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Dr. Stacey Lawrence Believes It Is Past Time to Talk About Racism in STEM

Stacey Lawrence
Courtesy of Stacey Lawrence.

Early in her career, molecular biologist and #ShutDownSTEM co-organizer Stacey Lawrence recalls a painful memory, one that is now all too familiar for many Black scientists.

“I was working on my Ph.D. in 2015. There were a lot of similar conversations about Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice,” she says about three Black Americans who were unarmed and were either killed by police, or died in police custody, similar to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020.

As protests raged and anger grew towards police violence in 2015, Lawrence saw indifference from the people she worked with in academia. “I thought that it was important to comment on the things that were happening, but I never got that type of commentary or support from my peers or faculty in my department,” she says. “It was like well ‘do you see me’ because I could clearly see myself, family members or friends in similar situations and it was difficult to fully function while feeling invisible.”

Lawrence sought strategies to bridge this gap between the inaction from non-Black colleagues to understand what is truly happening in America and why it is important to be active in the conversations about race.

Now, as the Associate Director for STEM Initiatives at The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University, Lawrence partners with instructors to meaningfully transform the way we teach college-level STEM courses. This includes creating and supporting spaces for scientists to talk about inclusion and equity in order to address how our curriculum and departments might be re-enforcing racist norms. “From my line of work, one action item that I could do is to adopt a clear anti-racist framework for the work that I am doing,” she says. 

Raised by Jamaican parents, Lawrence, a naturalized U.S. citizen, came to the United States when she was two years old. As a first-generation college graduate, she learned early in life to develop a support network that would help her navigate the world of STEM.

“I have had to learn how to network with people because those aren’t the things that my family members passed down to me,” she says. “Building a community with people who look like me in STEM and in counter spaces has been essential.”

Reading and hearing other Black scientists’ experiences, and knowing that the scientific community is listening too, is something that gives Lawrence hope. 

“It is important to talk about explicit examples of racism in STEM, because we often think it is not an issue. We just think diversity, diversity, diversity,” Lawrence says. “I guess when we peel it back, we have to understand that Black and Indigenous communities in America have been marginalized from the very beginning and so when we talk about different isms — classism, capitalism, racism — is the core and we all have to do our part to do better and create lasting change.”

In that same way, Lawrence believes that anti-Blackness (conscious and/or unconscious opposition or hostility towards Black people) in STEM is something that is challenging, but ultimately can be solved by people in the scientific community.

“It (anti-Black racism) happens in academia as well,” Lawrence says. “It is not a physical killing, but in terms of teaching, learning and research, we exclude a lot of people.” This exclusion can create a toxic culture that can alter one’s self-perception, academic journey and career path, she says.

Part of Lawrence’s work with members of the STEM community to create equitable learning environments can be found in the recent #ShutDownSTEM day, held on June 10, 2020. #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownSTEM, and #ShutDownAcademia, initiatives started by STEM professionals and academics to encourage action for Black lives. Specifically, #ShutDownSTEM called on institutions, organizations, faculty, staff and students to come up with, and listen to, ideas to make STEM more inclusive to Black people and people of color. As one of the organizers, Lawrence helped get the word out and encouraged members of the STEM community to participate.

Her involvement first came when her friend, Dr. Brittany Kamai, called for a day of action that would shut down the digital streets of STEM and turn the lights out in the Ivory Tower, at a time when Americans were taking to the streets to protest police violence.

“A friend made a call to a group of her friends and said we need to make sure that the scientific community is also a part of this conversation,” she says. “We have to say something because silence is not acceptable.”

Leading up to June 10th, Lawrence sent emails to colleagues in the STEM community to support the movement, shared resources with her professional networks, and encouraged her peers to engage with the social media hashtag #ShutDownSTEM. Unexpectedly, she received a message that made her freeze. It was an email from AAAS, acknowledging systemic racism and the need to stop business as usual for a day.

“Let me be honest, I stopped sending emails when AAAS sent me an email in solidarity to their member list with the support for #ShutDownSTEM,” Lawrence says. “For me to know that we had these professional organizations on board… the fact that they agreed and signed on was probably the most impactful thing at the time.”

On the day of #ShutDownSTEM, the outpouring of emotions on social media from Black scientists was not lost on Lawrence.

She acknowledges that, going forward, the discussions about racism in STEM will be tough, but inevitable. Still, the fight against racism in STEM is not a one-day activity, she emphasizes. Nor is it something that should fall on the shoulders of scientists of color to advocate for.

“To dismantle white supremacy in STEM and eradicate racism, I think this is a thing that we can all do. We just have to commit to making changes and figuring out the ones that are within our power to change,” Lawrence suggests. She adds giving space and encouragement on days like #ShutDownSTEM are things that are sorely needed for Black scientists. 

“It creates opportunities to have very candid conversations about the experiences that we are having so we don’t feel isolated,” she says.

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Owen Kibenge