Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Summary of the Town Hall on Racism in Astronomy

Summary of the AAS 226th Town Hall on Racism in Astronomy
Photograph taken by Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar
On behalf of the CSMA and its members, Chair Moreno takes full responsibility of the outcomes of this event and the contents of this post. The current political climate, and the adverse effects on his family and his community, influenced his inability to write on this important issue in a timely manner. He conveys his sincere apologies for the delay of this post. 

Downloadable PDF slides from the Town Hall on Racism, as well as the accompanying poster “I wish my white colleagues knew...”, and photographs of the event can be found here:

Authors: Prof. Jorge Moreno and Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar

The Town Hall on Racism in Astronomy was organized and sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA). This event took place on January 4th, 2017, at the 229th AAS Meeting  in Grapevine, Texas; it lasted an hour and had between 1500 and 2000 astronomers in attendance.

The central goal of this event was to spark conversations on the problem of racism in astronomy. We recognize that, by construction, this event could not address this important issue with the depth it deserves. Having only one hour to discuss this topic was challenging, especially with such a large audience and wide range of cognizance on the subject. Nevertheless, we believe that this was an important step in our efforts to confront racism in astronomy.

The panel was composed solely of CSMA members: Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar, Prof. Adam Burgasser, and Prof. Jorge Moreno (CSMA Chair). Prof. John Asher Johnson was scheduled to appear as well, but was unable to attend the AAS meeting this year. We acknowledge Prof. Johnson and the rest of the CSMA for their help in developing the discussions for the Town Hall, as well as all the volunteers who helped facilitate this event.

We acknowledge that this event was held on occupied Indigenous land. We also take this opportunity to acknowledge civil rights activists throughout history, as well as activists in astronomy, who have challenged and continue to challenge colonialism, racism, and other axes of oppression in our community. This event would not have taken place without your labor. Thank you!

The Town Hall on Racism: Axiom, Goals, Structure and Resources

The entire event hinged on the following Town Hall Axiom:

We operate under the assumption that all people are created equal. If given the same choices and opportunities, all people will make choices that lead to beneficial life outcomes. Thus, any disparate and insidious outcome (e.g. astro demographics) is not natural/intrinsic, but created/extrinsic.

To provide a safe space for people of color where their experience is recognized and validated.
To provide a moderated space for conversations in order to confront racism in our field.
To introduce basic anti-racism concepts and address common misconceptions.
To confront members of the dominant group with the problem of racism as a white problem.
To invite the community to continue the work of dismantling racism in astronomy.

Acknowledgement that this event took place on stolen Indigenous land.
Town Hall Axiom on equal rights.
Safe space centered on people of color (POC): POC may recuse themselves, white people are required to stay.
Statistics on the overrepresentation of white folks in astronomy.
Statistics on mass incarceration and its effect on people of color, especially Black people and their communities.
Introduction of three words: Race, Power and Racism.
Inclusive Astronomy Ground Rules.
Instructions for volunteers to monitor conversations and intervene if necessary.
Small group discussions on three words: Race, Power and Racism.
Audience discussion and Q&A moderated by panelists.
Non-exhaustive list of resources by social scientists and activists of color.
Final Remarks.

Was our goal accomplished?
We believe so. Facilitators and members of the audience reported that conversations proceeded openly and respectfully. POC felt acknowledged, supported, heard, and safe. Senior POC expressed enthusiasm for this long overdue event. Incidents involving white audience members taking too much air were mitigated by intervention from the panelists. Undergraduate students of color, many of whom have participated in activism in their campuses, felt energized. Chair Moreno also reported conversations with senior people in the field, many of whom are excited to “do more” to confront racism at their institutions. Overall, we deemed this to be an important step towards fighting racism in astronomy.

Nevertheless, we recognize that this event was far from perfect. Based on conversations with the community, in the future we seek to improve by attempting the following:

1 Request more time. This can be accomplished with a combination of a plenary and half-day workshops.
2 Provide opportunities for more high-level POC-centered (less 101/white-centered) discussions.
3 Invite non-CSMA paid experts to lead plenary-style discussions.
4 Provide broader recognition of activists in STEM - especially in astronomy - not just social scientists.

We acknowledge the valuable contributions of fellow astronomers and physicists of color in speaking and writing about racism in these fields, as well as the time and energy they spend mentoring, advocating for, and fighting for students of color in these disciplines. We encourage community members - especially white folks - to seek out, recognize, and reward their vital but often under-appreciated work; and more importantly, to do your share of that work. Our list of resources and ideas below highlights the work of some of these people, as well as the work by a few "white accomplices". Additions to this list are very welcome.

Resources and Ideas:

Facebook Groups for Astronomers:
Astronomy Allies
AWM: Astronomer Woman Mom
Black Women+ in Physics & Astronomy
Equity & Inclusion in Physics & Astronomy
Latinx Scholars
LGBTIQ Physicists, Astrophysicists & Astronomers and Allies
Old Girls Network in Theoretical and Computational Astrophysics

Disclaimer: The above lists are not to be construed as endorsement by the authors.

We invite the community to send us your ideas, criticisms, and resources so we can improve in the future.

Prof. Jorge Moreno, CSMA Chair (csmachairmoreno AT gmail.com)

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