Guest writer: Creativity and authenticity are key ingredients for successful student-led DEI advocacy by Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

by | Jul 17, 2020 | Guest Writers | 0 comments

This post is written by Karmela Padavic-Callaghan, Karmela is a theoretical physicist, a non-fiction writer and a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) advocate and organizer. Her writing has appeared on the Scientific American Opinions blog, the Lifeology blog, which focuses on science and art, and the Xylom, an award-winning project where scientists share authentic personal stories outside of their research. She Tweets at @Ironmely and publishes a weekly longform newsletter called Ultracold which reflects her experiences as a queer, female, immigrant physicist living, learning and working in the United States. For an overview of Karmela’s work visit her website.

In the US, only ~20% of PhDs in physics are earned by women, this then translates to women holding less than 20% of faculty positions in physics departments. Being one of these women, and a foreign and queer one at that, I wasn’t always sure of my place in the physics community. Talking to other young physicist, I learned that I was not the only one dealing with those doubts. When opportunities arose for participating in student groups focusing on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in physics, I was then quick to jump in.

By the time I defended my dissertation, I was serving in leadership roles for a group for women and gender minorities in physics and astronomy and a graduate-undergraduate mentoring group, consulting for a national network of mentoring and DEI programs, and serving as an officer in the local graduate employee union. Most days, this additional work topped my research and teaching duties as one big exhaustion cherry. That said, it was also a sweet one, giving me a taste for imagining a better future without limits. If I could travel six years back in time, I’d still gobble it up.

Being an organizer can be similar to being a scientist. You identify a problem, have an idea for approaching a solution, then implement it and observe the results. Perseverance is crucial to finding the idea that will change the social status quo. As there are few women and non-binary people in many physics departments, the need for this work affects them disproportionately. Being underrepresented makes you feel like you have to take on every organizing opportunity or you are failing all future students that share your identities.

Anecdotally, there is often one super-driven person that makes everything happen. I have been this person, and I have seen friends be this person. In both instances, the end result was burnout.

Burnout is not unavoidable. While working to make academic spaces more inclusive and equitable, we can be creative in how that work is structured. Universities often have formal DEI initiatives, but the best advocacy happens when students or faculty collectively decide what works best for them. Student-led advocacy in particular doesn’t have to mimic the structures of traditional academia; it doesn’t have to replicate expectations of overwork or anchor itself in inflexible plans.

Karmela presenting at an Access Network conference.

In my experience, the best student leaders encourage others to pursue their interests. They provide support for passion projects regardless of what may seem standard given the group’s mission. Advocacy and support groups that rely on graduate student volunteerism are most sustainable when they are a safe playground for people to show up as their full selves and organize around a vision of the future that feels right in their bones.

What can this look like? Sometimes it’s inviting every woman and gender non-conforming person in a department to a retreat at a Girl Scouts’ cabin to paint and play boardgames. Sometimes it’s having a loose group of core organizers instead of officers with fixed titles. Sometimes it looks like meticulously organized panels on diversity or two-hour bootcamps on making conference posters. Sometimes it’s as simple as group leaders spending time booking rooms, getting event snacks, sending emails and otherwise enabling other members to engage with projects unencumbered by logistics. Mostly, this kind of organizing centers being flexible and allowing advocacy to be a creative, communal effort. It highlights the importance of building a community that is intentionally less inhibited than the existing communities that we are already a part of.

Karmela making dinner during an Illinois GPS retreat.

I started graduate school nervous about both my research abilities and other’s prejudices about who I am. Walking into classrooms and conference rooms where most other scientists don’t look like me can still be unnerving. What helped me with that nervousness—with finding courage and a voice as a physicist—has not just been succeeding in those rooms, but also going to organizing meetings and feeling supported when I threw out an idea that wasn’t on anyone’s pre-prepared agenda. The first event I organized as a part of a student group in graduate school was a baking competition. These days, I am co-leading a group of students in organizing a national conference on DEI topics in physical sciences. Being encouraged to add cake to an advocacy group’s agenda led me to this more formal work. I am grateful for student leaders that gave me that first taste of organizing – the sugar rush may have passed, but my energy for organizing and advocacy has not subsided.