“Is that a flier for yet another diversity workshop? I’m sure this is important, but I really wish they would let us focus on the science and cut out these unnecessary distractions. We are here to do science, after all!”
This is how I was greeted one morning in the elevator. I didn’t respond in that moment, but I kept thinking about those words for the rest of the day. Yes, it was true that I had entered graduate school for the love of science. Then why did I continue to invest time and effort into “unnecessary” diversity work? Why couldn’t I just focus on the science, like a lot of other people were apparently doing? I wish it were that easy.
Why couldn’t I just focus on the science, like a lot of other people were apparently doing?
It is hard for me to focus on the science when I get mistaken for the one other brown woman in the department. It is hard for me to focus on the science when I constantly get interrupted at meetings and my ideas are praised when they come from someone else. It is hard for me to focus on the science when my name is mispronounced on a daily basis and my accent is usually the first thing a stranger asks about instead of my science.
Is activism a necessity or choice? The answer is short, but not necessarily simple: I am an advocate because I don’t think activism is separate from the goals of science or academia, but an integral part of them. Asking for greater inclusion in the system is pointing out the painfully obvious omissions that exist in the system and asking for us to work together as a team to fix them. If science is about the spirit of inquiry and improving humankind’s experiences, questioning the systems and institutions where we perform science should fit right in with this spirit.
Science is done by people. People make decisions based on their lived experiences and things they have learned along the way. These decisions can span a wide range of choices: whether to speak up at a lab meeting and share a piece of advice that could help a coworker’s experiment or stay quiet and not be interrupted or dismissed, whether to design an experiment that creates mobility challenges that cannot be overcome in the current workplace configuration, whether to hire that new graduate student who seems to be excited about your research but whose professionalism you’re unsure about because of their multiple piercings and rainbow hair, or even whether to establish a new collaboration with your colleague down the hall who seems extremely smart but also has a thick accent. If we have established that science is done by real human beings and is driven by decisions that are made by these people, then it follows that we should be investing resources and effort into making sure that the same people feel a sense of belonging and identity with science.
Science is done by people. People make decisions based on their lived experiences and things they have learned along the way.
I want new students to feel like they have the skills to find answers to the questions they are excited about. I want them to feel like they belong in science.
This is why my activism and advocacy aren’t peripheral goals or extracurricular activities, but work that I consider central to the process of doing good science and moving us forward. Unfortunately, a lot of academics still view advocacy as a zero-sum game. In fact, many graduate students (and others) are often penalized for their advocacy work and discouraged in subtle (and sometimes blatant) ways. Time lost advocating for better parental leave policies or a more transparent student recruitment process is time that could have been better spent collecting another data point or writing a manuscript. To what end? If we continue to lose talented scientists due to our inability to provide a wholesome academic environment, it is ultimately science and society that suffer.
If we continue to lose talented scientists due to our inability to provide a wholesome academic environment, it is ultimately science and society that suffer.
I do want to point out that sometimes, even being able to participate in activism can be a privilege. Activism can lead to burnout, hypervisibility, time, and money away from a primary job. And then there is, of course, the minority burden: the double brunt borne by a minority student or staff member who has to find a way to thrive in academia in addition to being one of the few or only people in the room working towards social change, sometimes at the cost of their careers.
To those of us who have been able to find ways to be activists, in big or small ways, remember to advocate not only for yourselves but also for those who come after you. Remember that you are working for people you might not have even met yet – and that you are making the world a little better for them by doing what you are doing.
To those of us who haven’t realized the value of advocacy work yet but have the power to create change, think about what it means to have the privilege to do that and how things might be different for some of your colleagues. And then think about the fact that some of them still choose to do the “diversity work” and ask yourself what stops you from doing the same.
Science Rising is a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Anyone can participate in Science Rising. Learn more at www.ScienceRising.org.