My Experiences at the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 Conference: Part 2

Professor Daryll Haggard (on the left), my lab partner Allison Watson (on the right), and I (ini the middle) at the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 Conference.

Note: This article is the second of two parts about this conference. The first part focused on the content discussed at the conference’s presentations, and the second part below focuses on the importance of conversations surrounding social justice in the sciences and beyond.

At the start of the conference, Vanderbilt Philosophy Professor Lucius Outlaw spoke of diversity as one of humanity’s finest qualities, a key component in our evolution, and a necessity for our continued existence as a species. Outlaw said that we are doomed if we are identical, and that therefore the work of diversifying the sciences is sacred work, not simply because it is morally right, but because it is necessary for our very survival. The various life experiences across the globe give us an almost infinite amount of perspectives from which to view any given problem. Outlaw argued that if we do not make use of this diversity to combat the various upcoming problems humanity will face, we are doomed to extinction. The video below shows his talk in full.

So often we view discussions of diversity and inclusion as distinct from the rest of our lives. Our work, schooling, and social interactions are compartmentalized as zones independent of critical thought regarding social justice. At Amherst, we separate a day for dialogue on racism and many of us are satisfied at that. Any further action is “pushing an agenda” or forcing people to be “politically correct.” Professors and students claim they are afraid when these concepts are brought into their classrooms. But these conversations cannot remain isolated from our educational environments, in part because they will become increasingly a part of conversations in the work environments we will soon inhabit. These conversations are here to stay, and must not be shied away from. Already, other sectors of science have called for their own subject areas to have similar conferences, and I am certain other professions are soon to follow.

The Inclusive Astronomy conference recognized the need for intersectional self-reflection in their corner of academia and science. Amherst has made great progress in its diversity initiatives and discussions surrounding the creation of a more inclusive campus environment, but these discussions are rarely intersectional in nature and usually remain outside our experiences in the classrooms. And as Outlaw pointed out, these conversations, and empowering action that must come from these conversations, are necessities for our continued survival as a species. We must have more sustained, intersectional conversations surrounding these issues and how they interact with each other, and from that produce actionable change, both as individuals and as members of an institution. We cannot isolate these conversations for certain days, or certain classes. We cannot view our discussion of our Mascot as independent from the science of biological warfare. We cannot talk about racism without recognizing how the social sciences we still practice justified oppressive systems such as South Africa’s Apartheid, as little as two decades ago from today. We cannot view the knowledge we acquire here as objective and nonviolent if we truly want to make Amherst an inclusive campus. Attending this conference felt like witnessing the conceptualization of a new era in academia, where these issues are seriously addressed, not only in specific departments, but across all subjects both in the humanities and sciences. I hope that Amherst can similarly look inward, and not only create a more inclusive campus culture, but conceptualize a more inclusive form of academia.