Address Your Bias, Call BS, and Broaden your Networks: Interview with Monica Feliu-Mojer
As the CEFP 2017 cohort’s final installment in our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) series, we interview Monica Feliu-Mojer, an award-winning PhD scientist-turned-communicator who leads communications and outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR), a global community of more than 10,000 scientists, students, educators, and allies transforming science education in Puerto Rico, democratizing science, and training young scientific leaders. Monica also works with the non-profit iBiology, leading science communication trainings and producing video stories that explore the intersection of the culture, identity, and research of underrepresented scientists.
Check it out: Monica is guest-editing a special issue on “Inclusive Science Communication in Theory and Practice” for Frontiers in Communications with Erika Check Hayden, Thomas Hayden and Raychelle Burks, inviting research papers, case studies and essays.
Monica, to start with please tell us about the STEM communities you work with.
The communities I mostly focus on are all composed of people from underrepresented backgrounds. With each of them, I’m always thinking about how we build community, coming together with a common purpose.
With CienciaPR, I spend a lot of time working with and thinking about the Puerto Rican scientific community, broadly defined: anyone interested in science in Puerto Rico–you don’t need to be Puerto Rican or a scientist. CienciaPR’s goal is to bring together people, tap into their collective knowledge, and create impact through education, communication, and mentoring.
The other community is SACNAS – the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. SACNAS is a very unique and diverse community. Their annual conference was the first time that I felt like my identity, science, and culture were all equally celebrated. I work with the community to mentor students and provide training in science communication, to help them advance professionally and to advocate for their own communities.
A third community is defined by one of the programs I run, Yale Ciencia Academy: a partnership between CienciaPR and Yale University that provides career development for doctoral students from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s a year-long, cohort-based program, predominantly virtual (except when we come together at the AAAS meetings!). Building community and trust is part of the foundation of the program. We are currently discussing how we create and foster a diverse cohort, beyond the CienciaPR community. Who is not in our immediate circle? How can we connect, listen, and learn from them?
What are some strategies you’ve found to help overcome–or, at least, uncover–your own personal biases?
Something that’s really important is that you’re approaching this work with humility, truly listening, and being open to what may be hard truths. Look to approach communities because you want to address your own blind spots and biases and understand that the burden is on you, not on community members to “fix” you. I also think about what my privileges are and how can I leverage them to be of service to communities. Even though I’m Puerto Rican I can pass as white, I’m heterosexual and cis-gender, and I recognize these privileges and use them to be of service.
How do you respond when people say there are no experts of “X” background in a given STEM field?
I get a lot of requests for, for example, “I want to find women of color doing this”. My initial responses fall under the “that is BS” umbrella. Generally speaking, you aren’t working hard enough to find them. Some days I feel more tactful than others. But the perception that “there’s not enough people of these identities that have this expertise” is shaped by who is in your immediate network. So if you aren’t exposed to a particular group, or don’t have a diverse network, your response is based on that narrow view. However, in the spirit of conversation and not shutting people out, I say “here are these people” or “here are these resources” because “you’re lazy or full of sh**” doesn’t lead anywhere.
How do you recommend expanding your circle/network beyond your current community?
I will reach out to people that I trust, and to people that I know are doing this kind of work or who identify with certain communities that I’m not connected with. I use Twitter as well; it’s, surprisingly, a place where I’ve found a community of my own: people of color, or from underrepresented backgrounds, interested in the intersection between DEI and science communication. In Yale Ciencia Academy, we emphasize networking with focus on career development, but inevitably, no matter the topic of science, networking comes up as being incredibly important.
Have you ever come up against pushback when trying to apply a DEI framework to activities at work?
I’m very fortunate that I work within organizations that allow me to bring that framework. Sometimes there are difficult conversations, but at this point in my career, I’m comfortable stating what I stand for and not willing to compromise on those values. I’m comfortable pushing back and challenging people.
What is one of the biggest lessons you have learned in your DEI work?
Daniel Colón-Ramos’ recent Twitter reflections have forced me to think more about implicit bias. I think it’s important not to be complacent just because you are somebody who cares deeply about DEI or working in that space; your learning never stops. Because of my identities, a lot of my work has been focused on Puerto Rican, Latinx, and Hispanic communities. But I’m always working to understand what my privileges are and how I leverage these to work for inclusion for everyone, not just the communities I identify strongly with. For example, we had a student in Yale Ciencia Academy last year who worked with the deaf community. Until I started mentoring him, that was a blind spot that I had: working with groups with disabilities was not at the forefront for me. But working with him, and mentoring him–and he was mentoring me–has been powerful.
And look, we’re human. You have to be okay with the truth that you’ll always have a bias, a blind spot. But that awareness and recognition, itself, is a critical step.
What is something you know now about DEI that you wish you knew when you were first starting your professional career?
How much words matter, and the relationship between words and identity. An example of this is the word doctor. My main professional language is English, but Spanish—my native language—is gendered and the word “doctor” is male. To this day when I hear “doctor”, for a second I think of a male doctor; I still have this internal dialogue around that word.
What are 1-3 important resources you think people engaging in DEI work should know about?
The reality is that there’s no one go-to place. The main resource is people. (And Twitter.) Close colleagues who keep me accountable and are willing to point out my biases and blind spots, and people I’m having conversations with who challenge my assumptions. SACNAS has been an incredible community for this. I was talking to someone the other day about the role of science in democracy, and I was asking, “what do you mean by science? Western science? Indigenous knowledge?”. When we talk about science, we usually mean Western science: my Native American colleagues at SACNAS taught me about this.
I’m also thinking, the people who should be thinking about DEI are often not those in the room or engaging. For someone who is in this space, there’s a lot of value, but what about those who think this isn’t of value? In the context of how divided the country is, and in the context of DEI, I think that if you are a person in a majority group who hasn’t had certain experiences, having personal conversations with those who have, where you can find common ground, means that those experiences are harder to dismiss.