Advocacy and Activism: This is what a SCIENTIST looks like

Scientists tend to think of advocacy in terms of funding. New movements are empowering early career scientists to get advocate for their needs (Alexandra Erwin breaks it down here).  Advocacy tends to mean getting smartly dressed for an orderly meeting where you will be diplomatic and bite your tongue as you state your perspective to people in power. Will advocacy be enough? Activism means like you’ll be participating in disruptive events.  Even the tamest forms of activism will have you in the streets in the rain, shouting at full volume, and waving a soggy sign.

This weekend, many scientists protested for the first time in their lives. But on Monday, most of us will be back in the lab. How can scientists maintain the momentum that will be required to fight for personal and scientific causes?

Use the time you have <-strategically

Scientists always feel like we have no time. To be strategic, you need to learn about the groups in your local area that are already doing the work you care about. Then ask them how you can help. My state has strong groups working in racial justicerural organizing, tenants rights and other issues that are personally important for me. Find yours, and ask them how you can support their work.

If you have no time, you can make phone calls on your lunch break or support groups that work virtually, including data refuge and data backup projects. Finding your IRL or virtual community will also help fight burnout and sustain your development as an activist/advocate over the long haul.

Use the skills you have <-but develop them

(Hint, not by talking to a bunch of people exactly like you!)

Scientists are are good at project management, understanding complex landscapes, and if you’re reading this post you’re probably interested in communication – these are key skills for both advocacy and activism. But what works in academia does not always translate outside the ivory tower.

This November, Amira Dhalla ran a groundbreaking workshop to teach organization and advocacy skills to women from around the world. Women+Web=<STRONG> gave participants the chance to work through a campaign design exercise within diverse global groups. For me, it was also a lesson in both advocacy and recognizing my own biased, academic perspective.

How do you get to the root of the problem and find a winning strategy? The prompt for our group exercise at Women+Web=<STRONG> was “how to get more women and girls interested in STEM”. I immediately thought about getting successful STEM women to speak to high school girls, anti-bias training for faculty, and developing professional support groups – typical things you do in the US or somewhere that already has a robust STEM community. My group included Mmaki Jantijes, a PhD in computer science and faculty member at the University of the Western Cape (more here). Another group member, Baratang Miya, has long expereince developing a pipleine for women in STEM. Their perspectives were different. In the end, we developed a strategy that both enabled virtual participation (to keep moms in the loop) and resulted in a fast path to marketable skills.

For me, this was a direct lesson in how my bias/privilege clouds my strategic planning ability. My ideas were too academic. They danced around the issue. They were directed towards women who have time/ability to attend professional development events or already in the field with access to role models. None of my ideas got to the heart of the problem. None of my ideas would work outside cities in the US. Working with Mmaki and Baratang, I saw clearly that I had a lot of work to do to level up my ability to develop effective programs – and I saw directly that working alone, or with people just like me, would not bring progress.

Keep pushing

I’m a liberal academic American white lady. April Hathcock wrote a piece last spring called “You’re Gonna Screw This Up”, which should be required reading for people like me.  My expereince at Amira’s workshop is an “easy story” to tell the story because I got to learn about an aspect my bias in a safe space, while making awesome new friends, and without feeling uncomfortable AND I got to walk away with a clear lesson. It’s not always that way, sometimes it hurts to face my bias/privilege. But there’s no option but to keep pushing and learning. See also, the work of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.

Loop it

Science is full of people willing to wait and see how things turn out. If you’re not one of them, you can make your voice heard. Find your people/organizations, learn how to improve your skills, use your time strategically, confront your biases, learn how to improve your skills further, and keep pushing to impact!

Celebrate small victories

And now, a series of fun links to tweets showing scientists who joined marches this weekend. Comment to link to more images and I’ll add them!