Shutdown STEM and Academia

Leicester physicists organise an informative workshop day for postgraduate researchers about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Last month, five PhD students in the School of Physics and Astronomy hosted an informative workshop day for their fellow PGRs about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Harneet Sangha, Rosanna Tilbrook, Manika Sidhu, Aneesah Kamran and Emily Baldwin organised the day in support of the Shutdown STEM initiative, which aimed to stop academic “business as usual” for one day in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The aim was to take this time to focus on education and action against racism, as well as to show support for our Black colleagues and give them space to prioritise their needs.

The day included sharing two informative films: a documentary on the history of the Black Lives Matter movement (“Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement”), and a film on the abolition of slavery in the United States and the subsequent overrepresentation of Black people in American prisons (“13th”). Whilst the films were at some points very distressing, the team decided that it was important not to minimise the severity of the topic at hand by omitting the most upsetting scenes. As quoted in 13th, sometimes “you have to shock people into paying attention”.

The central element of the day was a presentation which focussed on the systemic racism and prejudices experienced by Black people which permeate all areas of society. In particular, the team focussed on racism in academia and STEM, sharing the shocking statistics that they had researched and encouraging others to reflect on their own privileges. With many of us having never experienced or witnessed racism in our workplaces, an especially pertinent request was to explore the #BlackintheIvory hashtag on Twitter, where Black scientists have been sharing their appalling experiences of discrimination in academia. This reflects the grim reality of research which shows that 62% of Black individuals in STEM have reported facing discrimination in the workplace due to their race.

With mounting evidence for racism in academia, the obvious question is: how do we combat it? This question formed the basis of the discussion portion of the day. The team had the opportunity to facilitate a conversation with both the PGRs and the staff, having recently presented their talk again at an All School meeting on July 3rd after the initial success of the Shutdown STEM day. Some suggestions from the PGRs included anonymising the hiring process as much as possible, focussing on diversity in outreach, and including Black history in the curriculum. Questions from staff focussed more on understanding the issues, with discussions surrounding the term ‘microaggression’ as well as the relevance of racism in the US to the UK.

The overall response from the attendees to both events was predominantly positive, and hearing so many voices of support for the cause within the School was encouraging. However, we are all aware that the fight doesn’t end here. There is so much more that must be done to combat racism in STEM and to make academia a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all. We hope to see some real change being implemented in both the School and the University as a whole very soon, and that this important work will continue into the future for as long as it needs to.

If you would like more information about what was planned and how the events were run, then have a read of this article that the organisers wrote up on the event afterwards:

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