Update to Biology Department Letter in Support of Black Lives Matter
June 13, 2022
In the summer of 2020 the Biology Department circulated our letter in support of Black Lives Matter as we grappled with the sadness, pain, and anger that we felt following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and too many other Black Americans. That summer, we reaffirmed our efforts to build a more inclusive community, both at Middlebury College and beyond our academic bubble. As academic scientists, we pledged to use our platforms of privilege to train students to both listen to and amplify the voices of impacted communities and activists.
We recognize that antiracism requires ongoing practice and process. It is necessary to allow time for self-reflection and continued engagement with equitable choices. Two years after our initial letter, we have spent some time reflecting on our progress towards our action and accountability steps outlined initially, and we now update and reaffirm our commitment to these departmental goals. As we reflect, we are energized by the progress we have made, and have identified areas in which we can continue to grow and build our antiracism practices.
Academic scientists often shy away from, or do not center, anti-racist work. Yet, it is on us to do this work. We acknowledge that our inaction perpetuates structures of oppression. Many of the current issues in human health and the environment that we study as biologists disproportionately affect marginalized communities, and to solve today’s most pressing biological issues we need to ensure all perspectives have a seat at the table. As educators we strive to give our students tools that will help their voices be heard in these conversations. Underrepresented students, especially Black students, face barriers and biases in our labs and classrooms, across our campus, in the broader Middlebury community and beyond. Below we outline our initial action and accountability steps, and also acknowledge expanded steps, in both broad and focused ways:
Original actions and accountability steps with our continued commitment:
- Continuing to educate ourselves with the anti-racism resources. Feel free to join us. We have and will continue to dedicate at least one department seminar a year for an anti-racism workshop, an anti-racism speaker, or for critical discussion of anti-racism resources.
- Include more Black biologists in our course materials, lectures, discussions, and seminars. As a commitment to centering the research contributions of Black biologists, our goal is to reserve half of our seminar speaker invitations per year for non-White identifying biologists.
- Recognize and acknowledge that the life sciences are not race neutral, and increase transparency about our discipline’s racist past, specifically the eugenics movement, marginalization of Black scientists, and pseudosciences related to race, genetics, and behavior.
- Work to include course discussions of the history within our disciplines, address ethical problems of past and present work, and how we are actively modifying our research practices to minimize harm and benefit communities today.
- Educate ourselves on more socially just and universally effective pedagogical approaches and incorporate these into our teaching and assessment practices to mitigate the effects of systemic racism present in our country.
- Commit to recruitment and support of Black Teaching and Research Assistants.
- Reach out to our students, and student cultural organizations, for input on our improvements, and critique of any setbacks, in our anti-racist efforts.
- Actively oppose the efforts to invite racist speakers to our campus, recognizing that providing a platform to such speakers does an incredible amount of harm to our Black students and the community at large.
- Actively participate in anti-racist college forums and events.
- We ask the College to develop and deliver required faculty and staff anti-racist education.
- Commit to working with our professional societies to ensure these spaces are welcoming and equitable for all of our students.
Updated action and accountability steps:
- Original: Insist that our institutional leaders dedicate both the financial and structural resources to carry out an anti-racist pedagogical reform; for example we request that the CTLR provide specific programming around this topic.
In fall 2020, the college announced several efforts toward building anti-racist programming, community, and institution thanks to calls from many members of the college community including our department. A donor provided funds to support this work and the Anti-Racist Task Force was assembled. This task force offers a multitude of resources and learning opportunities.
- Engage with the Anti-Racism Task Force materials and participate in associated programming.
- Advocate for continued financial and structural resources to build our anti-racist community and institution after the intial funding is expended.
- Continue development of a biology curriculum that is accessible to students at any entry point, including advocating for resource allotment to (a) reach equitable departmental student-to-faculty teaching ratios, and (b) provide support for evidence-based pedagogies that support classroom equity (i.e. peer-led team learning frameworks)
- Original: Identify a Biology Department member as the liaison for student concerns relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This person would solicit feedback directly, or receive information anonymously through the Student Advisory Council. This liaison will have allotted time at every department meeting to share these concerns and allow for department discussion, and may call for separate meetings if urgent needs arise.
After a test run of this liaison role we ran into some challenging issues regarding departmental seniority dynamics and the path for review of junior colleagues. We have recognized that we do not need to duplicate efforts with other departmental roles and campus programming such as the Community Bias Response Team reporting platform, and that this departmental role should shift. In addition, we recognize that the work of anti-racism is a responsibility shared by all members of the department. Members of our department may still field concerns relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion from students and can point students to the following available resources:
- Engage our Student Advisory Council regularly to report to the department on any peer concerns related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Report back to the Student Advisory Committee on how we as faculty are engaging these concerns.
- Encourage students to submit reports of bias to our Community Bias Response Team (CBRT) to utilize their well developed response options to incidents in our community.
- The Biology Department seminar coordinator and departmental administrator will serve as liaison for cross-campus communication and engagement with cross-disciplinary Biology-led events. For example, sharing information for upcoming seminar speakers of interest to a broad audience.
The recent events of racially motivated mass shootings, ongoing police brutality, and the weaponization of racist aggression toward marginalized communities, are visible reminders of the centuries-long mistreatment of Black people in the United States. Additionally, recent examples of global anti-Blackness, for example racial descrimintation against Africans fleeing the Russian war in Ukraine, remind us of the stark and ongoing challenges we need to confront. However, we also feel hope and momentum building in the strength and resilience we see in our own community of students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and the efforts we have engaged with in the last two years. We are eager to use this energy to continue taking action and fostering change to support educational spaces and communities that are accessible, equitable, and welcoming for all of our students. This is an evolving document and we value this time of reflection and recommitment to our work moving forward.
Several anti-racism resources:
- Middlebury College Antiracism Resource Hub
- Ways You Can Help
- The 1619 Project
- Scaffolded Anti-Racism Resources
- “White Academia. Do Better”
- This Is What I Want To Tell My White Professors When They Ask, ‘How Are You Today?’
- Diversity is a Dangerous Set-up
- “Diversifying STEM: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Race and Gender”
- No Time for Silence
The Biology Department