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Q&A: What does it mean to be Black in the geosciences?

Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth community members talk about how their Black identities have informed and impacted their careers.

Alexis Wilson
Alexis Wilson, now a secondyear PhD student,presenting during the 2017SURGE 1 symposium.1 httpsoma.stanford.edusurge

“I can’t breathe” were the dying words of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and so many other Black people in America whose lives were cut short due to anti-Black racism and police brutality. Since then, the phrase has become a rallying call for the Black Lives Matter movement and has led to discussions of systemic racism across all aspects of society. “I can’t breathe” also speaks to another way that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals experience inequality: environmental racism.

The front lines of global disasters

Black Americans are exposed to 38% more air pollution than white people and are 75% more likely to live near toxic pollution than the rest of the American population. Residents of Black communities across the country breathe about 20% more harmful particles than residents of white neighborhoods do, though they’re less responsible for contributing to pollution. In other words, Black people’s lungs absorb a “pollution burden” that is disproportionate to their impact to the planet

This pollution burden becomes even more deadly when placed in the context of COVID-19. According to one study, a minor rise in the amount of pollution was shown to increase the likelihood of dying from COVID-19 by 8%. In fact, Black people are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people in the U.S.

Environmental racism in the COVID era

Another aspect of environmental inequality that has come to the fore during the COVID-19 era is that in the United States, communities of color are almost three times more likely than white communities to live in “nature deprived” areas with minimal or no access to parks, paths, or green spaces. Long-standing racism in housing practices and city planning set the standard for where communities are placed in relation to green spaces.

Not only do green spaces help to maintain safe cities – by helping to manage floodwaters, keep cities cool, and suck up metals from the soil – but green spaces also support human health by lowering heart rates and reducing stress. In fact, it has been estimated that urban trees in 55 cities across the U.S. help avoid $4 billion in health care costs each year because they clean the air around them, keeping people’s lungs healthier. During the COVID pandemic, access to outdoor spaces has emerged as a crucial part of people’s emotional and physical well-being. According to Google data, park visits have increased by 54% compared to the first few weeks of 2020.

Safety in the parks

Not only do Black communities have less access to these outdoor lifelines, but Black Americans also aren’t protected in public spaces – with tragic consequences. Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging in his own neighborhood in Georgia. Christian Cooper was birdwatching in NYC’s Central Park when a white woman called the police on him for no reason. (It’s worth noting that threats to Black safety aren’t limited to public spaces either – Breonna Taylor was killed while in her own home.)

Being Black and traveling on the open road has long included the potential of racially motivated harassment and violence. This was so different from the white experience that from 1936 to 1966, Victor Hugo Green published The Green Book to provide travel recommendations for Black travelers to stay safe on the road.

In 2017, President Barack Obama released a memorandum to the National Park Service and other land agencies called “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters,” which encouraged a more inclusive approach to the American outdoors, such as more diverse decision-making committees and outreach programs to improve access. To this day, Black visitors make up only 2% of all national park visitors. The concerns that Black Americans hold when entering natural spaces is especially consequential when considering fieldwork requirements for geoscience researchers.

Geosciences lag in diversity

Black and Brown people are more likely to be concerned about climate change than white people are, so why aren’t there more Black geoscientists? Universities are well aware of their diversity issue. Although Black people make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, Black students earned less than 3% of physical/Earth science doctorates in 2016. At Stanford Earth, Black students and postdocs can be counted on two hands, and there are currently no active Black faculty. This 2020 PNAS study, coauthored by a Stanford School of Education postdoctoral researcher, found that while underrepresented scholars in STEM are more likely to innovate, they are less likely to attain influential academic positions because their work is likely to be discounted.

2020 was a monumental year for the Black Lives Matter movement. As protests popped up throughout the world, Black academics shared how racism affects them in scientific contexts using the hashtags #BlackInTheIvory and #ShutDownSTEM. Countless mentions of overt racism, microaggressions, prejudice, and beyond were shared on social media. In fact, 72% of Black STEM workers say they face discrimination in recruiting, hiring, and promotions compared with only 27% of whites who say the same. Solving climate change requires bringing the brightest and most passionate minds to the table and that can’t happen without eradicating anti-Black racism in academia.

Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth community members talk about how their Black identities have informed and impacted their careers. Postdoc Amber Bonds, PhD student Alexis Wilson, PhD student Amina Ly, MS student Nnamdi Jacob, Katlyn Turner, PhD ’17, and professor emeritus Jerry Harris discuss their hopes for the future of diversity and inclusion in the geosciences.

How would you describe your identity?

Alexis Wilson
Alexis Wilson is a 2nd year PhD student in Earth system science. Her research seeks to identify and remediate soil contaminants in urban gardens by working collaboratively with communities at risk of exposure to environmental pollution. She is also the Social Chair of the Black Graduate Student Association, an EDGE Fellow, a Graduate Public Service Fellow for the Haas Center, and a former SURGE participant.

WILSON: Racially and ethnically I am Black American/African American. I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I identify strongly with being a Black Woman and these parts of my identity shape the way I see myself but also the way other people see me and interact with me.

BONDS: I am a Black, African American woman.

HARRIS: I’m Black, African American. Born and reared in northern Mississippi, my early education was in Mississippi’s segregated public school system prior to 1967 when Freedom of Choice was implemented.

LY: I am a Black, immigrant woman. My mother is Russian and Ashkenazi Jewish, and my father is Muslim and Fula (an ethnic group that extends across the Sahel and West Africa) with family ties in Mauritania and Senegal.

TURNER: I’m an African American, Black woman. I have mixed racial and ethnic ancestry. In terms of my Blackness, my family is descended from people who were enslaved in the United States during the colonial era up until the Civil War. One sad legacy of slavery is that it systemically erased a lot of people’s ethnic and cultural lineage beyond simply referring to them as “Negro” – even their names, including my family’s. So I don’t know more about my family than that, but I am proud that I get to say I’m an African American woman.

JACOB: I’m Nigerian, born and brought up in Lagos by Igbo (a Nigerian ethnic group) parents.

Share a formative experience related to your racial or ethnic identity.

Nnamdi Jacob
Nnamdi Jacob is a second-year Petroleum Engineering MS student in the department of energy resources engineering. He’s also the vice president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers Stanford chapter.

JACOB: I moved to the United States in September 2019, which means I am seeing the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement with fresh eyes. I didn’t grow up in this environment, so I’m learning how to be Black in America as an adult. In the months since moving here, I have become overly aware of my skin color. At school and with friends, I know my presence makes any group a “diverse” group. My heart skips a beat whenever I see a police vehicle, and I have had to think about how I might manage an encounter with the police. Even in the Bay Area, when I exercise outdoors, I often do so with my white friends more as a life insurance policy than as a team activity. All of this is even more troubling when worrying that wearing a facemask makes me appear more “threatening” and thus more susceptible to violence.

HARRIS: I was among the first group of Black students to integrate the public schools in Mississippi. Subsequently, I participated in numerous marches and protests in support of integration, racial equity, and access to public facilities and resources. As a college freshman, I was arrested and suspended from the University of Mississippi for participating in a non-violent campus protest. My sentence was also suspended and I spent the next three years on probation with mixed feelings. My parents were not very happy and worried about the implications a jail record would have on my future. On the other hand, I was proud to be part of a cohort of Black students that fostered change at the university.

Amber Bonds
Amber Bonds is a postdoctoral fellow in Earth systems science who studies the biological significance of sterol biosynthesis in bacteria. She is a member of the Scientist Mentoring & Diversity Program, which provides mentorship and career development resources for people of underrepresented groups who aim to enter the bioscience industry.

BONDS: For as long as I can remember, I have always been aware that being African American meant that I carried a sense of responsibility when it came to representing members of my race. My grandmother grew up in rural Alabama during a time when African Americans were not allowed to continue their education after middle school, and now I’m a female African American scientist equipped with a doctorate.

TURNER: Throughout my education and up until my postdoc, I’ve been made aware of the abnormality of someone like me being in the scientific spaces that I’ve been in through comments about how “exceptional” I was and about the responsibility I have to the representation of my race in STEM. I would often wonder: “Why is it remarkable that I’m a chemical engineer or a geologist?” What I’ve learned over time and what I wish others could understand is that there are many people with my racial background who are as smart or smarter than me. When people comment on how “remarkable” I am, what they are really saying is that it’s remarkable that someone like me exists in STEM spaces because there are so many societal barriers in place that preclude the participation and inclusion of African Americans. It’s not me, it’s the system, and I’ve been incredibly privileged within it.

LY: I have attended PWIs (primarily white institutions) for most of my time as a student, and while they certainly helped me academically, it often felt like I was sitting on the outside of the bubble socially. I very distinctly remember a day in middle school where I chose to wear a Mauritanian outfit for a school spirit Heritage Day and spent the day defending my clothing. That day and throughout my adolescence, I existed in a push and pull of wanting to represent who I am while also having to assimilate in some spaces to simply protect my own peace.

Do you feel like you see representations of people like yourself in your field?

Katlyn Turner
Katlyn Turner, PhD ’17, studied the mineralogy and materials science of certain compounds that were of interest in nuclear waste management while in the geological sciences department. Her work at Stanford aimed to make nuclear energy a more sustainable option. While at Stanford, she was an EDGE Fellow, a DARE Fellow, and a Clayman Institute Graduate Voice and Influence Program Fellow. She served on the Graduate Student Advisory Committee for the (then) School of Earth Sciences, and she mentored Black undergraduate students through the Ernest Houston Johnson Scholars Program. She is now a Research Scientist at the MIT Media Lab.

TURNER: My sister and I are both Earth scientists and my family doesn’t always understand the appeal of the field. Their wariness is steeped in the fear and experience of what it means to be a Black person or person of color in the outdoors. For many, part of the appeal of geology is interacting with “the field” from a place of wonder. Embedded in that wonder is a privileged viewpoint – the idea of nature being this healing, mystical, and restorative place to escape to. In reality that experience is limited to people whose appearance is permitted in the outdoors. For people who look like me, the outdoors can be a place where hostility, discrimination, and violence occur. I wish more African Americans could experience the things that my sister and I have as Earth scientists – free from fear, and free from the specter of racism.

HARRIS: No, African Americans are significantly underrepresented as students, staff, and faculty in the Earth sciences. For all my 30-plus years at Stanford, I’ve been the only Black faculty member in the School of Earth Sciences. I often thought there would not be another until I retired or left Stanford.

WILSON: Not at all – this field is one of the least racially diverse fields and hasn’t improved in decades. This is a problem at all levels, from undergraduate, graduate, postdocs, and faculty. Our school is no different. Our Black graduate student population can be counted on one hand and we have NO (active) Black faculty currently. The main way I encounter other Black scholars in this field is online – Twitter mostly – where we’ve built a community. This is something that our school needs to address, not just with words of acknowledgement but with concrete action and institutional support.

JACOB: At Stanford, I’ve gotten used to being the only Black student in class, so that says something. That’s really different from my undergraduate education and my upbringing. I grew up in Nigeria, where I was relatively light-skinned, and I didn’t really realize I was Black until I moved to the United States. Now it’s the first thing I think about when interacting with other people.

How does your identity intersect with your research, your workplace, your field?

Profile image for Jerry Harris
Jerry M. Harris is the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Geophysics (Emeritus). He joined the faculty in 1988 and retired in 2019. He served as a geophysics department chair and Associate Dean for Stanford Earth, founded the Office of Multicultural Affairs (now called Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity & Inclusion), and launched the SURGE Program. He also co-created Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project.

HARRIS: Even though my career may be considered successful by many standards, my racial and cultural identity greatly outweighs my work identity: I live in a local community and country where I am constantly reminded through personal experiences and the national news about the inequity, bigotry, and violence against Black people. I experienced racism and bigotry growing up in Mississippi, yet I’ve also experienced bigotry and racism right here on Stanford’s campus and in Palo Alto. I’ve had to teach my son how to behave when stopped by the police, and how to keep his hands visible when in or leaving a department store. Being a Stanford professor has never insulated me from the everyday life of being a Black man in America.

WILSON: Being the only Black person in a room is isolating and makes you question whether you belong. Instances of microaggressions and more aggressive acts of racism and discrimination have made it difficult, and at times harmful, to be a part of the Earth science community. Sometimes balancing the episodes of racial injustice I’ve witnessed and my work as a scholar is just an enormous burden. I can remember multiple times when I had to go to class or lab right after I watched a Black person be murdered by the police on the news. There’s no acknowledgement of this additional burden Black scholars face and its impact on our ability to work and thrive in these roles.

BONDS: In many predominantly Black and Latin communities, most schools do not have strong science programs and pursuing science does not seem like an obtainable dream. I know that my middle school teacher, who was a Black woman, played a significant role in my journey of developing into not only a scientist, but also a woman of color. I hope to do the same for other minority children through various outreach programs designed to share science with underrepresented communities. While the main goal of these programs is to promote scientific literacy, it is also equally important for these children to see that someone of a similar racial/ethnic/cultural identity can be successful within the STEM fields. While not every student I meet may pursue a career in science, I hope that they can apply the critical thinking skills fostered from a science education to all aspects of their lives.

LY: I come from a family of subsistence farmers and have always been aware of the importance of a healthy environment to the people that rely on it. After seeing how land degradation and shifts in seasonal rainfall devastated the area my dad grew up in, I felt compelled to work in this field. In the absence of the threat of climate change, I wouldn’t have necessarily pursued a STEM education. One thing that I noticed even when I first began research in undergrad was that developing regions – like Mauritania, where my father is from were under-studied and underresourced. It was alarming to me that regions that have some of the fastest growing population centers and are likely to bear a disproportionate amount of the impacts of climate change are not getting the attention and research needed to prepare for the future. My background makes it incredibly easy to draw the connections between the environment, climate change, and race – specifically because it is my lived experience.

TURNER: As a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, I lead a portfolio of projects about the role of equity in Earth’s complex sociotechnical systems. I consider how aspects of people’s intersectional identity like their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, the languages they speak, what their bodies look like, and so forth change their experience within Earth’s sociotechnical systems (like a municipality’s COVID-19 response, or the nuclear energy industry, or the STEM innovation sector). A big question is how can sociotechnical systems create and sustain equity, rather than inequity?

Why do we need to make space to discuss Black identities in the workplace?

Amina Ly
Amina Ly is a 3rd year PhD candidate in Earth system science studying the impacts of climate change on human systems. She’s currently focused on how extreme temperatures have interacted with mobility in the COVID-19 era, and the overall mortality response in these new environments. She has been an EDGE Fellow, served as the Stanford Earth representative of the Graduate Student Council, and currently serves on the leadership board for the Black Graduate Student Association.

LY: The inclusion of Black people must include ALL Black people. My presentation of Blackness is one that gives me immense privilege at institutions like Stanford. My speech patterns, lighter skin tone, and European features make my presence more digestible in white spaces, while also allowing organizations to feel as if they are diverse, which leads to the tokenization of my Black peers and myself. Making space for Black scholars really means challenging “respectability politics” and valuing the experience, perspective, and voices of those who do not meet these inherently racist expectations and norms in academia.

WILSON: Staying silent does nothing but support the systems currently in place. Ignoring the lack of racial diversity in this field only upholds the system. It is important to give a space and voice to what minorities have experienced in this field because we are often silenced or not believed. It’s also important to discuss the root causes of the disparity in representation. This did not happen by accident. We must address the systematic and institutional causes and enact changes that will improve the diversity of this field but also make sure support is in place for these students. Increasing diversity with no support structures in place makes it difficult to retain these students and ensure their experience isn’t negative.

TURNER: One of the things that I advocate for a lot in my research now is the importance of studying the history of any given field. Every field was shaped by the norms of the time it was created in. For the most part, those norms were racist, colonialist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and so forth. Unfortunately, this means that Earth science fields, like geology, haven’t equitably included or attributed their knowledge as disciplines to women or people of color. I would challenge everyone reading this to consider their work through the lenses of history and equity, no matter how technical it is. I can personally assure you: Your work has implications for questions of equity, questions of diversity, questions of inclusion, and questions of justice and sustainability.

HARRIS: It’s very important, even critical, that we make room for these discussions if a Stanford education is to contribute in a meaningful way to addressing some of the longstanding problems of systemic racism that exist in our country. The experiences of upcoming geoscientists will be different, hopefully very different, than my past experiences with racism and discrimination. Despite my cautious optimism, I believe serious progress will require more active involvement by white moderates as well as progressives. In other words, white Americans must learn to recognize and acknowledge racism and prioritize actions that seek to erase it from all areas of America’s institutional and social lives. Geoscience and academia do not exist in isolation from good citizenry, a prosperous society, and true expressions of human rights.

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This story is part of the #StanfordEarthCelebrates series hosted by Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Continue to read the rest of the collection here. 

More Resources

Stanford Earth Postdoctoral Fellowship Program 

Introduced in 2020, this fellowship will support two outstanding scholars in the fields of Earth, energy, and environmental sciences. We deeply appreciate the value of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community, and we define diversity broadly to include diversity of genders, races and ethnicities, cultures, physical and learning differences, sexual orientations and identities, veteran status, and work and life experiences.

Stanford's Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering Program (SURGE)

SURGE provides undergraduates from U.S. institutions the opportunity to gain mentored research experience at Stanford University in the geosciences and engineering during an eight-week period. We especially encourage students who are seeking a formal research experience for the first time to participate. The underlying philosophy of SURGE is to train students by creating a supportive and rigorous work environment.

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