Promoting a culture that values diversity and inclusion (D&I) has become a goal shared across the scientific community. The events surrounding the deaths of African American men and women due to police violence and the ensuing national conversations about systemic racism have struck a chord in all of us. How do we achieve sustainable and impactful implementation of D&I programs at the institutional level and address the issues that disproportionately affect scientists of color?
During the 2020 Plant Biology Summit, the ASPB Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee (EDIC) hosted a workshop on July 29 discussing institutional racism. The panel was chaired and moderated by Dr. Cris Argueso, Associate Professor at Colorado State University and Dr. Miguel Vega-Sanchez at Bayer and the incoming ASPB EDI committee chair, and featured the following panelists:
Patrick Thomas (PT), Ph.D. candidate in Plant Biology at the University of California Riverside, Dr. Adan Colon-Carmona (ACC), Professor of Biology – Cell, Genetics and Molecular Biology of Plants at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Dr. Beronda Montgomery (BLM), an MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Energy–Plant Research Laboratory, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Michigan State University, and Dr. Gustavo MacIntosh (GM), an Associate Professor at Iowa State University and outgoing chair of the ASPB EDI committee.
The purpose of this panel was to foster discussions about institutional racism in academia to expose those in the majority to the experiences of those in the minority and to discuss actionable items for change. ASPB’s EDIC, ASPB leadership, the greater scientific community, and the general public’s perception of inequality and discrimination is vastly changing for the better and many people are recognizing the challenges that Black, Indigenous and People of color (BIPOC) face in academic and industry institutions. Therefore, promoting a culture that values diversity and inclusion (D&I) has become a goal shared across the scientific community, including plant science. This workshop was presented to highlight the challenges and importance of institutional change for D&I initiatives in academic scientific institutions, to provide a roadmap to fully embrace values of diversity and foster thriving scientific communities.
The questions below were asked by participants during the workshop. The panelists were each given a chance to answer the questions either directed towards them and/or to the entire panel. Below is a written report of those questions and answers, some which include links to pertinent information. Each panelists name is abbreviated using their initials. Please see above for more information on panelist names.
Topic: Surviving Academia and Professional instructions:
Question 1: How can white colleagues help BIPOC with institutional survival?
PT: I think the two biggest things you can employ are empathy and advocacy. It sounds rather cliché but the adage “Treat others as you would like to be” is always a golden rule. I think white colleagues in positions of power can advocate for BIPOC students as well by calling things out if they know they are wrong. Educating oneself on challenges BIPOC scientists face on and off the bench goes a long way to being able to successfully do both.
Question 2: Plant biologists come from biology or agriculture. Are the issues of diversity and inclusion different between the two disciplines, in academia or industry?
PT: Personally, as someone who had an agriculture-entered curriculum in undergrad and a biology-centered curriculum in grad school, I think there is some overlap. Science is rudimental to both fields and BIPOC (Black folks in particular), have been historically excluded from the table.
ACC: While there are many similarities between DEI efforts in academia and industry, there are few published research articles that assess these approaches. Nevertheless, here are a couple general public articles in Forbes that provides an industry perspective:
Question 3: How does gatekeeping happen? How can institutions move away from gatekeeping to become genuinely inclusive while still preparing all our students for the futures they want?
BLM: Gatekeeping happens in multiple ways. I’ve written about in mentoring and leadership in the following—
- Mentoring: Montgomery, 2019, https://www.asbmb.org/asbmb-today/careers/080119/to-support-or-to-deny-mentoring-or-gatekeeping
- Leadership: Montgomery, 2020, https://scholar.valpo.edu/jvbl/vol13/iss2/16
GM: Many institutions are currently engaged in initiatives to be more diverse. However, few are truly committed to do what’s needed. A clear sign of gatekeeping is when the institution focuses only on recruitment at the student level, but they find all kind of excuses to have a more diverse faculty, and never attempt to diversify their leadership structure.
Question 4: What would you say to someone who comments about how if you are just “surviving a system” you may not be happy, and there are other ways to live without feeling like you are struggling?
ACC: Unfortunately, the culture in science is not as welcoming as we would like it to be. And, yes, it is exhausting. But, know that you are not alone and that you can utilize a strong supportive network of BIPOCs and allies who think the culture needs to change. Identify and utilize your support network locally and nationally, whether they are in your department or even outside your field of study. Find organizations that do make you feel welcomed. Celebrate your small successes. Play the ‘long game’, knowing that institutional change takes a long time. There are many of us who are here to stay, and who are ready to be an ally in your academic efforts. Also, be mindful of self-care. Taking time to enjoy other areas of your life that make you happy. There are many of us who are here to stay.
PT: I think being honest is key. Your unhappiness is a legitimate tied to a systemic issue that you cannot bear alone. Finding a confidant who can influence change can go a very long way. If that person is hard to access in your department, building a coalition of like-statured folks could be a way to consolidate power and support each other.
BLM: For me personally, I prioritize self-care as mentioned by ACC above, and also I’m very careful about not misplacing the human need for affirmation such that the “expectations” of the academy lead to additional burdens. I’ve written about the role(s) of working “from affirmation” not “for affirmation” I the academy and how that has protected me from some of the toxicity I see in the academy and promoted by thriving and success [Montgomery, 2019, https://lazyslowdown.com/how-i-work-and-thrive-in-academia-from-affirmation-not-for-affirmation/].
Question 5: How can we create spaces where BIPOC can recognize and process the difficulties of facing institutional equity? Seems too often that students have to manage these issues on their own.
ACC: Facilitate the creation of student organizations where students can create community. There are many models, such as SACNAS Student Chapters. Provide evidence-based mentor training to faculty. Not all faculty are good mentors, mostly because we were not trained in those best practices. If students of color have a pool of good mentors to rely on at your institution, they are likely to find multiple people who can be supportive.
PT: If possible, utilize the equity and diversity offices on your campus to develop diversity-based science groups. Very often, we tend to look at these issues as an either or when we need to consider both. Peer mentorship programs (especially for first-year students) can go a long way. Seeing someone who is where you will be can be a great motivating factor. There are also national organizations (such as MANRRS and SACNAS) where you can establish a chapter to bring BIPOC students and faculty together.
Topic: Financial Support for Underrepresented Minority Students and Faculty
Question 1: Understanding the limitations of this being a professional society, how can ASPB create more access for undergrads (and possibly earlier, HS seniors) to opportunities like this annual conference?
ACC: Look at the Plantae community page:
https://community.plantae.org/organizations/page/2?order=name.asc, this provides different communities where you can find opportunities, such as the Plant Science Research Network: https://community.plantae.org/organization/plant-science-research-network/dashboard. Also at NIH if you have an NIH grant: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/pa-18-586.html.
GM: ASPB has some programs beyond regular travel awards that provide mentorship and the opportunity to explore plant biology. The EDIC runs the Recognition Travel Awards that cover all expenses for people from underrepresented groups to attend the annual meeting and provides mentorship during the meeting. Many of our RTA stay connected with ASPB and the EDIC and become active members of the society. The SURF program also provides an excellent opportunity for undergraduates to jump-start their career in plant sciences. But it is true that more could be done. We need a better coordination between the EDIC and the Education committee, and we need to get creative to tackle the main barrier for any new initiative, funding.
Question 2: I think it’s really important to continue advocacy, but I think it’s unfair that my efforts and volunteerism are “extracurricular.” I think we should find ways to give acknowledgement or MONEY to people who do DEI work. How can we make this happen more often?
ACC: While difficult, find grants to pay for the advocacy and education work. Then, write in effort to pay for your time and effort to do that work. NSF/NIH/Foundation grants allow you to do this. Generally, institutions will not be “paying” you extra for doing that additional work. They will simply say it’s part of your “service” work; yet, not everyone is doing that extra “service” work. “Outreach” “extracurricular” activities are similar. Find outside funding sources that can help offset additional your efforts. This can be done at grad student and postdoc levels, in addition faculty levels.
GM: Universities should change the way they perceive advocacy/outreach efforts, but in general there are only two things that are valued, grants and publications, and only when they are focused on the specific scientific field of the department (that is, publications on or money to study diversity issues, for example, will likely still be considered service). This is one of the key issues that needs to be tackled if we want real institutional change. Professional societies could help by advocating in behalf of those providing service to the society at the department and college level (letters to Chairs and Deans).
Question 3: Another thing comes to mind: a lot of (often unpaid) labor for DEI in STEM is coming from professors and students of color and (at least at my home institution) not many white faculty and students were involved in these efforts. Why is the responsibility of DEI primarily left to people who are most affected by institutional inequities? How can we institutionalize white allyship and activism? It is everyone’s responsibility to act and speak out against institutional inequities, not just POC.
ACC: All great questions. But, know that at least in my case, all major institutional initiatives I’ve worked on to deal with inequities in Higher Ed have been with white colleagues who share values and believes with that inequities have to change. So, find your allies.
PT: It certainly is everyone’s responsibility to do the right thing, but sadly we don’t. One thing that did help was having a day where grad students in our department were educated on the issues BIPOC students faced. It educated a lot of folks and seemed like an organic way to activate some allyship. Department-wide activities that highlight inequity make it hard for people to say they were not aware.
Topic: Actions Non-Black POC and White Allies Can Take
Question 1: Do you feel able to /free to communicate to others who have not experienced what you are experiencing (e.g. white profs and peers) what could make your trajectory into postdoc, faculty position, getting funding etc, easier? What support would be most helpful? How can we move beyond signing on to Position letters? What can we do to “unclog the pipeline”?
PT: I do, but it is uncomfortable. While intersectional discussion is great, it is frustrating to see white allies not do some of the work on their own in earnest. I think departments genuinely educating our students, postdocs, and faculty about inequity would be a start to a long road to equity. Once you do that, you know where the work needs to begin. As an individual mentor, I think the best thing you can do is make your space one marginalized folks would feel comfortable working in (lab, department, college). If your house is in order, I think the next best thing is being a genuine, vocal advocate. People seeing and knowing you care about their humanity goes a long way. The faculty that are just as comfortable talking about RNA-seq data normalization as they are the challenges that face Black faculty prospects are those I felt most supported by.
Question 2: How can we create a culture where “white fragility” isn’t centered? It’s exhausting to have to package issues regarding identity so that they’re palatable for white professors/administrators. How can we institutionalize avenues for having these difficult dialogues?
PT: I think part of it is making sure BIPOC folks are involved without having them do all of the work. Often white allies will act with good intentions, but without BIPOC considerations. If you are creating an initiative for BIPOC in your group, BIPOC should have a say.
Question 3: do you feel that many of the actions taken by universities in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others is out of genuine concern for the BIPOC community or just acts of performative allyship?
ACC: in my opinion: Many of those actions are not enough. And generally, they need to be more substantive and sustained. Some institutions are making a real effort, but we’ll see in the long run if they will continue.
PT: While I appreciate the statements, I largely felt they were empty gestures that might make folks feel good, but they won’t actually look inward to their groups to evaluate how equitable they are. Statements can do many things; I don’t think they can eradicate racism.
Topic: Navigating the Hiring Processes of Academic and Industry Institutions as an Underrepresented Person or a White Ally
Question 1: I have found that the concept of the “search” when describing faculty hiring is a misnomer. Instead of actively searching, we post the opportunity and wait for the right person to find the job. Why are we not more active in asking colleagues for applicants? Why don’t we send invitations to ECR scholars that we have seen at conferences to apply?
ACC: The search committees/departments should be doing both of those things and more when it comes to hiring. Peoples’ opinions/comments that there aren’t enough UR qualified applicants are misinformed opinions. One simply needs to look at the NSF reports showing number of PhDs awarded to UR individuals. We’ve seen increases of the last 10 years (except for Native Americans), yet these PhDs are not being hired for academic positions. There are several places where people can advertise a faculty position that seek to promote diversity in hiring. This includes but not limited to: https://www.minoritypostdoc.org/, and https://www.sacnas.org/take-action/find-or-post-a-job/. Utilizing networks within DEI type committees of various scientific societies. BUT, it is also very important to change how your department chooses candidates to interview and what is the process for selecting a candidate that is offered the job.
GM: To follow up on ACC comment, I think that if the institution really wants to diversify its faculty, it has to be intentional and proactive. A department can be incentivized if a Dean offers a faculty line for a BIPOC. Similarly, universities can set up criteria that will increase the chance of getting applicants that are either BIPOC or at least invested or at minimum aware of EDI issues, for example by requesting an EDI statement among the documents submitted by applicants. These top-down approaches can send a message that the institution is being serious about change.
Question 2: How do faculty search committees organize searches to give a level playing field for represented and under-represented applicants?
BLM: A full response to this question is beyond this forum as it truly is a process of best practices and local histories/practices/biases. However, there are some emerging published discussions that serve as a good place to identify issues to explore in your local environments. Here are a couple as a starting point:
- Bhalla, Needhi, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6789160/
- White-Lewis, Damani, K. (2020), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00221546.2020.1775058?scroll=top&needAccess=true
- Jones and Urban (2013), https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/63/8/611/266535
Question 3: Concrete action for hiring committees: Explicitly state that a “qualification” is diverse experiences and diverse background including ethnicity, gender, race. Too often I hear (from white folks) that we “want to hire the most qualified person” as a way to argue that people of color, women, etc. only have certain aspects of their identity that “matter”.
ACC: Agreed. This is why Departments also need to change the process of selecting candidates to interview, and who gets an offer. Ask yourself what are the qualifications in your rubric for evaluation of candidates? Besides the research (# of pubs, grants), how much do we value teaching and mentoring experiences, what about diversifying in the faculty within our academic unit? Add a numerical value to those qualities that are important, including diversity, and everyone in the committee use the same rubric. Don’t leave it to implicit biases.
Question 4: Do you have any specific recommendations on how institutions and universities can hire and retain more diverse faculty? Beronda mentioned cluster hires and Adan spoke of personal advocacy but are there other options we should be thinking about?
ACC: Do an institutional self-assessment. What are you doing well; what is not working; etc. Here are some additional strategies, but there are probably others: 1) Develop an early career diversity postdoc fellowship program that seeks to bring postdocs that you could potential retain as faculty, 2) Create a supportive environment for UR faculty, for both pre-tenure and post-tenure years, 3) Don’t “short change” the person you are hiring. Provide them with similar start-up packages to other hires, 4) Provide a peer mentor who will be welcoming and nurturing at the institution, & 5) Assess how the Department/institution is evaluating promotion. How much do you really value teaching and service?
Topic: Incentivizing and Supporting Early Career Scientists
Question 1: What is your recommendation for ways early career scientists advocate, instill and promote change at their institutions?
ACC: If you are a scientist of color and an early career scientist, it is crucial that you not over commit yourself to doing “service” or teaching and mentoring that you’ll be asked to do. Just because you are that role model, you should not be the only person taking on those tasks of changing the institution in positive ways. Change can come with more power (tenure) and in numbers! One needs to keep in mind that UR communities that need you (in those faculty roles) won’t have you if you overextend yourself, because of the tenure process in many cases is not fair. Keep a balance portfolio in your CV. But, also joining efforts where there are many of you, such as a postdoc organization or faculty of color support group on campus that becomes active, then concentrate on initiatives that could be done as a group.
Topic: EDI initiatives, Challenges, and Changes within ASPB
Question 1: I found quite concerning the contrast during the conference between the poster sessions and the talks. While posters are incredibly diverse (50/50 between US and international participants), there are really few talks by people from abroad. Even in those selected from the posters. Is there interest from the ASPB in diversity in terms of regional representation? What about diversity in ASPB awards and fellowships?
GM: I don’t know how much the program this year was affected by the change to a virtual meeting, but It is true that the program should be more inclusive, and one of the immediate tasks of the EDIC is to work with the program committee to improve the representation of all society members in plenary and concurrent symposia. However, there are some issues when considering speakers, as ASPB cannot support their expenses (money, it is always money) and this is a bigger barrier for international members. If the society maintains at least in part a virtual component for the meeting, those issues could be tackled. The issue of lack of representation in awards is serious and is also part of our discussion with the society leadership. I would also hope that people get inspired and start nominating diverse candidates for all awards (nominations are open to any society member).
Question 2: What sort of actions (or actionable steps) are the society taking to bring in more latinx and black students into plant sci and research in general? Also what sort of contributions can members from various stages help in the processes?
GM: I already mentioned the RTA program above. Another important group is the Early Career Plant Scientists Section, which is organically much more diverse and inclusive than the rest of the leadership structure. We have ECR in each committee and we want to promote their growth (scientifically and in the society structure), and we have just increased the number of ECR in each society committee. An important aspect of ASPB that many times gets overlooked is that the society is involved in science policy advocacy, and many of the issues affecting marginalized groups can be tackled through better policies. While the society can try to address some of the issues affecting marginalized groups, exploitation is an issue that transcends plant sciences, so please vote in local, state and national elections.
Comments from Workshop Participants:
- Supporting undergraduate research:
- I think about economic barriers (travel, registration, etc.), and while travel grants are helpful it doesn’t remove the barrier to an amazing network like this. Additionally, when undergrads who want to explore a career in research want to learn about the wide array of fields in plant bio at conferences like this, it can be rather difficult to engage with the scientific community because of the jargon and organization of the meeting. I’ve seen some mentoring efforts in place, but it seems like more could be done to make it inclusive for folks who are earlier in their career and don’t have the opportunity to explore careers in plant bio at their home institutions.
- Support from Non-Black POC and White Allies:
- As a white woman, helping to support the North American Arabidopsis community- as a staff member (not faculty)- my learned approach is to gather allies and leverage their power and influence in shared objectives.
- I think leveraging privilege to achieve shared objectives and also provide spaces for those folks to feel included (whether that be through increasing recruitment/retention or policy), students/faculty/staff being themselves regardless of who they are is invaluable to our success.
- As a person who has felt I was as a supporter and advocate, it was humbling to learn it wasn’t enough to express openness to all. I feared that initiating these discussions with underrepresented students would be harmful.
- One action item / meaningful task is to be a good mentor. When you have BIPOC students – pay attention. Register that they are dealing with additional pressures that might impact their work. Keep up with them, have a conversation, encourage them, encourage them to work in your lab, point out funding opportunities and awards they can apply to.
- Low ways to incorporate more Black/Brown people into classrooms include showing pics of scientists to show that they are not all white men.
- ASPB Action Items:
- ASPB should have some sort of program that is named after George Washington Carver.
- My own perspective derives from something that Patrick said – to develop meaningful engagement and outreach programs to diverse high school students, ASPB should seek strong partnerships with other organizations – whether minority focused (e.g., MANNRS and SACNAS) and/or disciplinary (e.g., BSA, APS, etc). I feel that this is a systemic problem, and that it therefore requires a systemic approach to begin to address it.
Links to Resources of Interest:
- New ASPB/NAASC initiative https://plantae.org/aspb-and-naasc-changing-cultures-and-climates-initiative/
- CSHL high school research program https://www.cshl.edu/education/partners-for-the-future/
- A scientist like me: demographic analysis of biology textbooks reveals both progress and long-term lags https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/suppl/10.1098/rspb.2020.0877
- #blackbotanistsweek on all social media or blackbotanistsweek.weebly.com
- The Scientist Spotlights Initiative https://scientistspotlights.org/