Revisiting the problem with DE&I during COVID-19 and the racism pandemics

Dr. Geraldine L. Cochran, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice in the School of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rutgers University | May 25, 2021

In 2018, Dr. Cochran published an article in the Scholarly Kitchen:The Problem with Diversity, Inclusion, & Equity. Of course, a lot has changed since 2018; in this post, Dr. Cochran reflects on how the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice revolution has influenced her and her thinking.

It is always interesting to revisit my own writing. Although my values have remained fairly constant over the last decade, with each year my mission becomes a little clearer. In like manner, my understanding of how to fulfill my mission deepens. Since writing The Problem with Diversity, Inclusion, & Equity in 2018, I realize there are two things that I will commit to doing in the future: more intentionally engaging in activism and sharing the personal experiences of marginalized and minoritized people, including my own.

Last year I found myself overwhelmed, depressed, and angered by the inequities and injustices that were highlighted and exacerbated by the multiple crises of 2020: the health crisis caused by the global pandemic, the associated economic crisis, and the civil uprisings due to racialized violence against Black people. During this time, it was quite difficult for me to work and I realized something that I have known for some time, but rarely discussed: Efforts to increase diversity, create inclusive environments, and address existing inequities should include activism. It should include activism in our communities and our workplaces. One way in which we engage in activism is by supporting and participating in the activities of social justice – oriented movements, such as the #Strike4BlackLives held on June 10, 2020 organized by Particles for Justice in collaboration with ShutDownSTEM and VanguardSTEM. As a university faculty member, I found it helpful to read (and reread) an article by Michelle Salazar Pérez and Eloise William on activism that is rooted in Black Feminist Theory. In this article, the authors provide suggestions and concrete examples of how to engage in activism to address specific domains of power identified by Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Construction, and the Politics of Power and other sources.  Sometimes it is helpful to have a plan of action, especially when you are already committed to engaging in the work. The article by Salazar Peréz and William’s helped me to create that.

My students encouraged me to engage in a study on the student experience during spring of 2020. Though it was difficult to find funding – I refused to ask students to engage in any form of academic labor without compensation, especially during an economic crisis – we were able to secure some financial support from the American Physical Society’s Forum on Education. In that study, we identified four forms of injustice that impacted students’ experiences: racial injustice, economic injustice, access inequity, environmental inequity, and inadequate support for mental health. Creating an inclusive classroom space is not enough. Increasing the diversity of the student population is not enough. Engaging in activism to address the inequities that students face is necessary because it absolutely affects their experiences and performances in the classroom. The preliminary results of that work have been accepted for publication in the 2021 Conference Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education. Another key finding was the role of students in supporting their peers. These students were engaging in activism. In fact, I believe this study also played a role in my desire to more intentionally engage in activism and share the experiences of those marginalized and minoritized in education.

At some point during my graduate education, I decided that I would no longer give talks about my experiences in education that included my personal experience with racism, sexism, and classism.  I wanted to avoid what I perceived as an obligation to justify these experiences as valid and my decision to label them as racist, sexist, or classist. Moreover, I no longer wanted to revisit trauma in the name of educating others. However, as I grieve the loss of 8 loved ones, including 3 family members, that have passed in 2021, I continue to reflect on the words of one of my colleagues who I am both fond of and respect: “the pandemic hasn’t been that bad. It’s definitely been an inconvenience, working from home isn’t easy on any of us.” This person failed to recognize the impact that the pandemic was having on people outside of his household and family. I was angered and hurt by his comments, but I later took the time to share the impact that the pandemic has had on me and my family. I think that conversation raised his awareness of his privilege and according to him motivated him to action.    

To conclude, the post I wrote for the Scholarly Kitchen in 2018 differentiated between equity, inclusion, and diversity and offered some suggestions on how we might strive for these three things, but it failed to mention two important ways of doing so: engaging in activism and centering the experiences of minoritized and marginalized people.