Stumbling, imperfect allies: supporting diversity in science and the blogosphere #scio11

With some service work for our nation’s medical research agency behind me – including my car breaking down and a narrow escape from the East Coast snowstorm – I finally have a few moments to reflect on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Session I moderated at ScienceOnline2011 two weekends ago.

There I had the honor of working together with my new friend, Alberto Roca of, my old friend, freshly-minted Ph.D. and legend, Danielle N. Lee of the award-winning Urban Science Adventures, and about 30 of you.

Yours truly with Alberto Roca of and the legendary Danielle Lee of Urban Science Adventures.

A little background is in order: as the conference has traditionally been held on this three-day weekend in January, Anton Zuiker and Bora Zivkovic thoughtfully agreed to adding this session last year at the recommendation of participants who hesitated to attend because they would miss MLK Day celebrations in their communities. The session also spun out of previous meetings where a single hour about race and gender barely had time to cover either. In fact, this year’s mid-meeting feature of the women blogging session has led to an explosion of attention and discussion of women in science and the blogosphere. For those not paying attention to this issue over the last two weeks, Kate Clancy’s “The Women Science Blogging Revolution” has a comprehensive round-up of posts.

What was a white dude doing leading the MLK session?

The goal of our session was to celebrate the message of unity and inclusion espoused by Dr. King as applied to our role as science communicators and mentors in the service of one another. Even the casual reader will note that I am of the traditionally-dominant societal demographic in much of the world, science or otherwise: a forty-something, white male.

But I’m also a first-generation B.S. and Ph.D. graduate who benefited from the hard work of my folks to give me a life they couldn’t have for themselves – my father, a printing press mechanic, was determined to help me to a career where I’d use my brain and not my brawn. I come from a line of New Jersey factory workers and Pennsylvania housecleaners and coal miners, growing up in a town outside New York City settled by Polish immigrants. I’ve heard every demeaning Polish joke you could muster. A German surname also made me the dual target of Nazi jokes in a town home to many World War II veterans and those who didn’t make it back.

No, I know, I was not oppressed. There is no way I could possibly appreciate the experience of growing up African-American in the US South, being a gay man wishing to marry the love of his life, or a woman with ten times my intelligence being paid half the going wage but expected to produce three times as much – or being a combination of these and other non-dominant groups.

But I have been the beneficiary of many people throughout my life who thought of someone outside themselves, who gave a gangly Polish kid from Jersey a chance to go to school, work in labs, and get paid to earn his Ph.D. I was the lucky recipient of the faith of another group of older white dudes (and one Mexican-American) who then took a chance on me to offer an assistant professorship to a 28-year-old kid with only two years of postdoc experience. Even after earning tenure and still finding myself in challenging career situations, the kindness and generosity of more senior colleagues sustains me when I doubt myself the most. A note to my less senior readers: you never ever stop needing help.

As a junior faculty member at the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy, I participated in admissions and development for a minority scholarship program funded by the Skaggs’ family ALSAM Foundation that gave 15 students annually a full tuition ride through our Doctor of Pharmacy program. Working with students from East L.A., inner city Chicago, rural Colorado, and US-Mexico border towns taught me something I already knew from my own experiences: success is often denied solely by lack of opportunity.

Yes, we had some students crash and burn. But we also had two students from the program emerge as valedictorians during my nine years at Colorado. I wrote here about one of them I was fortunate to mentor, Arizona diabetes clinician and past-president of the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved, Sandra Leal, PharmD. (Incidentally, the post was part of Danielle Lee’s Diversity in Science blog carnival hosted by DrugMonkey for Hispanic Heritage Month in 2009.) Sandra remains a role model for me because she could have gone to be a clinician at Hopkins or UCSF but instead chose to go back to the Sonoran Desert in Tucson to develop an empowering practice model for pharmacists serving those with diabetes in her community.

For a little more than two years now, I’ve been a professor at a historically-Black college/university (HBCU) where I work with a student population that is primarily African American, low-income, first-generation, US veteran, or some combination thereof. As a minority faculty member myself – an experience I recommend for all white men – I have had my motivations questioned by others in the institution*, been called a racist for having high standards for my students, and even turned down for one grant by reviewers for a minority program because I was too new to the community and had yet to earn the trust of students and colleagues (yes, this was from a major federal funding agency).

But this is what I do. This is what I care about. I have the opportunity to pay it forward.

The ScienceOnline2011 MLK Jr. Session

At my HBCU and in my small Southern city, most MLK celebrations begin with an inspirational hymn sung by a choir or some accomplished vocalist. To keep with convention but also to acknowledge that I am not of the African-American gospel tradition, I launched the session by playing “Redemption Song” by the late Bob Marley. (btw, hearty thanks to Princess Ojiaku@artfulaction – for telling my musical life story for ScienceOnline at her excellent Science with Moxie blog.)

As Kate Clancy noted in her personal and scholarly reflections on attending the session, “Underrepresentation Hurts Us All,” about a third of the participants joined in singing within a few bars. I hadn’t really expected such a response but it was a beautiful experience. Kate noted there and on Twitter that there were more than one set of teary eyes:

I was emotional for a number of reasons… because of the wonderful contradiction of David sitting up there and singing, because of the warmth of the room, where it felt like we had a shared mission. David contradicted the paralysis a lot of allies face, because we are so afraid of doing it wrong, of making the mistake that exposes the racism and privilege we are working so hard to cover up.

Kate is very generous, but I’m still figuring out how to do it right, stumbling along and learning how to be an ally. And that’s why I feel it’s so important for us to have this session – every year – to continue these discussions and learn from each other.

Bob Marley has a few tie-ins to both Dr. King and our writing about minority issues in science and medicine. He is said to have carried with him for inspiration a copy of Martin Luther King’s, Letter From Birmingham Jail. In turn, the words of Redemption Song were carried by activist-musician Bono “to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister, or president.”

Not well-appreciated is that the lyrics beginning the second verse of Redemption Song are derived from a 1937 speech by the Jamaican Pan-African activist, Marcus Garvey (1887-1940):

We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or ill. If man is not able to protect himself from the other man he should use his mind to good advantage. The fool will always pay the price. The fool will always carry the heavy burden.

The broader message I wanted to use to set the tone for our session was that we can all use our minds to liberate and lift others. In particular, I cited Dr. King’s quote, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” For all of us gathered there – and throughout the conference – I’d argue that writing and educating about science and health is a service to others. We just need to do more to be inclusive of those most often treated unfairly – whether related to gender, sexual orientation, geographical origin, or varying degrees of disability.

Educating about health disparities, particularly in cancer, is part of what I write and tweet about. Again, using Bob Marley as an example – the story leading to his death in 1981 has a health lesson for the African-American community. Dark-skinned people can still be victims of melanoma and it is often diagnosed later and carries greater mortality than for light-skinned individuals. I always heard that Marley died of brain cancer but it was, in fact, metastatic melanoma. He had developed what he thought was an infection or injury under a toenail from playing soccer and figured it was just exacerbated by playing. Sadly, it was diagnosed as melanoma and he ultimately died of metastases to the brain and lungs. Marley’s case provides and example in science blogging for minority audiences that African-Americans can develop melanomas not just from nevi but also on fingers and toes in and around the nail bed. They should be just as vigilant about being seen for skin abnormalities as other groups.

The remainder of my third of the session was spent introducing participants to the tradition of activism and Black empowerment in central North Carolina. Durham’s Parrish Street was a model for Black entrepreneurship at the turn of the 20th century and was home to several African-American-owned businesses well in advance of others in the South. Two of these businesses, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and Mechanics and Farmers Bank, were founded by groups that included Charles Clinton Spaulding (known as C.C. Spaulding) whose descendant Pam Spaulding today runs the highly-regarded LGBT rights and political blog, Pam’s House Blend.

Update: I was just honored by Pam tweeting about this post, so I wanted to bring to the attention of Durhamites and Pam Spaulding fans this 2009 post at her personal page that provides an informal history and personal photo tour. Pam launches the post as follows:

While many people now know I’m not one of those “big city gays,” I still find myself in conversations with blogtopia peers where they make an assumption that I must be writing out of DC or New York City since I’m a political blogger.

I also borrowed heavily from this post by Gary Kueber, author of Endangered Durham, one of the finest historic preservation blogs in the US, to show Dr. King’s visits to the area. One of those fell in February 1960 just after the defining Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in by North Carolina A&T students in Greensboro, about 60 miles/96 km west (51 years ago tomorrow).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown here visiting the Durham Woolworth's on 16 Feb 1960, two weeks after the Greensboro sit-in. To the right of King is Rev. Douglas Moore who spurred the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in in Durham, nearly three years earlier. The lunch counter was closed here to thwart another sit-in.

We were reminded by Tom Linden, director of the UNC Medical and Science Journalism program and author of The New York Times Reader: Health & Medicine, that an excellent museum commemorating the sit-in civil disobedience movement and more – The International Civil Rights Center and Museum – was dedicated last year in Greensboro to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins the launched the demise of Jim Crow segregation of businesses and services.

I presented these stories not simply out of pride for my adopted hometown where we had gathered. I wanted to acknowledge the pioneers like Dr. King and others who made a difference in advancing the cause of social justice, chipping away at the institutionalized hatred we risk falling back toward today. But diversity is even becoming more diverse. For example, Susan Saulny reported in The New York Times this weekend on the increase in college students identifying themselves multiracial:

One in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to data from 2008 and 2009 that was analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as “mixed race”) are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups. And experts expect the racial results of the 2010 census, which will start to be released next month, to show the trend continuing or accelerating.

What challenges and opportunities does this trend hold? Increased diversity or more cause for marginalization?

With my time up at the session, it was left to my colleagues, Alberto Roca and Danielle Lee, to talk about what is being done to be more inclusive of minority groups in the sciences and science blogosphere. I’ll expand on their activities and wisdom in the next post.

*For those interested: A sparse literature exists on white faculty in HBCUs informed primarily by Dave Louis’ 2005 PhD dissertation from Texas A&M, “Affirmed Action,” by the late Lenoar Foster and others, and Winifred Warnat’s highly-cited 1976 paper in the Journal of Negro Education entitled, “The Role of White Faculty on the Black College Campus,” which described black attitudes toward white HBCU faculty under four typologies: The Moron, The Martyr, The Messiah, and The Marginal Man.

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10 Responses to Stumbling, imperfect allies: supporting diversity in science and the blogosphere #scio11

  1. arvind says:

    Great work Abel! You’re an inspiration for folks who wanna be allies everywhere and set a great example and high bar for doin it rite.

  2. KBHC says:

    Just as I was beginning to lose hope that we would be able to have a more inclusive understanding of how to improve the science blogosphere, and just as I RTed my own post because I was irritated that no one was talking about people of color… I see this lovely post in my tweetstream. This is so great, David! I’m also really glad you reproduced what you shared in your portion of the session, because it’s useful information.

    I’m looking forward to hearing from Danielle and Alberto. And I hope we can have a frank conversation about how to better support people of color, and also hear what they are doing and where they need us to butt out. Jeremy Yoder had an interesting follow up post to mine on women sciencebloggers about being uncomfortable as a man hearing where we were angry or frustrated, and how being uncomfortable sometimes is a very good thing. I was similarly uncomfortable (devastated, really) by Danielle’s comment about class-passing in science. Somewhere in my subconscious I knew about it, and it was uncomfortable to be reminded of all the ways people of color have to pass in order to survive in this environment. I wonder what I can do differently to make it so that people can be fully themselves around me or in my lab.

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  4. David Kroll says:

    @Arvind – You’re always so kind! Not sure that I’m doing it right, just that I’m trying.

    @KHBC – Yes, I’m sorry it took me so long to get up this Part 1 of my reflections – I was crushed post-conference by work I put off in the lead-up. Anyway, I wanted to first explain how I came to become so passionate about this area and by the time I introduced my part of the session, it had become a long blogpost. I have some other reflections on Alberto’s and Danielle’s comments. Your point about Danielle’s mention of class-passing wasn’t at all a surprise to me but definitely saddens me similarly.

    What can we do to encourage people to be themselves in our labs? Show an interest in where they come from – geographically and culturally. Celebrate with a potluck where people bring their favorite foods from their home area or cultures. Invite people for seminars who come from diverse backgrounds. Encourage students to seek out campus groups where they have a “home” until they feel comfortable. I think that just showing a respect for and interest in the diverse cultures of our labs and departments can go a long way to cultivating a institutional culture of acceptance and encouragement. Again, it’s not easy but it’s worth the effort.

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  6. Karen says:

    Oh, poor Bob Marley. His story is a heartbreaker. Interestingly, in light of your last section, Marley was also mixed race (his dad was white). It still seems that in America at least, if one of your parents is African American, you are black in daily life though mixed-race on the census.

    It always amazes me when people talk as if racism were over, and that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Thanks to you and your allies (love that word!) for acknowledging and addressing the issue.

  7. Kea Giles says:

    Great post, David. Thanks for including detailed links.

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