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A Safe Brave Space for STEM Women Faculty of Color

Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Smallwood, Creative Principal

How can we help build a stronger, braver, and safer space for women of color in STEM?

I have given what seems like hundreds of presentations on the status of women of color in STEM. To say there has been resistance would be an understatement. To say that resistance was expected would not be. Neither the resistance itself, nor my expectation of it, prepared me for experiencing it firsthand.

“Kelly, if we add race, it will water down our gender agenda,” someone said. I remember thinking, “How can that be? How does my being Black diminish my being a woman? How can my Blackness alter what I desire for my life or the lives of those I care about? Isn’t my Blackness and womanness as inextricably linked as your whiteness and womanness?”

I have to leave it to the Black feminist scholars to help me unpack and answer these questions. I cannot on my own. The only sense I could make of it then and now is that the places where I am safe, particularly in STEM, are over-scrutinized, second-guessed, and objectified.

The difficulty of statistics

To make my point clear about the differential experiences of women of color in STEM, it seems natural to insert elaborate data and statistical analyses about how few there are in the academic STEM disciplines. This would, invariably, allow me to make claims about how those low numbers create the ideal conditions for danger — whether it be through isolation, invisibility, hypervisibility, marginalization, stress, malaise, and poor health outcomes thereof.

But I gave up on that approach a while ago because no matter how much I quote startling statistics or draw disturbing conclusions, there will always be those who will remain unhorrified, indifferent, and untouched by them. And, on some level, they would be justified in assuming this stance. Rankins and her colleagues got it right when they pointed out the fact that it’s not just about how many, but how many more we need! And how do we get more if we keep losing the ones we already have? And how will we hold on to the ones we have if we don’t know how to create and honor their need for safe places?

A new safe space

Over the past 10 years, the Society for STEM Women of Color, Inc. has created and sustained a safe brave space for women of color in the academic STEM disciplines that doubles down on the private interests, matters, and concerns that are meaningful to us. Creating the space was a clear outgrowth of our own experiences, which have been richly documented in the upcoming book, Re-Conceptualizing Safe Space, scheduled for release next year. Sustaining it was an outgrowth of our continued need for it. But, honoring it is something different. Honoring it means defying the centuries-old tradition of our disciplines that would have us publish the results of our work in certain scholarly outlets before it could be recognized as important. It’s risking credibility for the sake of keeping the space sacred. It’s refusing to break a promise to our sisters in the STEM academy, regardless of the mounting pressure to do so. It’s ensuring that our intellectual resistance has meaning.

In 1851, Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and former slave, delivered her canonical speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” where she bared her naked breasts and challenged the nation to prove that her Blackness was separate and distinct from her womanness. No one could. In that same speech, Sojourner lamented that for her entire life, no one had ever provided any best place for her, even though she, like white women, was also a woman. Ole Sojourner’s story is still our story. But, hopefully, there is one change — perhaps a small footnote — that the Society for STEM Women of Color, Inc. can now add for her. Finally, yes, there is a best place for you and us.

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