By Harneet Sangha1, Rosanna Tilbrook1, Manika Sidhu1, Aneesah Kamran1 & Emily Baldwin1
1University of Leicester
The Shutdown STEM and Academia initiative was a world-wide event held on 10 June 2020 that was created to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It was organised as a way to stop academic “business as usual” for one day; a day where our Black colleagues can prioritise their needs, and look after themselves amidst this emotional time, and a chance for everyone else to educate themselves, and others, about why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important.
Black people have been working tirelessly - their whole lives - for change, and everyone else has a responsibility to do their part to help eradicate anti-Black racism.
The key aims of the day were to:
In this article we talk about how we used this initiative to educate ourselves on Black racism in our society and within the science community, and how we will combat these issues moving forward.
To honour the initiative, a group of us (5 Physics postgraduate research (PGR) students) from the University of Leicester, hosted an educational workshop day for the Physics PGR cohort. We are passionate about this cause and endeavoured to be proactive in raising awareness of the movement, educating ourselves and our fellow PGR students and avoiding the use of passive methods to present this information to our peers.
We decided we wanted to initiate a discussion where we could collectively consider what the University of Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy could do to help the cause. To facilitate this, we decided that a presentation would be the most effective way of sharing some of the shocking facts and statistics that had surfaced in light of the movement. The presentation was a compilation of information that we had gathered on BLM, racism in our society, and actions we can take in order to strive to create a world where Black Lives Matter.
A large portion of our presentation focused on issues within academia and STEM and why there is a lack of diversity present. Did you know that there were only four UK-based Black students doing a PhD across RAS-related fields in 20161? In stark contrast, for the same year, there were 221 UK-based White students doing a PhD across RAS-related fields1. Did you know that to date, in the US, only 22 Black women have been awarded a PhD in Astronomy2? However, this issue doesn’t just stop with the number of students in academia. In the UK, 94% of professors in Physics, Chemistry and Maths are White, whereas 0.2% of professors are Black, despite making up 3.3% of the UK population3. These are just a handful of the facts that we showed, to demonstrate just how underrepresented the Black community is within Physics and Astronomy. These statistics are shocking, and yet the vast majority of people are not aware of them.
As well as being underrepresented, Black scientists also experience greater amounts of harassment and discrimination in the field. BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) staff have reported “isolation and marginalisation; challenges to their status, authority and scholarship; high levels of scrutiny and surveillance of their work; and difficulties gaining promotion” 4.
In addition to providing information on systemic racism and the inequality of Black people throughout academia and beyond, the presentation also included a number of topics which initiated and fed into the discussion, such as staff representation, training, and amplifying Black voices through talks and journal clubs. This was facilitated and chaired by ourselves and resulted in 2.5 hours of engaging dialogue with many people coming forward and getting involved. We were thrilled with the number of participants who engaged enthusiastically with the conversation. It helped that there were a number of ways for people to join in with this; questions could be asked anonymously, directly into the chat, or they could be voiced openly. A few key members of staff were also invited to this discussion – our Head of School, our School’s PGR Tutor and the PGR Director for the College of Science and Engineering – which was useful as questions and ideas could be directed or discussed immediately with them.
We knew there was only so much that the 5 of us (non-Black students) could say, and that there was only so much material we could gather in the 3 days prior to this BLM Educational Workshop. Therefore, we decided to source some pre-existing material which would be able to provide context and history to the Black Lives Matter movement. We chose to show two films: a short documentary before the presentation called ‘Stay woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement’ 5, and a film after the discussion called ‘13th’ 6.We thought this would be another way to reinforce the message we wanted to convey, and the reasons why BLM and the responsibilities we have to end racism are so important.
Due to the nature of the movement and the weight of the topic at hand, we could not and did not want to avoid the distressing reality of Black history and lived experience. We knew that the films we showed were graphic and sometimes violent, yet we hoped that by keeping these atrocities uncensored the viewers would respond more powerfully to the matter at hand. Many of us were unaware of the true extent of the issue, and we therefore felt it important not to minimise this by omitting the most difficult stories. Of course, we alerted participants to the upsetting nature of the films beforehand.
Once we had decided what we wanted to do on the day, we had to decide how we were going to do it.
Since the start of the lockdown, the UoL Physics PGR cohort has been using Discord to keep in contact and host socials, and so this was our preferred social media platform to stream the documentaries on.
In order for us all to contribute to the creation of the presentation easily, we created a Google Slides document where we could all work on our own parts at the same time. We then decided that the best way to host the presentation and discussion would be to use Microsoft Teams; it has a number of discussion features, allowing participants the option of “raising their hand” as well as a chat function. The use of Google Slides when presenting allowed us to set up an area where questions, comments or discussion points could be brought up anonymously. We thought this was a great feature as this is a delicate topic and we understand that not everyone will feel comfortable with asking questions openly.
To enable a seamless event, the five of us practiced streaming the presentation on Microsoft Teams, the day before. By doing this, we could fix any glitches that there may have been in the slides themselves. We also discussed what slides everyone would take, and created a Google doc where we each wrote a word-for-word script for our individual parts. This meant that if any one of us had technical difficulties on the day, then one of the other presenters could take over without any issues and would know what to say. It also meant that our slide presenter knew when the slides needed to be changed.
The whole event ran smoothly, ensuring we got the most out of our discussion time. At its busiest, we had ~35 people in attendance, mainly PGR students, but also including the Head of Physics and Astronomy Emma Bunce, our Physics PGR Tutor Tom Stallard, and the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) PGR Tutor Mark Williams. These staff members were also present for the discussion portion of the day, and were all eager to help make changes at a School and College-level.
The discussion allowed us to identify several action points for our research groups and department:
BAME members of the department may not feel comfortable reporting their issues as they may feel alienated as a minority. If this can be anonymised, this may help BAME students/members to feel safer and more reassured when reporting. One thing that we discussed was regular anonymised surveys to all the PGRs. This would resolve issues of incidents that “don’t feel major enough” to report and escalate to higher members. We also discussed creating an environment where it is not solely the responsibility of the target of racial incidents to report the issue, but other people present should also be encouraged to report any incidents they witness.
By focusing on the scientific achievements of Black physicists, we are normalising the discussion of “we need more Black members in the STEM fields”. Innovation and creative thinking prospers when people from different backgrounds and communities come together and discuss their ideas. Diversifying the field facilitates scientific progress. We need to ensure that we focus on the science that Black members of the community are doing, as opposed to tokenising their ethnicity.
Outreach is always a great way to reach out to the community, and is especially important for encouraging the younger generation to pursue science and physics. One issue that was raised is how overrepresented groups can assist with outreach to underrepresented groups. Young students like to envision themselves in a role; providing them with someone to relate to can help with confidence issues. How can we ensure that they are not only seeing White physicists, potentially making them feel unwelcome in the sector? This is an ongoing discussion, and we have to be very careful with what we do for this aspect. We do not want to tokenise our Black members and force minorities to participate in outreach if they can’t or don’t want to.
A key point to consider is assessing the diversity of who our outreach activities engage with. We have to ensure that underrepresented groups are being engaged with in the first place. Then designing outreach activities to target the unique and key issues faced by those demographics would help too. For example, higher attrition rates of Black students is thought to be due to socio-economic disadvantages7, as well as career perceptions of Physics8.
One of the key themes in our discussion was that it is not the responsibility of marginalised people to educate others on racism. These groups already face additional challenges and we should not be adding further pressure. If they were compensated for their time this could help, but it is a point that has to be thought about very carefully.
We discussed studies which show that the initial stages of the job application process can often be the most discriminatory, with prejudices casting negative judgements solely on the name of the applicant. Anonymising the applications could help to minimise this issue.
Black students are more likely to switch out of Physics. If we can understand why they are leaving, we could work towards creating an environment where they feel welcome and want to stay. Maybe a community-wide study on the experiences of Black undergraduate and PhD students would give us a better insight into this. Role models could have a big impact on this – currently the most senior figures in Physics are mainly older White males.
The day was a success, and we had a lot of positive and encouraging feedback. Thanks to our Head of School, we will be presenting this talk to the Physics Staff in the coming weeks, and our CSE PGR Tutor has also sent the presentation around to the other Schools within the College. This is all in an effort to encourage the initiation of these discussions within the other Schools.
We highly encourage all other universities to take this seriously, and to start having these discussions. This issue doesn’t just affect a handful of universities; we all need to start coming up with ways to combat these injustices. These are not conversations that should be shied away from. Changes need to be made.
“You have to shock people into paying attention.”
Vann Jones, 13th
While everything that has occurred recently in the world has focused our thoughts on racism and diversity, there shouldn’t need to be a tragedy for us to realise that Black Lives Matter. As well as recognising the issues that exist, we need to actively and continually engage in combating anti-Black racism. Even after the social media hype dies down, we need to continue to fight. Tackling racism is a marathon, not a sprint.
Black Lives Matter, and together we can start the journey towards eliminating anti-Black racism.
There are so many resources out there (a few are below), use what is available to educate yourself. It is not the responsibility of your Black friends or colleagues to teach you.
We would also encourage that everyone who can to read the stories of discrimination in academia that Black scientists are sharing on the ‘Black in the Ivory’ hashtag on Twitter. One of the most distressing parts of this hashtag is that these are not even the worst stories – these are only the ones that people feel safe and comfortable sharing. This is extremely important to consider.
Take part in discussions within your University and show that YOU care. If there aren’t any discussions going on, ask those in charge: why not? And, like us, why not organise them yourself? We’re happy to help you get started.
Learning and apologising does not make you a worse ally!
Use the links below to help with these conversations.
Join protests, sign petitions, contact your MPs and donate if you can.