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Inaugural 'Black in X' Weeks Foster Inclusivity and Empowerment in STEM

Discover how Black in STEM events defined 2020, and how science educators can harness the spirit of inclusiveness in the classroom.

ByKara NortonNOVA EducationNOVA Education
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Black Birders Week has united environmental professionals across the globe. In this photo, Black Birders Week co-organizer Corina Newsome is surrounded by birds of North America, including her spark bird, the blue jay. Illustration By: Aliisa Lee

For many citizens of the world, the year 2020 will live in infamy. The COVID-19 virus has infected more than 75 million people and taken the lives of over one million worldwide. In the United States, the situation has been particularly dire with the virus claiming the lives of more than 300,000 Americans. The pandemic has upended people’s day-to-day routines, eliminated jobs, and left many households facing financial hardship. The world has waited anxiously as virologists worked at record speed to produce a vaccine capable of ending the pandemic. Amid the turmoil of COVID-19, the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans catalyzed protests across the United States and spotlighted police brutality, systemic racism, and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color.

These events left many in the scientific community evaluating their own role in addressing inequities in their fields. Despite years of progress, people of color continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering. Although Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, just 5.4% of Ph.Ds are awarded to Black candidates, according to data from the National Science Foundation. In fact, in 2017 there were more than a dozen fields—largely subfields within science, technology, engineering, and math—in which not a single doctoral degree was awarded to a Black person anywhere in the United States.

But amid the pain and turmoil of this past summer, something empowering and inclusive was created. The racist confrontation that Christian Cooper, a board member of New York City Audubon, experienced while birding in New York’s Central Park sparked the viral online movement Black Birders Week, and a myriad of STEM-themed “Black in X” weeks followed.

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Pictured here are the women who were instrumental in the creation of Black Birders Week and the Black AF in STEM collective. Illustration By: Nina Chhita

During the rest of 2020, scholars from across scientific fields came together in a grassroots fashion to create virtual events, panels, and social media campaigns to amplify the experiences and contributions of Black scientists. Numerous “Black in X” weeks took shape to spotlight the presence and achievements of Black STEM professionals. Through these open online forums, participants discussed things like representation and mentorship in academia, the joys and challenges of fieldwork, and incredible insights and breakthroughs in science.

Conversations around cultural responsiveness, anti-racism, and anti-bias are becoming more widespread within educational circles. For educators and students, these social media campaigns that promote inclusivity and intersectional diversity have created a platform for a new generation of scientists and science communicators who have long been underrepresented. The virtual campaigns attracted a diverse range of individuals, including American rapper and record producer MC Hammer; Kezzmekia Corbett, a virologist who has led the charge to create a COVID-19 vaccine; and science educators.

So how can science educators harness the spirit of inclusive events like Black Birders Week in the classroom? These campaigns highlight the importance of fostering a learning environment that promotes diversity and inclusion within STEM as well as acknowledging the systemic issues that have historically prevented full participation of everyone in STEM. And students can review social media campaign posts that feature young Black scientists from around the globe, have a conversation about their experiences, and discuss the importance of diverse role models. In case you missed the opportunity to participate during these inaugural online events, get to know five new groups pushing for equality and inclusion in STEM.

Black Birders Week (May 31 – June 5)

In early June, Black researchers and avian enthusiasts flocked to social media to participate in the first ever Black Birders Week. The inaugural event was organized in direct response to the racist confrontation Christian Cooper experienced while he was birding in New York’s Central Park.

The brainchild of the grassroots group “Black AF in STEM,” the initiative has united Black science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals around the world and amassed more than 60,000 social media followers. Over the course of the week, nature enthusiasts from around the world shared their favorite stories about the great outdoors using the now viral hashtag #BlackinNature. The core message of Black Birders Week has been to amplify and encourage more participation and diversity in the outdoor and environmental spaces. Although the week has ended, the work has just begun, according to the organizing team.

Black AF in STEM is encouraging their followers to continue the conversation on social media, support Black scientists, businesses, and media: “The time for action is now, it is our hope that the political pressure brought on by the protests since the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the conversations we have had here with you, have stoked a fire that will not go out anytime soon and allow us to bring real change to Black communities everywhere both inside and outside of STEM.”

Black in Neuroscience Week (July 27 – Aug. 2)

Following in the viral footsteps of Black Birders Week, the organizers behind #BlackinNeuro decided to launch their very own inaugural event. Organized by and for neuroscientists and science communicators, Black in Neuroscience Week was created to celebrate, amplify, and support Black scientists in neuroscience related fields.

“Many of us are one of few, if not the only, Black people in our neuro departments,” says Black in Neuroscience founder and president, Angeline Dukes. “We all desperately needed to connect with others who understood what we were experiencing as Black academics and clinicians during this time of social unrest on top of the pandemic.”

In reflecting back on some of her favorite moments during the week, Duke noted how incredible it was to meet so many female Black neuroscientists who are open to sharing their stories and journeys to achieving their goals. “The camaraderie in our shared experiences was priceless,” Duke says. “You could just tell how important it was for everyone there to be able to connect and feel supported, there was an overwhelming amount of love in that Zoom room.”

In case you missed Black in Neuroscience Week and would like to participate, the group is offering regular monthly socials with the Black in Neuro community as well as workshops and panels. On the Black in Neuro website you can find an interactive calendar with a comprehensive list of Black in X weeks plus related efforts, as well as a directory with more than 200 neuroscientists, engineers, educators, and communicators. All virtual panels from Black in Neuroscience Week are available to stream on the team’s YouTube Channel.

Black Mammalogists Week (Sept. 13 – 19)

In the spirit of inclusivity and empowerment, a team of Black mammalogists, led by Rhiannon Kirton and Christine Wilkinson, teamed up with the American Society of Mammalogists to provide opportunities for current and aspiring Black mammalogists, while also illuminating historical and present-day Black contributions to the field of mammalogy.

"The catalyst for organizing the week was when we noticed an article that said there was only one African-American female large carnivore ecologist in the world, which we knew was not the case,” says Wilkinson. “We knew then more than ever that it was important to connect our community (Black mammalogists and wildlife ecologists) with one another and to show young Black scholars and mammal enthusiasts that there are lots of us already out here.”

Over the course of the week, Black mammalogists shared information on techniques commonly used for monitoring wildlife populations in the field, curated a variety of panels led by experts focused on threatened and misunderstood mammals, as well as #WeOutHereWednesday, a campaign which provided an opportunity for participants to network within the field and get to know their peers.

"I heard from multiple parents and teachers that their kids were so excited to be able to learn from Black mammalogists, and one parent even said she cried because her child now had role models,” says Wilkinson.

For more information on what the future holds for Black Mammalogists, stay tuned for updates on their website. Until then, all virtual panel videos are available to stream on the team’s website. For additional teaching resources from the week, explore the team’s collection of coloring pages which include the scientific names of each mammal and corresponding facts.

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Black in Microbiology Week (Sept. 28 – Oct. 4)

With the mission to showcase the presence and accomplishments of Black microbiologists from around the globe, #BlackinMicrobiologyWeek was all about connecting Black microbiologists with one another to foster a sense of community. The week provided a forum for the discussion of racial disparities in microbiology and its subdisciplines, increasing general microbiology knowledge, and supporting the collective work of equity in academia, industry, government and beyond.

“Black in Microbiology, Black in Neuro and all the others are pivotal for visibility to younger generations of scientists and to people who have said or thought that this talent pool just does not exist,” Kizzmekia Corbett told the New York Times. Corbett was one of four experts featured during the week’s Black in Virology panel. To catch up on all the panel discussions showcased during the week, check out Black in Microbiology’s YouTube channel.

Black in Marine Science Week (Nov. 29 – Dec. 5)

Rounding out the list of inaugural Black in X weeks that graced our newsfeeds in 2020 is Black in Marine Science Week! Led by founder Dr. Tiara Moore and organizers Amani Webber-Schultz, Dr. Camille Gaynus, Carlee Jackson, Al Troutman, Jasmin Graham, Jeanette Davis, Kris Howard, Leslie Townsell, Kaylee Arnold, and Jaida Elcock, this week provided an opportunity to highlight organizers and participants from every imaginable marine science niche.

The Black in Marine Science Roll Call allowed scientists and ocean enthusiasts to introduce themselves and promote representation for younger scientists and students. In addition to sharing incredible behind-the-scenes tours of aquariums across the country, the organizers also spotlighted water competency and natural hair care among Black divers, and the fact that exclusion rather than lack of interest has led to a dearth of Black marine scientists.

“While we as minority scientists continue to face many challenges throughout our career, we continue to show our resilience,” says Black in Marine Science co-organizer Alex Troutman. “Just like sea turtles, we started from the bottom and dug our way out, navigated over rough terrain, through obstacles, and escaped predators so that we can thrive!”

Although the week has concluded, the Black in Marine Science team plans to hold this event on an annual basis. For more updates and event programming, follow Black in Marine Science on social media and head to the Black in Marine Science YouTube channel to watch panel discussions from the week.

As communities across the country continue to grapple with the legacy of institutional racism, many educators are evaluating the role they can play in addressing systemic issues. Making a conscious effort to be aware of these annual events and acknowledge the ways racial inequities continue to shape our society is a step in the right direction. It is important to remember that having conversations around cultural responsiveness, anti-racism, and anti-bias is a process that requires continual reflection, learning, and growth.

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