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The persistence of anti-Blackness in STEM

U of T’s attempts to abolish discrimination from education
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ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY
ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY

In the past year, the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic have forced us to think about humanity as a collective, and highlighted the inequalities in our society better than ever before. The Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the summer of 2020 were the biggest in US history. Naturally, we have to think about all aspects of society, including education, and why it is still hard for Black students to break into fields where they are underrepresented. 

The prevalence of anti-Blackness in education continues to persist, despite efforts made by institutions to help racialized people break into underrepresented fields through inclusivity initiatives. How can we respond and create truly progressive initiatives?

Lack of equity in education

In a recent paper, U of T professors Fikile Nxumalo and Wanja Gitari explain how current equity initiatives are operating under a progressive pretense and why we need to alter our approach to equity and inclusivity. The paper discusses how schools remain a site of suffering for many Black students despite approaches taken by institutions to promote diversity. The authors go as far as to label STEM education as “white property.” 

The preexisting curriculum for STEM education also needs to be repurposed to allow students of different backgrounds to accept and process information more effectively and thoroughly. As it is, the curriculum often makes students feel alienated for not reaching the standard of learning expected of them.

Since teachers are in charge of imparting information to future generations, they’re often at the forefront of change. They should apply strategies that disrupt anti-Blackness and focus on Black and Indigenous realities, making explicit connections between STEM content and social injustice. The paper, which is targeted at teachers, suggests ways to respond to anti-Blackness in a pedagogical system. 

Essentially, Black students need to feel like they belong in the environment where they are learning. Results show that when students have to work within a negative racial climate on their campus, academic persistence and retention rates fall.

U of T’s equity and diversity initiatives

The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee at U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering (FASE) recently released a statement declaring its plan to reaffirm and rebuild their community values to create an environment where members have equal opportunity. It has been creating more roles and resources dedicated to inclusivity, such as the Engineering Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Group — a faculty-wide collaboration that conducts weekly meetings and workshops to propose actions for combatting racism in the FASE.

Marisa Sterling, the assistant dean and director, diversity, inclusion and professionalism of the FASE, addressed questions and concerns about anti-Blackness on campus in an email interview with The Varsity. She highlighted the different ways that U of T is measuring the effects of racism and anti-Blackness in STEM programs, and mentioned how important it is to shift U of T’s culture in a way that would promote a more inclusive experience. 

One way U of T Engineering seeks to quantify the impact of racism and anti-Blackness is to see how measured outcomes differ through a racial and ethnic lens,” Sterling wrote. She added that the FASE is “formulating and standardizing student survey questions to ask for demographic identifiers (including race) to be able to disaggregate the data and provide a perspective on outcome differences.”

Sterling argued that the FASE has shown progress in terms of creating a sense of belonging for students. After the establishment of support for the National Society of Black Engineers, the creation of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism, and a shift toward putting a greater focus on Black History Month, race-based data in undergraduate applications to U of T have shown positive trends.

The results of U of T’s new outreach program Blueprint, which is an enrichment program for Black high school students, showed that participants came away with a stronger sense of belonging in STEM, she wrote. “In [Blueprint’s] inaugural year in the summer of 2020, 160 Black students applied, 50 were accepted, 7 applied to U of T Engineering and 4 joined the first year engineering class this Fall 2021.” 

As one of the most fundamental tools in education, the curriculum was also changed to incorporate equity and equality. According to Sterling, U of T provided a syllabus statement on inclusivity to all instructors for the 2021–22 academic year. Additionally, the Troost Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering has provided workshops to its instructors that focus on fostering inclusivity in the classroom. Undergraduate students will also see equity lessons embedded in their core classes and electives.

A hopeful future

An important concern among students surrounding inclusivity initiatives is the feeling of alienation. U of T has been dedicated for many years to supporting affinity groups that can help create a climate where peers can find cultural connections and a sense of belonging on campus. These groups include the National Society of Black Engineers, the Black faculty peer group, QueerSphere, and Women in Science and Engineering. 

There are plans underway to create a student chapter of the Canadian Indigenous Science and Engineering Society, according to Sterling. Moreover, the university is participating in the creation of the Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology graduate scholarships in partnership with other Canadian engineering schools, with a funding commitment of one million dollars.

Progress is a continuum, and with each cohort of students we admit, we need to work on dedicating ourselves and our student body to be accepting and accommodating toward all races and cultures. U of T has taken steps to apply the results of research to try to improve representation for Black students in STEM — but there’s plenty more to do.