Advancing Towards Inclusion: An Interview With the March on Science’s Diversity Lead

by Chetanya Robinson

Seattle’s March for Science on Earth Day brought thousands of people into the streets, waving nerdy and outspoken signs. They marched to assert the value of science to society and to protest the Trump administration’s threats to scientific and environmental facts themselves.

A rally in Cal Anderson Park before the march featured speeches from Gov. Jay Inslee, Mayor Ed Murray, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene and others. But before Mayor Ed Murray spoke, two activists from Block The Bunker rushed onstage to deliver a statement to the crowd.

A video posted to Block The Bunker’s Facebook page shows one of the speakers starting to read from a prepared statement, and then march organizers asking her to quickly summarize her statement instead. When the speaker refuses, someone turns off her mic and starts playing music. After a few minutes, police forcibly remove the activist from the stage and arrest her.

Block The Bunker’s statement, later released online, condemned the March for Science as “an example of white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy and colonialism.”

After the interruption, the program continued as planned with two guest speakers — UW student Tyler Valentine and UW alum Dr. Tracie Delgado — each mixing their own experiences in the science world with the challenges many people of color face in it.

Jennifer Pang was one of six core volunteer organizers for the Seattle March for Science. She’s a director of the Science and Math Institute at Bellevue College and serves on the college’s Inclusion and Diversity Council. With her PhD in cellular and molecular biology and experience communicating social justice issues, Pang started volunteering as diversity lead for the march about a month prior.

The day after the march, Pang spoke to South Seattle Emerald about the Block The Bunker incident, the very real diversity problems she sees in science, and how she and the other organizers tried to make the march as inclusive as possible. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What made you decide to take on the role of diversity lead for the science march?

I work at Bellevue College and I run all the science outreach but I have a real interest in social justice, and so throughout the last several months I’ve been helping a lot of folks navigate how to talk about equity issues.

I’m a trained scientist. I got my Ph.D. at University of Washington in cellular and molecular biology. So I’m on board with the science part, and I was already really excited about being involved. But because there was this other need to address equity issues and to help with the visibility of marginalized communities, I thought that was somewhere where I could help out. My skills are really at the crossroads between science and communication and so, because of that, I have more experience in talking about these matters than other scientists do.

DSC_0708
Jennifer Pang [Photo: Chetanya Robinson]
Did your role as diversity lead involve reaching out to underrepresented communities?

Definitely, Dr. Tracie Delgado who was one of our speakers, I think she was the first confirmed speaker for the rally and she used to be president of this SACNAS [Society of Advancement of Chicano’s and Native American’s in the Sciences] chapter at the UW. We were really stoked to have her and SACNAS do really wonderful work around the country.

I reached out to a lot of different folks, and honestly I didn’t hear back from a lot of them, because as scientists, it’s true, we do have a diversity problem. Like, that’s not news. That’s just where the field is – we have not addressed this issue in a really comprehensive manner. And I think that’s part of what the march really was for. So both Tracie and Tyler Valentine also spoke very passionately about the kind of barriers that they had as people of color – and Tyler’s only an undergrad, so he’s still making his way up the ladder. And I think what this march really showed we’re more ready now than ever before to continue those conversations and maybe make systemic changes on how to engage previously marginalized communities.

Academia and research is predominantly governed by the community of the ivory tower, and so that is generally a space for older white males. And honestly they are not retiring early enough in order for women and people of color to advance in a way that is honestly good for their careers. As the funding is cut, these chances are going to be even fewer for those people to make it to full professor, which is where you have a lot more power.

 

Some have said the march shouldn’t be an anti-Trump march, or shouldn’t be politicized. What’s your take on that?

I would say that the march is definitely political but not partisan.

Myself and the other organizers, aside from kind of asserting the values that are laid out on our website, I think we’ve done a pretty good job about remaining fairly neutral and making sure that there’s space for everyone to be marching for different reasons. So, some of that is on the environment side and the climate change side. Some of it is more on the equity stuff. Some of it is more on the against Trump and alternative facts kind of issues. I think there’s room for all of that because we are complicated human beings and have many different identities that we have to make room for just generally in our community.

I think this really marks a lot of people feeling more engaged in volunteerism, in community action. I’d like to see scientists really use their educational privilege to help spread that around. So I think we’re at the start of that.

We’ve gotten a lot of criticism about [not having enough] people of color in the leadership or inviting speakers of color to speak. And we’ve reached out to a lot of people, but the movement’s only three months old, we had to put it together pretty fast, honestly. So there’s a lot of room for improvement, but I think generally we did a pretty good job.

 

Can you talk more about what the main criticisms of the march have been?

I think the criticism has come from established social justice activist groups.

Some of the climate, environmental folks have expressed concerns about stances on GMOs [among the 17 or 18 demands or suggestions from one of the activist groups]. There have been many, many studies that have said that GMOs are safe. So for the evidence that we have, it would be antithetical to our own mission of trusting in the scientific process to say that we’re anti-GMO, and the same with nuclear power. I definitely understand some of the complexities around being for nuclear power. And I think there would be people who would say, ‘well we shouldn’t really have the life we have now.’ Like, what are you willing to give up? With the amount of people on this planet as it stands now, we need robust energy sources, and nuclear is a pretty option.

So those are just some of the criticisms that we’ve had.

Because most of the organizers are new to this kind of activism, we are looking at it from a scientist lens and not an activist lens. Those are really different in the way you engage people. So we have stayed with what we know, for now, and that is to increase education and to encourage dialogue and civil discourse, and we stand behind that.

I don’t have a personal agenda – my agenda is basically to encourage transparent and difficult conversations within the march and to make sure that we are as inclusive as we can be given our resources and amount of time that we have.

 

What did you think of the criticisms in the Block the Bunker statement?

I think some of them are really on point. I think it’s true: we don’t have enough people of color and LGBT folks in the sciences. But some of it, like if it goes along with the GMO and nuclear power plant stuff, that’s going to be a no-go for us anyway.

The march is still going to work on equity issues. That will always be one of the foci of the march. It seems very unlikely that we will come out and make an official stance against nuclear power. In fact, probably the opposite.

Science has always been politicized – that is not a new thing. I think that it’s a great time for people to be engaged with and research things and do the best to vet their sources. We’re looking to advocate for intellectual agency. We want people to leave saying, ‘alright, I’m going to learn more about this. I’m going to engage with the world and learn about this thing as best I can and then talk about it with other folks. I think that’s a pretty good first step as we figure out how we’re going to move forward.

 

In a way, the language they used was implying you weren’t doing a good enough job.

As people trained in science, we welcome constructive criticism. That’s kind of our bread and butter – that’s how we get our work done. So, great, we are fine with that, and I think there are a lot of good points that they made about the field as a whole.

I also think, I’ve been on the job for a month, and we got about 25,000 people out into the park yesterday. We are fully funded through donations and sponsorships. I think for two and a half, three months worth of work, that’s pretty good.

 

In the Facebook group there were debates about the role of people of faith in the march. What are your thoughts on this? You posted about why this is important.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that it would come up. I think identity-wise there are a lot of intersections. That’s what intersectionality is about: the complexity of identity. So there are many scientists of faith, there are many scientists that are atheists. There are many that are more like me, that we don’t really think about it that much one way or another.

I think in order for us to make real change happen within this movement, there’s going to have to be many kinds of people come together, work together on a common goal, and have to decide that it’s okay to disagree on these other points. And I think we have to prioritize what we want to get done versus making everyone align with our own values.  

I’m big on looking forward. Don’t get me wrong, we have to build trust in communities that have been marginalized, particularly communities of color and of the working class. It is going to take time to mend the scientific community’s relationship with those communities.

It’s true, we did horrific experiments on the incarcerated folks at Tuskegee. The syphilis study is horrific and that’s actually one of the reasons why we have institutional review boards for human studies, so things like that don’t happen. The story of Henrietta Lacks is complicated because [she was] not compensated and did not really consent to having her cells passed around in the scientific community,

So there’s a lot of complexity around those issues, and I think we do need to definitely acknowledge that that is where we came from, but I think also that we are still making improvements to go forward, and we are willing to do that work.

What do you hope the Seattle science march can teach people doing other marches around the country?  

I think it would be hard for me to say that I could really teach anyone at another march how to deal with this issue or that issue, because like everything, it’s context-dependent. I’m really just hoping for more constructive conversations to happen that will lead to action. Scientists are big on results, and so we’re hoping for some kind of result going forward.

Chetanya RobinsonChetanya Robinson is a Seattle freelance journalist and an assistant editor at the International Examiner. He was born and raised in Seattle and earned a double major in journalism and Near Eastern languages from the University of Washington in 2016. His work has also appeared in Crosscut, the Seattle Weekly, KCTS9 Earthfix, Real Change News, The Seattle Globalist and more. He enjoys reporting on an eclectic variety of issues. You can find him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.

Featured image by Chetanya Robinson

We'd Like to Hear Your Thoughts:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s