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#ShutDownSTEM

Scientists and students dedicated yesterday to healing and action in support of black lives.

June 11, 2020
 

Only 3 percent of bachelor's degrees in physics go to black students. In 2017 some fields, such as structural engineering and atmospheric physics, graduated not a single black Ph.D.

On Wednesday, over 4,500 STEM faculty and students pledged to forgo research and meetings to instead focus on a day of action dedicated to protecting black lives and dismantling antiblack systems in academe and STEM.

The effort was led by Particles for Justice, a group of physicists, and specifically spearheaded by Brian Nord, an astronomy and astrophysics professor at the University of Chicago and scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of New Hampshire. The group created the hashtag #Strike4BlackLives and was in dialogue with other groups including #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia and #VanguardSTEM, a web series featuring women of color in the sciences.

"As physicists, we believe an academic strike is urgently needed: to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities," Particles for Justice wrote in a statement.

"The burdens of being black -- whether you are in academia, whether you’re an undergraduate student or a faculty member -- entail a huge amount of emotional work that you are expected to do," Nausheen Shah, one of the organizers and a theoretical particle physicist at Wayne State University, told Scientific American. This labor can include mentoring minority students and speaking in diversity workshops, work that may not be compensated, she said.

"Black academics do a disproportionate amount of work to fight what’s going on, because they’re the ones who are affected. It’s like the victims are being asked to fix the problem. That’s not OK," Shah continued.

For nonblack academics and students, the strike was not meant to be a day off, but rather a day of action dedicated to education and planning long-term commitments. The #ShutDownSTEM website offers a plethora of reading and listening material dedicated to antiblack racism, as well as examples of action for different types of scholars.

For example, students are encouraged to start an equity-focused journal club with peers. The group recommends research group leaders discuss articles about racism at group meetings, while department chairs can define transparent hiring and admission processes and begin an equity library.

"Importantly, we are not calling for more diversity and inclusion talks and seminars. We are not asking people to sit through another training about implicit bias," Particles for Justice wrote in their statement. "We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how black lives are lived -- to work toward ending the white supremacy that not only snuffs out Black physicist dreams but destroys whole Black lives."

Nord, in an open letter, pushed back against the idea that diversity and inclusion should be supported because they could mean a more productive and innovative field.

"Why is productivity the motivation for supporting diversity or for maintaining a high-quality work environment? Why isn't our humanity enough?" he wrote. "We have spent millions of dollars building one of the most complex astronomical devices in the history of cosmological science, but you refuse to even open a book about how to build a healthy and inclusive community and a world where Black lives matter."

Throughout the day, hashtagged tweets percolated. Black students and researchers highlighted their work and achievements. White academics discussed how they were spending the day and what actions they were planning to take.

Numerous organizations, including Nature, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Physics, said they were supporting or participating the strike.

Deans at Arizona State University penned a statement in support of the strike and movement.

"Many studies have shown there is no shortage of diversity among students enrolling in STEM programs. In this case, the issue is retention," the deans wrote. "A common reason black students and other underrepresented students leave STEM majors is they do not feel welcomed, seen and supported."

The deans also highlighted the room for improvement at ASU -- in fall 2019, only 3.9 percent of students enrolled in STEM fields were black.

The School of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology also took part, with several departments planning programs and discussions.

The strike comes on the heels of the #BlackintheIvory social media campaign, which asked black academics to share examples of racism or exclusion. Hundreds obliged.

"Every time one of us is rejected, beat down, dismissed, ridiculed, or murdered, I question why I am still in academia," Cassandra Extravour, a molecular and cell biology professor at Harvard University, tweeted. "I ask myself if today will be the day that there is one fewer senior black academic available to reach out and stand up for and be visible for black students and trainees. I answer 'not today.' It usually costs more than I think I have in me, but so far, I still say 'Not today.'"

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