On June 10, 2020, over 70 members of the Duke Physics Department set aside their research, instructional, and administrative activities to participate in a nationwide strike called #ShutDownSTEM, organized by a multi-identity, intersectional coalition of STEM professionals. Participants used the day to reflect on the ways in which American physics communities, from small research groups, to undergraduate classes, university departments, multi-university collaborations, and national societies can better serve black physicists and welcome and encourage black students to pursue their interests in physics and astronomy. For the entire day, the Duke Physics Department website was unavailable for standard business, replaced by a notice affirming the community’s support for the #ShutDownSTEM effort and announcing an afternoon Zoom meeting open to all department members.
The displayed web page suggested resources that provide relevant information, including materials compiled by #ShutDownSTEM, a recent American Institute of Physics report on the reasons for the low numbers of black students awarded bachelor’s degrees in physics, the Duke website that documents 50 years of black student life on campus, and a video interview with Associate Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Damon Tweedy, author of “Black Man in a White Coat.”
The Zoom meeting, which lasted for two and a half hours, provided opportunities for every attendee to reflect on how recent events and historical conditions have affected their understanding of the experiences of Black academicians, and physicists in particular. After some opening remarks from Prof. and Chair Steffen A. Bass, members of an ad hoc organizing committee (Profs. Phillip Barbeau, Calvin Howell, Roxanne Springer, and Joshua Socolar) provided an introduction to the topic at hand: a brief review of significant dates in the history of black students and faculty at Duke and some relevant university policies; a deeply personal reflection by Prof. Howell on his education and choice of a career in physics; a brief review of the crucial conclusions of the AIP report; and a reminder of the importance of focusing on concrete actions that might be taken. Participants then held discussions in breakout rooms of 12 people each for 30 minutes, and the ideas generated there were shared with the larger group in an open forum discussion for the remainder of the meeting.
This event had a powerful effect simply by creating a shared acknowledgment of the profound importance of creating the academic and work environment that all students, faculty, and staff deserve. Many participants noted that the challenge going forward will be to translate that understanding into effective actions, and suggestions generated in the breakout sessions are being collected for further discussion and implementation.
Additional resources can be found at shutdownstem.com.
The #BlackInTheIvory on Twitter has plenty of examples of the racism experienced by our colleagues.