I kicked off the 42nd meeting of the Brazilian Astronomical Society (SAB) by making connections between that lush South American country and the US – our immigration atrocities, subjugation of native culture, and brutal history of slavery with its present-day implications. And then I took the gloves off.
I argued that these voices are not represented proportionately (or at all) among us and that it is our responsibility as the people in the room to change that. I made the case that the more diverse our collaborations are, the more innovative we become. Because that’s what the science tells us. They invited me to speak on the current state of astronomy education so I used the opportunity to speak about privilege, equity, and how to be more inclusive as we bring new people into our favorite science.
I’ve never before given a talk like this on purpose. (Once a speaker didn’t show at an ASP meeting and Linda Shore and I improvised some activities on privilege and being an ally, in about 15 minutes.) I didn’t give the best talk I’ve ever heard on educational equity. But I thought a lot about it and I gave this talk that introduced privilege to the people in the room in a way I thought they might hear. I used it as an example of how we will stumble as we have these conversations, cultivating the growth mindset I encouraged them to try on (new skills and language thanks to my work with Theresa Summer and the Girl Scouts). That talking about racism and sexism and the -isms can be uncomfortable but that it’s necessary if we want to make changes.
I had the most amazing and sometimes hard conversations (also, apparently I talk with my hands a lot…). Two students thanked me for giving the talk I did because their professor was in the audience and “needed to hear this.” A young professor lamented her struggles changing a system where professors boast failing students as a badge of honor. I talked with students who came from privilege and whose reactions to my talk ranged from ashamed to irate and we talked about how to use our place in the world to make sure everyone gets the same treatment that we have the sheer luck to be born with. The members of the SAB were ready to have this conversation, some of them for the first time.
The attendees at this conference were younger and more diverse than at any astronomy conference I’ve ever attended in the US. We have so much to learn from them. I learned more about the Brazilian educational system, and by all counts they are making huge strides in the right direction. A six year old today from the lowest economic quarter will complete twice the years of education of her parents. Federal universities have implemented a complicated system of affirmative action to combat the predominantly white, affluent student majority in this predominantly Pardo/black country. And it’s working. The people in that room were proof.
First Day of Memphis Integration, 1961. Photo credit: Dr. Ernest C. Withers / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Next to my bathroom mirror there is this postcard of three 6-year-old children. They are three of the first students to integrate Memphis public schools. Whenever I do something that scares me, I think of the bravery these three tiny humans displayed in the face of generations of bigotry and hate and I know that talks like these are the very least I can do. It is my obligation.
This has been reinforced by a young black PhD student, the first in his family to attend college. When I did an exercise with the audience about privilege, his face lit up that someone was finally talking about his experience. He later approached me, “When someday I am invited to speak at a national meeting, this is the presentation I will give.”
Post script, you know you made an impression when they parody your privilege exercise in the informal roast on the last day. “Sit down if you’re too drunk to stand up…” And also this classic picture with (l-r) the president of the SAB, me with the awesome placement of the bathroom sign, the back of an innovative Brazilian solar researcher, and the great laugh of one of my astronomy sheroes, Natalie Batalha!
All images, including that last one, thanks to Universidade Cruzeiro do Sul – Unidade Anália Franco