Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) — one pod leader’s experience
By Laura Guertin, Penn State Brandywine
Back in early January, a geoscience colleague of mine retweeted an announcement about a new program “to help geoscientists develop policies and programs meant to improve accessibility, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.” The URGE (Unlearning Racism in Geoscience) program, funded by the National Science Foundation and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, encouraged individuals to come together in pods for a sixteen-week program with the following purpose:
(1) to deepen the community’s knowledge of the effects of racism on the participation and retention of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in Geoscience;
(2) to draw on existing literature, expert opinions, and personal experiences to develop anti-racist policies and strategies, and
(3) to share, discuss, and modify anti-racist policies and strategies within a dynamic community network and on a national stage.
Why is the URGE program necessary in the geosciences to begin with? The geosciences enroll one of the lowest percentages of underrepresented minority students of all STEM fields (6%; Gonzales, 2010). One identifying characteristic of the geosciences is the requirement to complete fieldwork as part of the undergraduate curriculum and for many of the employment opportunities in the discipline. However, there are challenges and limited opportunities for being in outdoor spaces or programs for many underrepresented and urban students across grades K-16. This is just one of the challenges listed in Chapter 8 of the Vision and Change in the Geosciences report published in 2021.
To participate in URGE, university departments and organizations were encouraged to form pods of twelve people, yet individuals were also allowed to “pod” together for the two-week curricular units. Each unit required pods to connect online for at least one hour for discussions around pre-assigned reading of journal articles, viewing of video interviews, and generating deliverables proposing changes in practices and policies within programs and institutions. (*Note that the entire URGE curriculum, including access to the journal articles and videos, is still available on the URGE website)
As the only geologist at my campus and not part of a department or program, I reached out on various geoscience educator listservs and quickly found eleven faculty to join me in what we named the 2YC URGE pod. The “2YC” represents us as faculty coming from two-year colleges (community colleges or two-year feeder campuses in larger university systems). I volunteered to serve as the pod leader, setting up the meetings and completing our pod’s required documents for upload at the end of each two-week unit.
Our pod was eager to join the almost 4,000 geoscientists that volunteered to participate in URGE. We were ready for our discipline, one of the least diverse in STEM, to move from being passively racist to actively anti-racist. But before we could discuss and create strategies for BIPOC geoscientists, we needed to be willing to have open, honest, and challenging conversations among a group of almost complete strangers via Zoom. We needed to acknowledge that we were a pod composed of only white women. We would be bringing bias into our conversations and our work, despite our best efforts.
When we met in Zoom every two weeks, we rotated the duties of who would serve as facilitator so that there would be no biases from the same person serving in that role each time. We also rotated the duty of having an equity monitor at each session, making sure pod members stay on the discussion of race and not let it veer too far toward topics that feel safer to talk about;
to monitor the conversation for oversharing/undersharing; to check in with everyone to assure all are understanding and communicating; and, to monitor for unfair dismissal of ideas. We developed a procedure for making group decisions. Spending time at the beginning defining our pod guidelines was valuable and important for us to be able to work together as a community filled with trust and respect.
At first, the required deliverable outlined by URGE was a challenge for our pod, especially as we came from twelve different institutions and were not attempting to develop one policy for one location. As much of the biweekly content did not directly apply to our 2YC institutions (admissions policies, mentoring of post-doctoral researchers, etc.), we focused our efforts on applying the information to our own roles in the geoscience community — instructors and mentors of students at two-year campuses and colleges.
Fast-forward to our final deliverable, a document that we hope is a valuable resource for instructors that seek to create a more inclusive classroom. We prepared information on best practices including considerations for the syllabus, what to do during the first day of class, and curricular materials focusing on equity and justice for introductory-level geoscience courses. Our document has a section that focuses on faculty, from mentoring and advising practices, to examples of institutional DEI resolutions and statements, to complaints and reporting policies. The document ends with recommended reports, journal articles, and books for further reading. The deliverable has been posted on the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) 2YC Division website and is accessible to anyone via https://bit.ly/2YCURGE
I’m proud of what my pod members generated. And our 30-page resource document will continue to grow. The URGE program may have formally ended, but this is only one chapter in a book that has many, many more pages for us to progress through. We compiled an initial listing of how to identify barriers and create opportunities for members of the BIPOC community. We expect this list to grow as we continue to reexamine our field and our communities. All members of the 2YC URGE pod pledge to continue to work towards creating change in our institutional structures and professional organizations, with intention, accountability, and inclusivity. I look forward to expanding our community and increasing our efforts as we move into the next chapter.