Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gender Equity in STEM Education

There is a tremendous focus in the STEM world on gender equity.  The nation must provide greater access to the STEM enterprise for women and girls.  That is absolutely true.  The argument could not be more simple. The nation cannot realize its full potential if half of the talent pool is locked out of such critical fields. What appears to be happening; however, is that gender efforts primarily benefit white women and girls. From my vantage point, it is becoming increasingly clear that when the clarion call is gender equity, the image associated with that is a white woman.  So, where does that leave women of color? 

Left out.

I understand that it is easier for large public and private institutions' gender efforts to default to focusing on white women. It is an easier proposition. White men dominate the captaincy of the tech space.  Without exception, they all have intimate relationships with white women in some form – mother, daughter, or girlfriend. When they look at white women, they see extensions of themselves and their loved ones.  They do not want their own daughters, for example, to have their ambitions truncated or predetermined, or some other man to harass, inhibit, underestimate or restrict the infinite potential of their beloved little girls. Similarly, among the increasing number of white women holding leadership roles in the academy and in the public and private sector, they surely see younger versions of themselves in the next generation of white girls.  It is a natural instinct to want the very best for them.

For black girls, and girls of color, the story is more complicated. Not only do they not have natural advocates, the images they are overcoming are more challenging. The country watched the white police officer in South Carolina snatch a young black girl out of her seat by her neck, smash her on the ground and then throw her across the classroom floor.

It was a math class.

In a nation with a history such as ours, that imagery is connected to a much longer and darker legacy – a legacy where white men have abused black women and girls with impunity. There is no intimacy there. It is not too many chapters back in our national narrative where that episode ends with the girl being whipped and raped – and the strange stillness of the young black boys indicative of the reality that if they moved they would be shot.  The one other black girl who stood up to resist was also arrested. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In notion doesn’t work the same way for black girls.

Here too, it is clear why black women, and women of color, have to exhibit such grace and strength. They all too often have to cheer for and lift themselves up, sadly with little support except from each other.  The unfortunate lament in the STEM world is that black men are in crisis and black women are forgotten. The additional power and resilience that are forged in black women make their entry into the STEM ecosystem even more valuable. They demonstrate the tenacity to persist despite unfavorable circumstances and the creativity to add color and beauty to any canvas as they paint themselves into the landscape. Those are the virtues of problem solvers. They are a national treasure to be sure. 

Efforts towards gender equity that leave out black and brown women are irresponsibly incomplete. It is surely difficult and inconvenient for the champions of gender equity to come to terms with the different realities of women of color.  That difficulty does not grant them a pass. Until women of color are squarely and measurably included in STEM gender equity efforts, those victories will be hollow.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Breast Cancer Awareness

Like so many others for whom breast cancer has been a distant national pink slogan, I was not really aware until it hit close to me.  My dear friend and sister Keisha the Beautiful had her number called.  It is such a quiet and vicious lottery.  She neither paid, nor asked to be part of selection pool, but was selected nonetheless.  Somehow breast cancer reaches down into the population and using some sinister calculus, selects women to go on a harrowing journey of fear and pain and struggle and hope.  It is a journey where at the outset you know that some women will survive and others will not.  Needless to say, I was unaware of the magnitude of the emotions involved until I was forced to help escort a friend that I love dearly through the valley.

The nature of the work that I do is such that I am constantly reminded that nearly all of the social ills that afflict American society hit black people with a special brutality.  Breast cancer is no different. Black women’s survival rates are far less than their white counterparts.  I understand this as a social artifact – disproportionately less access to high end health care and insurance plans, having to deal with pernicious stereotype threats and biases both explicit and implicit that affect the medical system like all other systems.  What I do not understand is why the most virulent and deadly form of breast cancer – triple negative – disproportionately affects black women. Why with all the innumerable burdens that black women bear, this too? That is a cruel cosmic form of discrimination. 

This is the kind that drew my girl’s number.

Apart from any epidemiological understanding, I have to believe that black women are uniquely able to bear the cross and triumph despite.  Black women are an American treasure.  They set the standard for grace and strength and beauty.  They have done so and continue to do so despite a history of swallowing pain and sorrow doing the work of Sisyphus to repeatedly prop up the black family in a vicious historical American narrative.  Out of that story comes a particular grace under pressure; a special kind of faith in our Creator and an ability to generate and harness love and power to do miraculous things.

My girl, Keisha the Beautiful, has that power.  It is a kind of magic.  Her magic has made me profoundly aware.  I am aware of the power of love and how it causes us to lock arms when danger is near.  It improves our eyesight so we can see more clearly what matters and what does not.  Her magic and her power are inspiring.  She is battling with such grace and power that she appears to be standing on the shoulders of a thousand other sisters who have walked through so many valleys and are cheering her on and pushing her through.

I am aware of breast cancer now and my girl is going to win.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Identity, Likert and STEM Education


My job at the moment is to help improve the structure of computing education across the United States with a particular focus on broadening participation.  In the federal lexicon, broadening participation means increasing the number of students of color and people with disabilities who have access to the STEM enterprise generally and to computing in particular.  The effort to improve STEM education is real and laudable and there is a long list of people sounding the clarion call for educational and occupational equity in the 21st century.  The effort, however, appears wholly disconnected from the historical context and contemporary reality that makes it necessary in the first place.  Many of the proposed solutions I see are various creative forms of exposure.  Expose our students to computing, get them engaged and feeling good about themselves and they will pursue computing, or STEM fields of some kind. Feeling good about themselves – or in academic speak, demonstrating a statistically significant increase in their sense of self-efficacy – is at the heart of the disconnection.  I do not see in these efforts an attempt to educate our students about themselves, about the nature of their identity as black and brown children and the relationship of that identity to the condition they find themselves in.  Creative means of exposure to computing, often by well meaning white academicians, misses the need for a deep-seated reason to learn. The identities of black students cannot be measured on a simple Likert scale of self-efficacy. To assume that it can be is an oversight born of the limited vision of privilege.

Over the past several months, it struck me that there was no conversation in my workplace about the nearly monthly murder of black people at the hands of police.  No discussion, no commentary, no lament, about the possible effects that all this brutality, death, rage and urban uprising might have on the very students we are purportedly out to help.  There was no consideration about the context in which our young people’s identities are being forged.  Hardly any interpretation was offered about the factors that affect their decisions about their futures beyond the narrow consideration of the availability of appropriate STEM courses.  Our STEM agenda appeared perfectly isolated from the racial tempest brewing in the country, particularly in the urban centers where black and Hispanic students often live.

This summer, tired of the innumerable reports on the need for more STEM graduates and broadening participation, I read books about black history and identity.  I read the Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. I read A Copper Sun by Sharon Draper and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  I read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I read Between the World and Me by Te-Nehisi Coates.  In addition, I read a lot about the stubborn proportion of black young people who are poor, nearly 40 percent.  I read about the increasing segregation in the country’s most populous cities.  Atlanta where I live, and Washington DC where I work, are the number 2 and 6 most segregated cities in the United States.  What all of this reinforced for me is that without dealing with the ugly reality of race such as it is, we cannot make significant headway towards meeting our larger STEM goals. Our tinkering around the margins will certainly allow for satisfaction and some release from guilt, depending on which side of the line you stand, but it will not substantively move the needle. 

Dealing with race does not mean that STEM educators and policy makers need to solve the American race problem.  It does mean that reducing the complexity, honor and terror of black and Hispanic students’ experiences to a Likert scale of self-efficacy is an insulting pretense of concern.  The programs for sustained learning in STEM fields will likely only be effective if they are complemented by teaching students about themselves, about the context of their education, about the profiteering on their backs, about their extraordinary potential and the legacy they represent.  Their motivation and true self-efficacy has to come from a deep appreciation of themselves.  It cannot come from a week-long summer platter of exposure.

Herein lies an opportunity for the well-intentioned of the STEM world to collaborate with the hardened historical realists of the race world – the real world.  The enormity of the challenge is such that no one who is truly concerned can afford to crumble in the face of the personal difficulties and vulnerability that confronting race directly will mean.  Now we, the STEM practitioners and advocates, will have to be exposed.  How does looking at American race affect our self-efficacy?  What happens when Ta-Nehisi hands the Likert scale back to Likert?


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Shifting the Focus of Inquiry

I wonder how White people learn about Black people?  I just came from a meeting dealing with diversity in STEM fields in the United States.  There was significant emphasis on the challenges of implicit biases that rest in the emotional black box of all individuals.  The thrust of the meeting was how to overcome the effects of those biases that so often negatively affect people of color and women.  It is impolite; however, in circles of such high erudition to ask the question directly:

How do White people learn about Black and Hispanic people?

Of course the broader issues are far more complex than that, but this is one of the core questions at the heart of the national challenge for diversity.  It was crystalized for me when a discussant said that, “we need to find a way to get people not to see diversity as a counter narrative to excellence.”  It was immediately clear to me, that is not my challenge.  I humbly profess that I embody both in the professional environments in which I exist.  In fact, because I know something about the path to get to the professional levels I aspire to, I have a deep and abiding appreciation for the taxes my Black and Hispanic colleagues had to pay to get to the positions they hold.  I do not need to be convinced that diversity and excellence are intimately interwoven.

But what of my White counterparts?

I really do not know how White people learn about Black or Hispanic people in ways that are honest.  From what I see, and ample evidence from the Pew Research Center, our lives are stunningly segregated.  For Black educated middle class people, it is essentially inescapable that we interact with and ultimately befriend White people.  This is true by virtue of the schools that we attend and the professional environments in which we invariably exist.  The converse, however, is not true.  It is quite easy for many White people to go through their entire educational experience, including college, and never have more than just a few Black or Hispanic students in any of their classes – indeed to never have Black or Hispanic friends at all.  Having graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in Engineering, I was often one of only two or three Black students in my classes so I know this is true. Upon graduation, my White counterparts could live in Midtown Atlanta, Central City Philadelphia, San Francisco California, Piedmont Oakland, Park Slope Brooklyn, Ballston Virginia, Gentrified Anywhere USA, and live, work and play and have no meaningful interactions with Black or Hispanic people.  Essentially, they could live their entire lives and not really know anyone who is Black or Hispanic.

This is also not merely a numerical issue.  It is potentially an issue of preference. Gentrified Anywhere USA is not on a separate planet.  It exists in and among, and often displaces and destroys communities of color.  In schools and stores and bars and restaurants, there are ample opportunities for interaction, but they often simply do not occur.  So where does this leave my White counterparts? What data from their lived experiences, do they have to bring to bear on the complicated issues of diversity in professional settings?  I am not sure.  There is a cottage industry dedicated to researching everything associated with Black and Hispanic youth.  Perhaps it is time to focus the inquiry on our White counterparts.  They may well feel marginalized by the shortage of academic inquiry into the complexity of their changing American citizenship alongside people of color.  Their sense of self-efficacy may be undermined by their pending loss of majority status. Their segregation may not be based on malice or racial animus,  maybe just a lack of exposure and insufficient cultural tools.  Perhaps.

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I am sure though, that the answers would shed some light on the dark road ahead to real diversity in STEM fields and more importantly to a more cohesive country.