Reflections by UCL Department of Earth Sciences Network for Ethnic Diversity on two Black History Month 2022 events
Even if you don’t see someone like you, put yourself in that space. Then there will be someone like you there.
– Asanté Boyce, AstroNoir
These were the words that stayed with us from AstroNoir’s Black History Month event led by Asanté Boyce and Chaneil James, in conversation with their guest Marjahn Finlayson.
Black History Month provides an opportunity to explore history and the status quo and think objectively, positively and creatively about the future. Our group member, PhD student Cassius Morrison (UCL Earth Sciences/Natural History Museum), who is also an award-winning EDI activist, ran an event outlining his perspectives and experiences in early October. When AstroNoir got in touch, interested in collaboration, and told us about their mission that science should be accessible to all, we jumped on board to support their event.
We all know the score – Black scientists are under-represented in Geoscience especially at higher levels – and those who make it don’t always stay. A Nature special issue for Black History month ‘Racism – Overcoming Science’s Toxic Legacy’ recounts a number of testimonies of Black scientists. Prof. Chris Jackson became the only Black Geoscience professor in the UK in 2015 and was well known for his success, but left academia citing disillusionment and a lack of support . So the questions are not only around how Black people can get into ‘that space’, but how they can thrive there.
Cassius Morrison at a dinosaur exhibit
Cassius, Asanté, Chaneil and Marjahn all told us stories of how they came into their fields, stories revolving around childhood enthusiasm and a love for their research areas. An obsession with dinosaurs, a family discussion about humans living in space, a desire to understand how Earth’s environmental systems operate. Most academics can probably relate to this – the spark, the excitement, the deepening curiosity that brought us to where we are today. So what happens next, and why might our race or ethnicicty make a difference? Alongside passion, competence and interest in the science, making a career in a highly competitive field requires a working environment where we can achieve at the highest level. In another story in the Nature special issue Nadia Sam-Agudu recounts that “Racism makes you feel ‘less’ — like you don’t belong in that space” . To achieve on an individual level, we must spend a large amount of our working lives interacting with others – conducting fieldwork, building global networks of collaborators and writing articles and funding applications. In the UK and the US, people working in Earth and Environmental Science are predominantly white. The speakers touched upon the ways that race and ethnicity can play in some key aspects of building a career:
Networking – the theme of the AstroNoir event – often plays a key role in discovering and having success for opportunities such as jobs, internships and so on.
Gatekeeping of opportunities, deliberate or unintentional, may reduce or control who can access the best chances at success.
A lack of role models from diverse backgrounds – seeing someone like me doing the thing I want to do – can limit aspirations and confidence.
So where do we go from here? Some of us are Black scientists, some of us of other ethnicities. What is the role for each of us in ensuring that all scientists can make valuable and valued contributions in their fields? How do we make sure that the gates are always open to the full potential of talent, particularly in a relatively small area of research such as the Earth Sciences?
One part of the answer lies in allyship – stepping up to support those around us. At both events, this came up as a key part of the way forward. Merging the words and sentiments of Cassius Morrison and Chaneil James: we learned that we must start by listening receptively and avoiding judgement. Sometimes, we must provide the voice that the under-represented person, or group, needs for support – when they are around, or when they are absent. We must be critical and honest with ourselves. We have all had individual experiences shaping our views, our cultures, our experiences as employees or supervisors – this is a part of being human. We must unpack what we think we know, considering that some of it might not be right. This can be an uncomfortable and challenging experience.
Every person has a different story. “Allowing” a few Black Scientists to progress in predominantly white systems without considering their experiences and the systems they are navigating is obviously not sufficient. Every person is different, and has a different story. By considering individuals and how to support each of them individually on their journey, we can create environments in which they can thrive and become the inspiration so many others are looking for - the someone like me.
A recording of the AstroNoir event will be uploaded by the end of the year.