Seeking Unification: Advice for Promoting Diversity as a Department

Share This:



Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

Seeking Unification: Advice for Promoting Diversity as a Department


Austyn Long, SPS Member

North Carolina State University

“Welcome. Please prepare an attitude of compassion.”

These are the words that greeted students of the NC State SPS and faculty in the department as they filed into a conference room chosen at the last minute, where the projector was still warming up. While the venue and mechanics seemed thrown together, these gears were set in motion a week prior by racist text messages posted to a student message board. In response to those messages, the gathered students and faculty created a 2-hour diversity and inclusion program, discussing racial inequalities and relations, responsible use of privilege, and ways to use their new knowledge to further equality.

The field of physics faces many challenges, but one of the greatest is our lack of diversity. The key to facing this issue lies in committing ourselves to building an inclusive environment. The prevailing opinions from the faculty I consulted were to create a safe space for open, honest communication. Rather than a title, the first slide of our guided discussion featured the text above as a reminder of this goal.

Our program, developed by Dr. Jamila Simpson, Dr. Karen Daniels, Dr. Sharonda LeBlanc, and myself, focused on racial microaggressions and white privilege, the injustices they create, and how they play into receiving a physics education. As it turns out, it’s remarkably easy to earn a degree with no knowledge of the problems minorities face in obtaining the same degree.

When I approached professors with the idea that I wanted to replace our bi-weekly meeting with a talk about racism, I felt much trepidation. Often, physicists meet the social sciences with disdain, and I worried an event focused on social relations would make me feel like I was pulling teeth. However, I underestimated the curiosity for which physicists are also famous. I was met with earnest questions and reassuring nods from the faculty who supported me in creating the event. People asked “how can I help?” and had a willingness to share personal experiences. I do recommend stressing the importance of creating a “what is my job” mindset rather than the “how can I help,” which adds agency and erases the “helper-helpee” relationship and instead creates one of partnership. The support I encountered made it possible for us to host such an event.

We structured our event into three main sections:

  • Definitions, Facts, and Figures, and their implications. We defined privilege, microaggressions, and institutional racism.
  • Applying these concepts specifically to racism (although this could be tailored to chapters with specific problems in other areas).
  • Activism and working to create justice, or “Allyship” and responsible use of privilege.

In each section, we allotted ample time for students and faculty to share their experiences. This, I feel, was most important to the success we saw. Because there was a safe environment where discussion was encouraged, my role became that of moderator rather than lecturer. I can only hope that students left feeling empowered to stand for change.

If you want to host a similar event at your campus, here is some advice:

  • Keep the focus on education and empowerment.
  • Use scholarly articles to develop and support discussion points.
  • Allow people to share their experiences and feel safe doing so, so that discussion doesn’t become defensive.
  • Reach out to faculty to make this possible, and also to classrooms. This allows for the message to reach farther.
  • Discuss with members of SPS how future events should be handled.
  • Give students the language to describe the problems and educate others — empowering people is the best path to change.

We were motivated by events on campus, but it’s my feeling that this kind of program is valuable in any physics department. In a field where so many members hold a lot of privilege, it’s important to begin a culture where that privilege is leveraged in a way that advances equality. Education is the first step. //

More from this department

Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices