“Use Books, Not People” & Other Advice from a Community Building Research Librarian
Today we continue our series of regular posts on the Trellis blog for science community managers interested in diversity, equity and inclusion. This installment features an interview conducted by Rosanna Volchok, the New York Academy of Sciences. Additional series coordinators are Jennifer Davison, Urban@UW, University of Washington, Josh Knackert, UW-Madison Neuroscience Training Program, and Marsha Lucas, Society for Developmental Biology. You can find all of the posts in the series here.
In this series’ first post, Josh Knackert stressed the notion of community manager as agent of change, that people in these roles are uniquely positioned to establish equitable and inclusive scientific communities. Today, we hear from one such community builder: meet Shea Swauger, Head of Researcher Support Services at Auraria Library, an academic library in downtown Denver, Colorado that provides academic resources and research experiences to students, staff, and faculty of the University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver), the Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), and the Community College of Denver (CCD). Read on to hear some of his strategies for pushing back against institutional barriers to inclusion.
Tell us about the STEM communities you work with and how you aim to foster equity and inclusion in these groups:
I’m part of something called The Data to Policy Project (D2P). D2P explores issues like policing and affordable housing through data, which translate into evidence-based policy proposals to local police and law makers. D2P was created because students on campus were extremely upset about police officers repeatedly killing innocent black people. They wanted to do something about it but didn’t feel like they had a platform to make a difference. Through D2P, students learn the skills of their discipline in class, but then apply these skills to the needs and questions of their community. It’s really amazing to see the analysis and ideas that the students are coming up with, and the community partners have been impressed. Students have said it makes the content they’re learning more engaging, and it brings up important discussions about structural racism and equity in subjects like statistics where those discussions are not typically addressed.
Tell us how you’ve countered pushback when applying a diversity/equity/inclusion (DEI) framework to your community activities at work?
The pushback I’ve received tends to come in two varieties. The first is that I’m “making people uncomfortable,” so I need to change my tone or method to have a more productive conversation. My response to this is, “no, I’m making people who have privilege uncomfortable. My goal isn’t to make you comfortable, it’s to redistribute who gets to have comfort.” Currently, many people of color on my campus are not comfortable with the status quo but aren’t safe enough to be able to speak out against it, meanwhile most white people think everything is fine. If we’re going to have meaningful, transformative discussions about racism, it’s going to involve being uncomfortable, especially for white people. The same goes for sexism: most men (and some women) believe it’s not an issue and it’s going to take uncomfortable conversations for them to confront the ways they benefit from and participate in patriarchal systems.
The second form of pushback is, “these conversations are good, but not everyone is on the same page and we all just need to have more information and move slowly.” I struggle with this. On one hand, I want everyone to be included in the process, and I’ve been educated by so many people who were patient with me. On the other hand, I don’t want to always bring discussion down to the lowest common denominator because that way we never get into the more important work and ideas, like how we apply these concepts in our work today. I usually offer a compromise when someone suggests this to me: “we can move slowly as long as we have a plan for getting to the hard stuff.” Otherwise, it’s just a brush off.
Lastly, I totally own that my ability to be this outspoken in my organization is due in large part to my own privilege. I don’t risk much of anything being loud or challenging authority. I have job security and supportive bosses. Unfortunately, I’d probably be more cautious if those weren’t the case. This goes to show that the real heroes are those people who don’t have the same privileges and security that I do and still vocally challenge oppression.
How do you respond when people say there are no experts of XX background in a given STEM field?
My first reaction is that it’s a lazy belief–and it is–but this belief represents a deeper problem. In academic disciplines, the traditional recognition systems that often bestow the title of “expert” are publishing, tenure, and promotion, all systems that have long been documented to favor white, middle to upper-class, European or American men. When we mentally call up what an expert looks like when we’re trying to fill a panel, those are the people we probably think of. So, when someone says “there are no experts of XX background” my response is, at a minimum, “there absolutely are! Let’s look together.” And, if I feel up to it, I’ll start asking why they thought there weren’t and begin to problematize those assumptions.
What about some of the strategies you use to work against your own personal biases?
Reading books has been the best way for me. There are so many that have illuminated and interrogated my internalized racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia. This process always hurts–I’ve spent many train rides reading and trying to hide crying because I find something old and ugly inside myself–but it’s been so worth it.
Building relationships with people who are different from you is sometimes encouraged as a way to overcome bias, but I’m very skeptical of this, otherwise urban cities would be all rainbows and justice and they’re not. I also feel like it can commodify people’s experience and asks them to perform serious emotional labor that they may not have signed for. Use books, not people, when you have work to do on yourself. And we all have work to do.
I think the biggest lesson for me was to get over myself, in particular my guilt. When I first started reading I was like, “Oh my god, I’m so messed up! I have an entire autobiography I need to unpack and how could I have bought into all that stuff?!” The guilt I felt for the things I’ve said, done, and believed was overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing. But I got over it. Not by minimizing the harm I inflicted–that stuff is heavy and real–but by acknowledging that I, of course, internalized white supremacy (and so much more)! That’s the inevitable result of being socialized in America. It’s unavoidable. My job is to find it in myself, break it down, and replace it with an intersectional feminist ethic of care. I will never be done with that process.
What are some important resources you think people engaging in DEI work should know about?
- ‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’ by Michelle Alexander
- ‘When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’ by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
- ‘White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism’ by Robin DiAngelo
What is something you know now about DEI that you wish you knew when you were first starting your professional career?
That I’m going to screw up. That screwing up is normal. The important thing to do when I screw up is not to make it about me, to prioritize my impact I’ve had on someone else over clarifying my intent, and to work on not screwing up in that specific way again.