Q&A with Lisette E. Torres: ‘We need science to work with and for the people’

We had the honor of interviewing Lisette E. Torres, a trained scientist, disabled-scholar activist, and director of the Cooper Foundation Center for Academic Resources at Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU). With social justice intentionally at the core of her work, she considers herself radical compared to other STEM professionals. However, she is determined to inspire the next generation to use their scientific knowledge to address inequality.

Sister: As a Boricua woman, mother, scholar, scientist, educator, and disability advocate, you work at the intersection of many identities, communities, and issues. How do these perspectives inform your activism?

Lisette E. Torres: That’s a fantastic and complicated question! I guess I am always asking myself how people of color (POC) and disabled communities are being impacted by institutional structures, policies, and practices within science and educational systems. Who is benefiting and who is being marginalized? As a Brown mother-scholar with a disability, it is almost second nature to see how others like me will be affected. In addition, given my background in ecology, I think I have the skills to identify systems and hone in on interactions and feedback mechanisms that others may not necessarily pick up on right away.

A smiling person holds up a coffee cup with the letters CNLD on it.
Lisette’s CNLD coffee mug says “We exist cuz we resist.”

More recently, my identity as a disabled Boricua mother-scholar has informed some of the activist work that the National Coalition for Latinx with Disabilities (CNLD) has done around immigration. On July 15, 2018, in response to the separation of families by the Trump Administration, I represented our organization as the guest host of a #CripTheVote Twitter Chat on immigration. My responses were informed by the concern I have as a fellow Brown mother and disabled person and my desire to have those children returned to their family members.

S: What made you decide to shift from aquatic ecology to social justice education?

LET: That is a LONG story. The short version is that racism and sexism within my program and at science conferences forced me to leave aquatic ecology. It was not an easy decision. In fact, I wrote a paper on the recruitment and retention of students of color in ecology, took a six-month break from my program, and switched labs in an attempt to stay. Ultimately, I could not let the science community destroy my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It just wasn’t worth it. I am still processing the trauma that I experienced and you can read about it in my book chapter “Tigre del Mar: A Boricua’s Testimonio of Surviving a Doctoral Science Education,” which can be found in the book Envisioning Critical Race Praxis in Higher Education Through Counter-Storytelling co-edited by Drs. Natasha Croom and Tyson Marsh.

After I left science, I became interested in a master’s degree program in student affairs after sitting in on a history of higher education course. The instructor of that class, Dr. Mark Giles, became my advisor when I enrolled, and he opened my eyes to Critical Race Theory and the Critical Race Studies in Education Association (CRSEA). He became a dear mentor and friend who encouraged me to return to doctoral studies. At the same time, I met Dr. Riyad Shahjahan, who not only taught me about neoliberalism, globalization, and neocolonialism, but introduced me to one of my doctoral advisors, Dr. Nana Osei-Kofi. After talking to Nana over the phone about the Social Justice Certificate Program she was directing at Iowa State University at the time, I made the decision to transfer to the Higher Education program there. I would like to note that all three of the scholars that I mentioned are people of color who guided me and supported my interest in racialized gender justice in science. Thanks to them, I am now doing transdisciplinary work that critically examines knowledge production, social justice, and the culture of science.

Why would anyone want to intentionally approach this harmful space again after such trauma? First (and most importantly), I do not want current and future generations of scientists of color to experience the isolation and marginalization that I experienced. I want to transform the culture of science to make it more inclusive. Second, I want science to be used as one of many tools of liberation. I want science to serve the people, particularly oppressed communities. Lastly, in a strange way, my work allows me to process my experiences, to grieve my old science identity, and to heal.

I want science to be used as one of many tools of liberation.

S: You co-founded the National Coalition for Latinx with Disabilities (@disabledlatinx). Why was the formation of this advocacy group so important, and what are you focused on right now?

LET: We founded CNLD to unite the Disability and Latinx communities because they tend to remain separated in their advocacy efforts despite having members with feet in both communities. Disabled Latinxs face unique challenges due to their intersecting social identities, and they are often left out of sociopolitical discourses and advocacy work. I am proud to say that, to my knowledge, we are the only national organization dedicated to upholding the human rights of Disabled Latinxs in the United States.

A group of people, some in wheelchairs, some kneeling, some standing, one raising a crutch in the air, hold protest signs.
The 2017 CNLD Conference, “Tearing Down Walls, Building Bridges: The Disabled Latinx Movement” was held in Berkeley, CA, and aimed to bring awareness to the many deaths of disabled Latinxs that have occurred during migration, detention, and deportation. (Photo: CNLD)

At this moment, our coalition is working on several things. We are preparing to apply for 501(c)(3) status and establish an official board of directors. We are also monitoring the situation regarding detained migrant Latinxs, informing the public about how this impacts disabled Latinxs via social media and seeing how best we can support them. For example, as I previously mentioned, CNLD acted as the guest host of a #CripTheVote Twitter Chat on immigration, where we explained the zero tolerance policy, how the separation of families was impacting Latinx children and disabled Latinxs, and the increased harm that proposed changes to the definition of public charge would have for the Latinx community. Lastly, our CNLD Research Committee will be conducting an extensive national study on the intersection of immigration and disability. So, keep us on your radar!

S: Why is your work with Science for the People also important to you?

LET: My work with Science for the People (SftP) is important because I feel like it is a way for me to connect with scientists in academia and industry who care about issues of social justice. They give me hope that my perspective has value and that we have a chance to transform not only science culture, but also the role of science in society. I feel like there are kindred spirits within SftP who want to see science being used for liberatory purposes.

However, as everyone knows, there is no perfect organization. SftP is working on being more intentional, inclusive, and self-reflective, and I feel like I have been very helpful in that regard. I am a member of the Puerto Rico Working Group, and I have created a POC/Black Caucus that is a part of the Steering Committee. The purpose of the caucus is to (1) highlight issues that disproportionately affect communities of color that SftP could address, (2) act as a conduit for greater involvement of scientists of color in SftP in general and within the leadership of SftP, (3) assist with collaborations with organizations of color, and (4) remind and/or educate members of SftP about historic and current marginalization, exploitation, and oppression of communities of color in the name of science. I have also created the Accessibility Group within our SftP Publications Committee. We raise awareness among our members about accessibility needs as well as work on projects that make actions and any communications by SftP available and accessible to the disability community.

S: While social justice is at the core of your work, many STEM professionals see advocacy as something separate. Do you consider yourself radical in this way? Do you experience push-back for what you do?

LET: Yes, I do consider myself radical for thinking that science and social justice should be linked as compared to most STEM professionals, but it is only radical because Western science is Eurocentric and male-dominated. I think melding social justice and science comes more naturally for communities of color, particularly women of color. So, in one sense, it is not very revolutionary.

I think melding social justice and science comes more naturally for communities of color, particularly women of color.

I have been blessed that I, personally, have not received much push-back. I run a writing center and teach at a small, private, liberal arts institution that values interdisciplinary work. Other colleagues are interested in my advocacy work and even invited me to give presentations to the classes. I think the political climate over the past few years has awakened many scientists to the injustices of the world. It has made them curious about  how science has been and is complicit in oppression as well as how it can be used as a way to address inequality.

S: Why do advocacy and STEM go hand-in-hand? Should more STEM programs incorporate activism in their teachings?

LET: My comrade, Ben Allen, and I, with edits and comments from a few other SftP members, wrote a document called “Which Way for Science?”, which we published online a few days before the first March for Science (M4S) in 2017. We talk about how concerns about the the role of evidence-based decision making, science funding, and the political nature of science are not new but are becoming more visible and intense. Using the context of the current sociopolitical climate and M4S, we argue, “[I]f the scientific community believes that science truly is a public good, then more scientists need to speak out, organize, and engage, for themselves, with, and for all marginalized and oppressed people.” We need science to work with and for the people. This includes advocating for underserved communities, for increased funding for science research and education, for rethinking how we engage in and think about science, for a return to radical science.

“[I]f the scientific community believes that science truly is a public good, then more scientists need to speak out, organize, and engage, for themselves, with, and for all marginalized and oppressed people.”

I am a firm believer that activism should definitely be incorporated into STEM programs, but I am also a realist in the fact that I understand that not everyone is comfortable with activism and that the way we teach STEM courses oftentimes does not lend itself to the incorporation of social justice issues. For example, it is difficult to discuss the history of oppression in science when you are trying to teach basic scientific principles. However, I think this is where science faculty and programs need to transform their current curriculum to include classes on the history, philosophy, and sociocultural context of science, including activism, science communication, critical race theory, intersectionality, and critical disability studies. I have actually designed two first-year seminar courses around science communication and intersectionality, respectively, which I would be happy to share with any interested parties.

S: As you mentor undergrad students of color in STEM, what do you hope to teach them about advocacy?

LET: My ultimate goal is to inspire my students to learn about themselves and to engage in positive social transformation, using science as one of many tools for change. I want to help students appreciate the complexity of the sociology of science, to see social justice as a vital component of scientific inquiry, and to begin to see themselves as agents of social change. I think my advocacy work humanizes science for them and demonstrates that scientists have their flaws and biases. Each time I teach a course, I want my students to ask themselves: How can I use my scientific knowledge to better humanity and to advocate for my communities? How can I honorably work in and with communities to address pressing scientific and social concerns?
Torres, Lisette (Cooper Center)

Learn more about Lisette: Lisette E. Torres is a trained scientist and disabled scholar-activist whose work focuses on addressing racial and gender inequity and disability in science. She works full-time as the Director of the Cooper Foundation Center for Academic Resources at Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU), where she also coordinates the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program collaboratively with colleagues to recruit and retain students of color in science disciplines. Her activism work includes being an advisory board member of the Invisible Disability Project (IDP), a co-founder of the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities (CNLD), an active member of Science for the People, and a co-organizer of the Disability and Intersectionality Summit (DIS).


Sister is an independent media platform amplifying the voices of gender minorities in STEM.

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