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health as it happens

Black Scientists Find Community—and Plan for the Road Ahead

Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” kicks off the virtual mixer as people excitedly connect in the Zoom chat. “Love the vibe right now,” says Brionna Davis-Reyes in appreciation of both the DJ and the sign language interpreter, who is also doubling as a background dancer. Davis-Reyes introduces herself as a Yale neuroscientist studying addiction and impulsivity. She’s quickly followed by Tyrone Grandison, a technology executive and co-organizer of the event: “Is the DJ taking requests?”

Alissa Armstrong posts in the chat that she is a biologist who uses fruit flies to study how fat tissue communicates with other organs in the body. Hostess Dani K says yes, attendees can request songs, then gives Armstrong a punny shout-out. “It’s pretty fly what you’re doing, Dr. Alissa!”

It’s the end of the opening day for a conference hosted by Black in X, a network of over 80 organizations dedicated to celebrating the work of Black people in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, and a few dozen of the attendees have gathered to network during the day’s final session. For the rest of this week, Black scientists will meet online to discuss their successes and strategize for the road ahead. The conference is the culmination of a year-long push to confront systemic racism in the sciences, catalyzed by the racial profiling of Christian Cooper and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Since then, the Black in X groups have built a community across virtual spaces and advocated for increased representation and recognition by amplifying the voices of Black scholars.

Speaking before the conference, co-organizer Carlotta Berry, an electrical engineer at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said she wanted to create a place where attendees could appreciate all that had been accomplished since last June. “I’m hoping that the conference is a time to really sit down and reflect on what we’ve done—how powerful it is, how important that work is,” she said. After “a year of social justice and trying to impact the world,” Berry emphasized the value of finding time to rest “so that we can stand up and do it again,” she said. “Or do more, or go further.”

The conference theme is “Lift As We Climb,” a summation of the way in which Black in X organization members support each other's work and experiences. “There are people who have lifted me, and I know that it is my responsibility, in turn, to lift others,” said conference organizer Quincy Brown last week. (Brown cofounded Black in Robotics and Black in Computing.) Earlier versions of communities like these helped her learn to navigate the unwritten rules and expectations of being a Black person in computing.

On Monday, the conference opened with a welcome speech from Samantha Mensah, a chemistry PhD student at UCLA, and Paige Greenwood, a newly-minted neuroscience PhD from the University of Cincinnati. As co-organizers, they reminded attendees of the unity that had been fostered over the past year during a nationwide racial reckoning. The welcome session was followed by a panel moderated by Grandison on software projects developed to combat racial inequities in housing, voting, legislation, and policing.

The rest of the week will include a virtual #BlackInXPoster session in which conference attendees will share their research on Twitter, plus forums on navigating academic and industry careers in STEM, and a conversation on being Black and disabled. On Friday afternoon, the sessions wrap up with a keynote speech by Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist newly appointed to Harvard University who was a leading figure in the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. The conference ends Saturday with a daylong advocacy event for STEM education.

The incident that ultimately led to the creation of Black in X happened just over a year ago, when a white woman called the police on Black science and comic writer Christian Cooper as he was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park. Cooper’s footage of the encounter soon went viral, inspiring avid birders and nature enthusiasts to launch the inaugural Black Birders Week, a series of virtual events to celebrate and normalize Black people enjoying the outdoors.

Other fields quickly followed suit: Soon there was Black in Astro Week, Black Botanists Week, Black In Neuro Week, and more—an explosion of Twitter movements celebrating the accomplishments of Black people in STEM. Around the same time, the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag, used by Black scholars to share ways they had experienced racism within academia, went viral, and campus researchers organized #ShutDownSTEM, a global strike to encourage academics to take action for Black lives.

“It felt like a revolution of sorts,” said Jordan Chapman, a PhD student at the University of Georgia who co-organized Black in Archaeology Week and was involved in Black in Geoscience, Black in Science Communication, and Black in Science Policy. “The mentality people had last year was, Why not me? Why not us? Why not now?” Chapman will be moderating the conference’s Co-Founders Corner, a space for Black in X leaders to share tips on hosting a celebration week, starting an organization, and achieving nonprofit status.

By last October, so many organizations had sprung up that Zemen Berhe, a chemistry PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, got the idea to organize something interdisciplinary. “Hey y’all!!” she tweeted. “Can we have a #BlackinXHomecoming?” In February, the Black in X conference website launched with a video campaign for Black History Month, in which community members introduced themselves with arms crossed in an X over their chest, a nod to both the Black in X logo and the Wakanda salute.

For many, the community has provided a sense of belonging in academic spaces where they feel isolated or unwelcome. “This network gave me a family—a professional family of people who care,” said Mani-Jade García, a psychology doctoral student at the City University of New York who will lead a session called #JoyfulHealingSpace at the conference. García said that when he was experiencing homelessness and unemployment, the Black in X community helped crowdsource funds for him to find housing and buy furniture, which played a role in reuniting him with his daughter.

Kilan Ashad-Bishop, a cancer biology and education researcher at the University of Miami, said that Black students deserve to feel like they belong in science. “It is our birthright to be here,” she said, because of the many scientific advancements that came from the exploitation of Black people, like the Tuskegee syphilis study and the “HeLa” cell line taken from Henrietta Lacks that has since been used in cancer, polio, and virus research. On Thursday, Ashad-Bishop will give a workshop on how Black scientists can push for health care equity and increase scientific trust within their home communities.

Others say the proliferation of Black in X movements has heightened the visibility of their work. Berry said she went from being asked to speak about her research only a couple of times per year to near-weekly requests, in part because of her bigger presence on social media. Similarly, García was invited to give his first keynote address at an upcoming conference. “Because I’m visible,” he said, describing the opportunity as an honor. “People see what I’m doing.”

At the institutional level, what has changed depends on who is asked. Mensah said that her department has been supportive of Black in Chem and even launched a grassroots campaign to support the organization. Chapman, on the other hand, said he wants to see more of a focus on retaining Black STEM scholars as well as preparing interested high school students for the rigor of college coursework.

“Originally, we were just asking to be seen, to be visible, to be recognized,” Mensah said before the conference. But now the goals for many Black in X organizations have expanded to include creating opportunities for financial support and pushing for better diversity and inclusion policies. Last February, the group Black in Cancer announced a funded three-year postdoctoral fellowship award to bolster Black representation in cancer research. Black in Robotics plans to require companies who wish to sponsor their organization to show proof of substantial change, such as hiring people of color in leadership positions, before any partnerships can be established.

Already, some of the organizers are discussing making the conference an annual event, as new groups continue to be added to the Black in X umbrella—even some focused on the arts and humanities. García, a cofounder of Black in Mental Health, hopes to see more of a reach beyond the academic sphere by supporting the work of community healers and spiritual coaches in their organization. Berhe wants extracurricular activities to also be included: She has announced Black in Swimming Week to run in late July, just before the Olympic swim competitions.

And while the Black in X network will grow, the organizers agreed it’s also here to stay. “The more we lift each other up,” says Greenwood, “the higher we will rise.”

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