. Many BlackAFinSTEM members have experienced racism in the field or have had negative experiences with the police.

What makes this year’s diversity initiatives different?

The collective effort of all these events – #BlackHikersWeek, #BlackBotanistsWeek, #BlackInNationalParks, #BlackInNeuroWeek – is drawing attention to the murders and harassment of blacks who are performing everyday tasks. These initiatives make it easier for people who want to get on board and make a difference.

Did you see immediate effects?

Some organizations responded quickly to break down some of the barriers that prevent blacks and Indians from entering the environmental space. The Free Binoculars for Black Birders campaign provided binoculars to everyone who identified as Black and wanted a pair of binoculars, and a similar campaign launched especially for children. Some organizations, such as the Wilson Ornithological Society, have offered free memberships. And we’ve seen an increase in organizations that have turned to BlackAFinSTEM to hire some of our members for presentations, workshops, and program development.

What could prevent lasting change?

One barrier I can foresee is door maintenance. There are still many organizations, non-profit organizations, and government agencies that hire qualified black professionals. Those groups have the power of change, so they have to take the initiative to hire qualified people.

With #BlackBirdersWeek and BlackAFinSTEM, we’ve been creating our own table for more people to get involved and participate outdoors. But we can only do so much. It really depends on partnerships, working with other established organizations to keep making changes. – Carolyn Wilke

a photo by Raven BaxterRaven BaxterR. Baxter

Raven Baxter

Postgraduate student in science education
University of Buffalo
Raven the Science Maven on YouTube
Founder, @BlackInSciComm

What prompted him to act?

I founded #BlackInSciComm out of the need for black voices in the space of science. This year has been very hard for many, but especially for blacks. And we felt like black scientific communicators were using their voices defending racial justice and their lives and their freedom. This comes at a great price. They are sacrificing their voices in science to make sure people understand that their lives matter. And, you know, that shouldn't even be the case.

What makes this year’s diversity initiatives different?

We saw the importance of owning our own narrative. That’s why we’re seeing so many “Black in X” moves. Everyone is unique and is doing a special job. Everything should be celebrated.

What long-term effects do you anticipate?

I think it’s going to be amazing for future generations. One of the biggest problems marginalized people have is the imposter syndrome: the product of not feeling like you belong because you don’t see anyone like you in your field. So you’re doing well and you’re succeeding, but you feel like you’re an impostor because the narrative that takes so long is that we’re not in these fields or that we’re not doing well in these fields. But that is not true.

How do this year’s efforts make you feel?

We are establishing roots that spread a message that blacks belong to things and we are building new generations of STEM professionals. I can say that people want to support and amplify black voices and invest in the community and it’s very cool. I just feel very loved and I feel like we are giving love. – Bethany Brookshire

These 6 graphs show that black scientists are underrepresented at all levels

a photo of Brian NordBrian NorthReidar Hahn / Fermilab

Brian North

Co-organizer, Strike for Black Lives

What prompted him to act?

In early June, theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire and I started the Strike for Black Lives. The Particles for Justice collective, a group of scientists who convened to condemn sexism in STEM, organized and promoted the strike very quickly.

I had worked a long time within the institutionally paved paths to make changes and I tried to make new paths. But, when I looked around, I saw unfulfilled promises and a lot of work to do. For years, there were very few black professors in physics and too little investment by academic institutions in black communities. And there was little or no responsibility for racist and misogynistic behavior that alienates blacks from the investigation. It’s time for these things to end. We needed to do something different.

What was the purpose of the June 10 Strike for Black Lives?

The main goal was for non-black scientists to stop doing science for a day and invest their time in building an anti-racist, research-only environment. For black scientists and other academics, the day was meant to rest or do work that they might not otherwise have had time to do. Often, when I spend time fighting racism in STEM, it’s time I don’t spend researching even with family. It’s the time when my white colleagues have to do research.

I have the privilege of exploring nature, researching, and expanding the limit of knowledge. How many more people wanted to do it but were denied the opportunity? I am here to imagine and learn how the universe works. I am also here to imagine and build just research communities, where black people have the opportunity to pursue their cosmic dreams.

Did you see any immediate effect of the strike?

I have seen many scientists begin to invest time in the study of racism, white supremacy, misogyny, and begin to observe how these forces permeate society, including the scientific community, to privilege blacks and others of color. I also saw scientists begin to take steps to deflate or confront these forces and begin to create a fair research environment. – Maria Temming

a photo by Angeline DukesAngeline DukesValeria Lallai

Angeline Dukes

Graduate student in neuroscience
University of California, Irvine
Founder and president, @BlackInNeuro

What prompted him to act?

It was a lot to be one of the two black women in my department. It is very insulating. Thank God I have to talk to her. But many other black students in neuroscience don’t even have that.

And we don’t have any black college in our department. It’s not like we have someone who understands what it’s like to be a black person and witness these brutal murders and all this police brutality. It’s exhausting emotionally and mentally, but we still have to be in the lab. And, of course, it’s still a pandemic. There is a lot going on.

Having a community that just gets it and understands exactly what we’re going through, that can support, lift, and be just for us, is one of the main drivers of #BlackInNeuro. There are people who care about you and understand your experiences without having to explain why you feel that way.

What initiative did you launch?

He started with a tweet: "Sooo when are we doing #BlackInNeuro week?" I didn’t expect to have a huge response. I didn’t have many followers on Twitter. But a lot of people were very interested.

The same night I sent the tweet, we did a Slack channel. We had about 22 people. That was on Friday. On Sunday we had our first meeting. In about three weeks, we organized the whole week (July 27 to August 2).

We got speakers and panelists from different professional stages to talk about their experiences. We use hashtags to plan events and different ways to highlight and amplify black voices and black research and black people in fields related to neuroscience. We want this to be something lasting. One week is not enough for us to make a continuous change.

What makes #BlackInNeuro have such potential?

It is run by black people for black people. We are mostly graduate students and postdocs, so it is a student-led initiative. There are not many black people in the teaching posts. We are more at the graduate level. We have the energy and drive to build a community, and hopefully we will retain more of ourselves in these fields so that we can get those teacher positions.

What long-term effects do you anticipate?

The meeting of the Society for Neuroscience was canceled because of COVID. Black students would have used this as an opportunity to present their research. We held a mini-conference in late October to have a space for them to get that presentation experience and networking experience and professional development workshops.

How did this year’s efforts make you feel?

We made a nominal call #BlackInNeuro (an invitation for people to share their own stories on social media). The really nice thing was seeing all the black neuroscientists, black neuroengineers. Just seeing that there were so many black people in this field was amazing to me.

We had a social (virtual) for black women in neuro. For me it meant the world being able to connect that way with so many other black women. I had to see them as people and not just as names on paper. All week I loved everything. – Laura Sanders

a photo by Gary HooverGary HooverG. Hoover

Gary Hoover

University of Oklahoma
Cochair, Committee on the Situation of Minority Groups in the Economic Profession, American Economic Association

What initiative have you been involved with?

For the past eight years I have served as co-chair of the Committee on the Situation of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession. As such, I see all the data on minority representation and the number of minorities we have in our field. That number has always been very, very low. In fact, the economy has a lower percentage of minorities, or at least blacks, than pure mathematics. That is condemnatory.

In early 2019, the American Economic Association sent out a survey on the status of our profession. The results showed that women and minorities did not feel good about things. My committee co-chair of Ebonya Washington, Amanda Bayer and I found out that the survey only included people from the profession. For our survey, which appeared in the Journal of Economic Perspectives Summer 2020, we found people who had left the profession looking at former participants in a decades-long summer program aimed at training students for careers in economics. Minority students did not always feel welcomed into the field. They weren't told, "This is a big store and there's room for you here in this profession."

What prompted him to act?

My first job outside of graduate school was at the University of Alabama. I was the first black college faculty member hired in business school. Once I received the mandate, around 2003, the university made me an assistant dean for the development of colleges and graduate students. My job was to recruit and retain the black college. When I left that job in 2014, the University of Alabama business school had more black college and graduate students than all the other Southeast Conference schools combined. Since I left, those numbers have dropped, which shows we need active hiring.

What makes this year’s diversity initiatives different?

Just after things exploded this summer with the death of George Floyd, the American Economic Association issued a statement on the importance of diversity and inclusion in our profession. Ebonya Washington and I told them, "Statements aren't enough. What are you going to do?"

We approached them with five actionable elements, now permanent and annual parts of the American Economic Association’s initiatives for diversity and inclusion. One of the initiatives presents opportunities for underrepresented minorities to meet with a person of high rank in the economic profession. We are talking about names like Ben Bernanke, really high profile economists. We were successful because we went to the executive council with proposals already in hand.

What change would you like to see?

As economists, we know that if you want to change people’s behavior, you need incentives. For example, we tell people that they will not have possession if they do not have a certain level and amount of posts. This is clearly written and people know it and respond by producing the quantity and quality of publications needed. Why don’t we have it for diversity? If a school wants to diversify its economic department, it can tell the presidency, "Its tenure, its increases, its promotion are all tied to how well its department diversifies." We can get what we are looking for. It's economy. That’s what we do. It works.

What is lost when minority voices are not at the table?

Politicians turn to economists for advice. But when you have a sizable portion of your workforce of economists who sit it because the weather doesn’t suit them, you can’t give good advice. What will happen next is that policymakers will start going to the fields that do give more inclusive advice. Let's just stay behind. – Sujata Gupta

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