As part of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative to start conversations about diversity within different fields of study, Dialogues on Diversity in Science was held Tuesday evening at the University of Michigan Power Center.
Dialogues on Diversity, a social justice theater company, helped host the event, with executive director Ron Jones asking the audience questions to combat preconceived notions of diversity and privilege.
The end of the discussion consisted of scenario skits and discussion of how to handle situations such as sexual harassment, racially charged comments and bad reputations. While the event was scheduled to last from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., discussion about scenarios lingered for thirty minutes longer than expected.
Some attendees said those in the sciences not value conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion, but instead regards them as “distractions to the lab.”
“There’s a culture clash when a minority or non-dominant culture come to an environment where it’s mostly a dominant culture,” Rackham student Omari Baruti said. “They don’t value conversations on diversity or you talking about diversity as much as the non-dominant culture. Some things they say is that, ‘I’ve never had to experience these issues, so I feel like I shouldn’t have to talk about this.’ Or, ‘I feel like this is something we shouldn’t talk about in the lab. I don’t want to talk about it here. Maybe you guys can go elsewhere and talk about it, but not here.’ They feel like it’s a distraction from the productivity of the lab.”
Rackham student Angela Carter said that she has experienced microaggressions in her work and that the pressure of representing Black women to her peers and superiors takes an emotional toll.
“There’s a lot of microaggressions,” Carter said. “You go into the department, and you’re the person representing whatever identity you conform with. Me, being a Black woman, I’m representing Black women. Anything that I do wrong or do correctly is representing all Black women. So I have to always be correct and always right and always perfect. You have to be 100 percent on all the time.”
Rackham student Kaylin White said she was happy to see the number of people in attendance, but wished more faculty members were present.
“I was happy to see the large attendance numbers,” White said. “There have been so few events like this so far. Seeing that many people, and not just seeing those seats being filled with black people or the white LGBTQ crowd that comes out for their events and things. It was good to see people who aren’t necessarily part of some marginalized groups show up, or not visibly a part of it, which in one sense is a privilege, to be honest. I really wish that more faculty came, I really do. But that’s not on the event, that’s on the faculty again. But I’m glad that this is happening on a University level.”
The dialogue was not mandatory for every department, although the umbrella organization, Program in Biomedical Sciences, did require its members to attend.
Many attendees were concerned faculty members were not required to be in attendance.
“I’m not as worried about what another person in my cohort thinks of me, to a certain extent — yes, as I am about someone who’s going to be writing a recommendation letter for me, someone who basically my future’s in their hands, someone who contributes to my daily happiness, because I have to interact with every day,” White said. “That is way more power. Having this community is great, but it’s really important for (faculty members) to figure it out.”
Sherrica Tai, who recently finished her post-doctoral studies in pharmacology, believes a top-down approach is key to increasing faculty attendance at diversity dialogues.
“Just like the scenarios that were put into play, everyone kept saying it seems to be the victim’s responsibility to change this, but it can also be the top-down approach where their superiors need to tell the faculty that they need to attend these trainings,” Tai said. “I don’t remember seeing too many of the faculty members in the session, especially when they asked. If they were told to go, if it was mandatory for their employment here, to participate in an event like this once a year or every other year, that would make a difference. Why am I being the one educated on this issue, but yet, faculty are not.”
Rackham student Chiamaka Ukachukwu, a first-year PIBS student, thinks dialogue trainings are necessary to increase appropriate conduct within workspaces.
“Some of these professors don’t care, they just don’t,” Ukachukwu said. “So having them do these mandatory trainings, if this is not something you care about or something that you don’t agree with, I don’t need you to agree, I just need you to treat me with respect. For me, I think one of the main points is just making sure there is some sort of action plan whether you agree with this and are genuinely interested in learning how to be a better person, or this is something you have no interest in doing, it’s mandatory. Just don’t touch my hair, don’t talk about Colored People Time. You don’t have to agree with, just don’t do it.”
White emphasized this point, saying such remarks make it difficult to concentrate in the workplace.
“It’s accountability,” White said. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, don’t hurt our feelings.’ It’s like, ‘You are making my life harder for me to get my job done right now.’ I hope people can be empathetic and not treat people poorly, but that’s not apparently the world we live in. For a morality standpoint, that’s not enough for scientists.”
Carter believes the issue lies in representation and thinks increasing minority faculty members could help mitigate it.
“I think the issue is also looking at the faculty themselves,” Carter said. “There are only a few faculty members of color at that level. So the bottleneck isn’t necessarily grad school or even post-doctoral level. It’s the faculty level. That’s where the change needs to happens. If you get more women. If you get more people who identify as LGBTQIA. If you get more people of color. There are more voices. And you have more advocacy.”
Rackham student Rachael Baliira said providing financial incentive through grant funding would increase faculty participation.
“A huge part of a grant should be, ‘Have you done this training?’ so that professors get rewarded,” Baliira said. “Some people, they only count points and that’s how they measure success. They need it to be measurable. For some PIs (principal investigators), attending these training courses doesn’t help them or they don’t think it affects their research. It’s a waste of time. But if it did financially affect their research, they would have to do it.”
Carter said organizations like the National Institutes of Health are requiring diversity in research, which could serve as a solution to similar problems.
“A lot of funding agencies, like the NIH, are asking for that now,” Carter said. “They’re really, really looking for that. They’re looking for that in terms of our studies, just in terms of designing experiments. You have to do research on both sexes. And if you’re looking at social sciences, you have to look at all gender spectrums as well. They’re also looking for that in terms of people of color and other, as they said, non-dominant culture. That’s something that’s also happening. That could be where that initiative is.”