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Moving Equity Forward

Noël Bakhtian, Nishal Mohan and Shakeria Cohen.

Around the nation and world in 2020, protests for social and racial justice flared. This public outcry further amplified an ongoing and pressing crisis: the need to improve representation at every level of society.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are simple words, but each contains incredibly complex subtexts. Current and alumni AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF) have embraced numerous ways to advance the ideas encompassed within those three words. Their efforts represent a broad and deep spectrum of actions and activities.

“It’s a daunting task,” Franklin Carrero-Martínez (2012-14 Executive Branch Fellow at the State Department) says. “Not only because of the Academies’ deep historical roots, but also because of its complex structure.” Carrero- Martínez is assisting with the development of the National Academy of Sciences’ first diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. The effort, he adds, will be integrated across staff, volunteers, members, contractors and publications including reports and studies, with the goal of upholding equity and improving inclusiveness.

“Diversity encompasses a lot,” says Shakeria Cohen, a current fellow with the Office of Research and Development at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “People tend to focus on racial and ethnic groups, but it also includes age, gender, socioeconomic status, and so much more.”

Disability is one frequently overlooked category, points out Jo Anne Schneider, who served as a fellow at the National Cancer Institute from 2003-05. Schneider is currently an Associate Research Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University and principal of Chrysalis Collaborations, an organization that works with government agencies and other organizations to improve delivery of human services programs to communities.

“Most people forget that people with disabilities have the worst economic, college completion and career advancement statistics of any of the groups covered by civil rights legislation,” Schneider says.

At the VA, Cohen’s work is centered on the Million Veteran Program (MVP), a project to gather genetic, health, lifestyle and military background information to understand how genes affect health and illness among veterans. With a goal of enrolling a million veterans, the program is well underway since its launch in 2011, with over 825,000 veterans currently participating.

“The program is envisioned as generating knowledge that will help improve the lives of veterans,” says Cohen, whose academic expertise focused on cardiovascular risk and health disparities in Black populations around metropolitan Atlanta. But MVP’s mission requires making sure that the research cohort is as diverse as possible. Cohen’s work includes assessing the demographics of the current cohort to identify areas for improved recruitment. “The more diversity we have, the more innovative research studies can be conducted, for improved health outcomes for veterans and people worldwide,” Cohen adds.

Noël Bakhtian (2012-13 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow, and 2013-15 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy) serves as the executive director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Energy Storage Center and on the board of QSIDE – the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity. Deeply interested in advancing issues pertaining to environmental justice, Bakhtian says QSIDE’s efforts to date changed the conversation in criminal justice, education, and the arts.

“QSIDE lives and breathes diversity and inclusion,” Bakhtian says. “There are so many anecdotal stories out there about how things are not equitable or diverse enough – and this group is pulling and analyzing the data to show cause and effect, to uncover what is actually going on in the world. We believe that revealing that data will make a difference.”

One undertaking resulted in the creation of a database that linked information about defendants, their demographics, and the judges who sentenced them, with the goal of making sentencing outcomes more transparent and equitable. “The data about who the judges are and the judgment outcomes were siloed, and QSIDE connected them,” Bakhtian says. “But QSIDE can’t solve this alone – we’re working to provide tools to researchers around the world to join the fight for justice.” QSIDE's inaugural Data4Justice conference is open to the public.

Equity and inclusivity also extend to digital access. The true extent of the digital divide was exposed in stark detail throughout 2020 as the covid-19 pandemic forced families to get their kids to school, find medical care, and shop for goods and services online.

This disparity drives Nishal Mohan’s work with mohuman, his San Diego-based startup that works with municipalities, grassroots organizations, businesses and universities to broaden internet access, improve digital literacy and increase access to digital services for underserved communities.

In San Diego, where exclusionary digital “redlining” disproportionately affects Hispanic neighborhoods, Mohan (2013-15 Executive Branch Fellow at NSF) says mohuman and several partner organizations are preparing to launch a project along with the Qualcomm Institute at the University of California San Diego to bring free, resilient and community-owned internet to a redlined area of the city. If successful, Mohan hopes that the model can be replicated in two dozen other “Promise Zone” communities across the United States.

“People are suffering,” Mohan says. “People who are digitally underserved are disproportionately people of color, they don’t have the services they need, and nobody will advocate for them.” With a system in place that is community-owned, operated and maintained, and not reliant on corporate profit-making decisions, these communities can be far more resilient and self-sustaining, Mohan says.

“I’ve seen billions of dollars go into the creation of technologies without the involvement of the people they’re for, but that didn’t solve real problems and never reached actual communities,” Mohan says. “The whole principle should be about humans first – to work with people so we know how to solve their problems.”

Efforts to promote DEI come in so many forms. Here are more examples of other fellows’ work in this area:

  • At USAID, Georgia Hartman (2020-21 Executive Branch Fellow) is working with PepsiCo on a women’s empowerment program.
  • At the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Ashley Huderson (2015-‘17 Executive Branch Fellow at National Science Foundation) focuses her work on urban STEM education and inclusion of minority women in STEM.
  • At the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Roberta Downing (2004-05 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow) is developing a national series on racism and the economy for all 12 Federal Reserve Banks. Downing also works to identify and develop policy solutions for issues affecting low-income and tribal nations.

Author

Michelle Donahue

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