Lessons Learned From Black In Neuro Week

When COVID-19 brought research to an abrupt halt, the neuroscience community rallied to support each other. But when George Floyd was murdered, and the list of lives lost kept growing, that same community was silent.

The handful of Black scientists I knew continued our work as though we were not grieving, furious, and terrified. Traumatic footage flooded my timeline, and it was like being doused in ice water: shocking, painful, then numbing. 

I felt very much alone, until Angeline Dukes, a PhD candidate at the University of California Irvine, tweeted this:

A screenshot of a Tweet by Angeline Dukes (@FutureDrDukes). Text reads: “Sooo when are we doing a #BlackInNeuro week?” The Tweet has 47 reteweets and 250 likes, and was posted on July 3rd, 2020.

Building on the momentum of #BlackBirdersWeek, #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownSTEM, #BlackBotanistsWeek, #BlackInAstroWeek and #BlackWomenInSTEMWeek, #BlackInNeuroWeek sought to amplify and uplift Black scientists, engineers, and clinicians studying the brain. Three days after Angeline’s call to action, I had joined a team of over 20 organizers. Within three weeks, we had launched a website, surpassed 10,000 followers on social media, built a database of over 300 Black in Neuro scholars, secured thousands of dollars in sponsorships, and organized a dozen live events

The response from the Black in Neuro community was incredible, and beyond anything we could’ve imagined. 

Though our week-long campaign has ended, Black in Neuro is here to stay. Institutions and companies are consulting our database, community members are using the #BlackInNeuro hashtag to ask for advice, and we are planning more events. Here’s what I’ve learned as a Black in Neuro Week co-organizer, and how I think we can turn this moment into a sustainable movement. 

Your community is your foundation, and should come first.

Many Black scientists are the only ones at their research institutions. The challenges and microaggressions resulting from this isolation are too numerous to count. During our first planning meeting, organizers were overjoyed to meet Black peers. We wanted the whole Black in Neuro community to experience this sense of belonging. That’s why we started the week with #BlackNeuroRollCall on July 27, inviting Black scientists from around the world to introduce themselves. Some joined social media for the first time to participate. On August 1, we held a social gathering where feelings of kinship brought many of us to tears. 

We also showcased that Blackness is multifaceted, and challenged stereotypical depictions of what a scientist looks like. Throughout the week, we emphasized that our identities are intersecting. Black scientists can also be disabled, queer, Muslim, and so much more. On July 29, we highlighted our community’s versatility through #BlackNeuroArt, during which painters, musicians, dancers, fashion models, rappers, and poets put their talents on display. During #BlackJoyInNeuro on August 2, we danced our stress away, and shared the things that bring us joy outside the lab. We made sure to include international panelists, recognizing that a United States-centric roster would not reflect the whole Black in Neuro community. 

Now that the week is over, the livelihood of this community is central to our mandate. We’ve created an online space for members to chat and share resources, and plan on hosting monthly socials, as well as being more intentional in centering diverse and international perspectives at our events. If nothing else, we want Black in Neuro to be a platform our whole community can turn to when they need a reminder that they’re not alone. 

Embrace transparency and humility.

As a rapidly formed grassroots organization, we are far from perfect. Our community was always there to point out our blindspots, and we remained open to this feedback. For instance, we were encouraged to showcase Black and disabled neuroscientists and to ensure all of our visuals had alternative text to increase accessibility. Following our events, we sent out anonymous feedback surveys to participants, and we are listening to their feedback as we develop future programming. By centering our community’s input in decision-making, we can address our shortcomings to build a platform that serves the entire Black in Neuro community.

Good allies will support you; let them.

Non-Black allies played a crucial role in Black in Neuro Week. When selecting our team, we made a conscious effort to invite non-Black individuals with a track record of advocating for marginalized scientists. This strategy paid off: our allies were supportive, and made sure to give the spotlight to the Black individuals on the team. They brought valuable skills to the table, such as design, marketing, and fundraising. Their large social media platforms and professional networks were vital, allowing us to widely promote our events, rapidly increase our following, and reach over 2,000 registrants for our live events. Our allies at the UC Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, a registered non-profit, were instrumental, lending us their infrastructure to process donations, manage event registration, and host large virtual audiences at our events. While we recognized the need to spotlight Black individuals during the week, we accomplished a lot more by allowing allies to carry some of the load.

You can, and should, get paid.

Scholars from underrepresented groups are more likely to engage in unrewarded service work, which uplifts their community, but also has harmful impacts on their career trajectory. We knew we wanted to challenge this culture by compensating those involved in our events. But how? 

We started by reaching out to institutions with which we were affiliated, and who had made strong statements in response to recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. We presented them with an opportunity: by sponsoring Black in Neuro Week, they could take a step towards their stated goal of dismantling racism in the brain sciences. Once we received our first “yes,” things got a lot easier. 

To build on this, Black in Neuro plans to create scholarships and awards for our community, as well as formal mentorship and internship opportunities to reduce barriers often faced by marginalized trainees and early-career researchers. 

The history you’re making deserves to be immortalized.

Too often, Black people, particularly Black women, are not credited for their work. We wanted to ensure Black in Neuro Week could be re-lived long after the week itself. 

We kept a tangible record of our week. All our live events were recorded. We tracked social media analytics to quantify our impact. Our profiles page is a searchable repertoire of Black in Neuro scholars. We wrote a press release, reached out to journalists, and participated in interviews to gain media coverage

In archiving Black in Neuro Week, I learned about the history of social media activism which has made this moment possible, spearheaded by Black women through initiatives like #BLACKandSTEM, #VanguardSTEM and #BlackInTheIvory. Looking forward, we hope to continue learning and recording our collective history.

I could not have predicted the impact responding to Angeline’s Tweet would have on my graduate student career, or my life as a whole. As I enter the last semester of my master’s degree, I’m hopeful for the future of neuroscience, and see a place for myself in it. Our calendar of #BlackInX events is full for the rest of the year, and I hope these lessons learned can inform all of our advocacy work as we move towards a world where Black scientists are celebrated.

This article is written from my personal perspective as a Black woman on the Black in Neuro Week organizing committee. My opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the rest of the Black In Neuro team.

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This article is published in partnership with Science Rising, 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. Take the Science Rising Challenge and join the movement at www.ScienceRising.org.

Danielle Nadin
Danielle Nadin

Danielle Nadin is completing her MSc at McGill University, where she studies patterns of brain connectivity related to consciousness, and how brain stimulation might be used to modulate these networks. Danielle co-founded SciComm Collective, which aims to integrate equity, diversity and inclusion and science communication training, and previously co-directed the McGill chapter of Scientista, where she advocated for gender equity in STEM. You can find her on Twitter at @DanielleSipsTea.

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