Voices in Education

Equity Ethic: As STEM Fields Become More Racially Diverse, New Values Emerge
Dr. Manu Platt, a Black engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has a world-class biomedical engineering lab, yet he spends countless hours designing and running after-school and summer internship programs for Black high school students. At the University of Texas at San Antonio, Dr. María G. Arreguín-Anderson leads a team of researchers and teacher educators who specialize in culturally responsive and critical STEM education to support the growing number of Hispanic educators who teach computer science to K-12 students. Scientist B.K. Goldtooth of the Navajo Nation joined members of other tribal groups—Alaska Natives and Hawaiian Natives, Canadian Natives, and Native youth—at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 and helped to shape its landmark Principles of Environmental Justice. Goldtooth and other Indigenous peoples were the earliest and some of the most effective US environmental justice activists, understanding that their movement would strengthen global efforts to eliminate environmental racism.

We can all benefit from the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx STEM scholars who employ their research to reduce the historical trauma associated with the environmental and technological ills caused by White men and their industries. White STEMers dominate the STEM industries; part of what they do is perpetuate racism with apps and software programs that surveil Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). In the name of "regulating" public safety and other forms of invasive biometric surveillance, they have practically extinguished BIPOC privacy. The planet is simultaneously burning, melting, and flooding. Some have acknowledged that environmental degradation is an almost invisible form of genocide, while the (mostly White) rich and powerful seem okay with destroying the planet.

BIPOC STEMers are acutely aware of the needs of their communities, needs that are not even on the radar of most White people (one instance of White privilege). BIPOC communities are more likely to suffer from higher levels of air pollution compared to White communities. (And not only do the jobs of BIPOC workers make them more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, but there is a link between air pollution and COVID-19.) The environmental racism that BIPOC neighborhoods endure—and not race per se—contributes to the development of medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Yet the green STEM fields of climate, conservation, environmental, earth, and atmospheric sciences are among the least racially diverse in science.

My research demonstrates that BIPOC STEMers gravitate toward empathic social causes, the elimination of disparities, and racial justice efforts within and beyond their STEM pursuits. Their own racial and ethnic marginalization—and the way they themselves have suffered—translates into concerns about local and global disparities. This is what I call equity ethic. And I believe it is key to improving the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students of color in STEM. In hundreds of interviews with high-achieving, underrepresented students and faculty of color in STEM fields, I found that key motivators for their persistence in these fields were catalyzing change, improving communities, and being the Black/Latinx/Indigenous STEM professors that many of these students had never had. These Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students face plenty of difficulty in their STEM departments: racial assaults, open and veiled questioning of their skills and abilities, and a conspicuous lack of other students and faculty that look like them.

I asked if they ever contemplated of dropping out of their STEM studies and why they persisted, and from their answers, a framework for equity ethic emerged. Many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students hope to remedy inequalities they experienced firsthand, thereby demonstrating a principled concern for racial justice and for the well-being of people who suffer from various inequities. When I say that equity ethic is principled, I mean that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous STEMers are not simply motivated by a concern for racial and social justice but that racial justice and the elimination of disparities are part of their values and behaviors. They use their skills to promote equitable, particularly racially equitable, environments. This naming (equity ethic) is significant, because it provides an explanatory tool for theorists and researchers to make sense of how STEMers of color develop a principled concern for justice—particularly for racial justice and addressing racial inequities—and for the well-being of people and environments.

Many government reports say that excellence in the STEM community is necessary for the US to maintain global dominance, but the prevailing perception that STEM should be used to dominate the world remains troublesome for those in the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous ecosystem. Interestingly, for many the most immediate career trajectories center around traditional STEM careers (e.g., research scientist, actuary, computer programmer), but if you ask about dream jobs (or where they see themselves in ten years), that’s when equity ethic explodes! Justice-infused careers such as global health policy maker, cosmetologist for dark skin tones, self-help instructor, STEM entrepreneur, becoming a pilot to give free rides to the elderly, and HBCU STEM professor were abundant in their future career responses. Not surprisingly, I discovered that these talented students (and sometimes even faculty) leave STEM not because they are intellectually incapable but because the traditional goals of the STEM fields—generating wealth and maintaining US scientific and technological dominance—do not meet their desire to do meaningful and justice-oriented work. The American Institutes for Research’s analysis of the career paths of PhDs found that one in six people of color who earns a STEM PhD pursues a career outside the field, with Black women degree holders most likely to do so. In short, there is strong professional and personal dissonance that makes it difficult for them to stay in STEM fields.

These findings suggest that providing Black, Latinx, and Indigenous STEMers with robust opportunities to apply their scientific and engineering insights to societal problems could be a powerful approach to retention. Equity-oriented opportunities could lead to heathier and more satisfying STEM degree attainment and post-degree career placement. Equity ethic could satisfy a long-standing desire to help others while advocating for a robust definition of community, to include their own often-marginalized communities and the global community.

Equity ethic is rooted in the history of racialized suffering. From the enslavement of Africans in the Americas and to the genocide of Indigenous tribal groups to contemporary racism, BIPOC have been excluded from mainstream society, which has led to the cultivation of helping and equity-seeking behaviors. In Black, Latinx, and Indigenous cultures, individuals are more likely to negotiate their interests with families and communities than to assert them. For many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous STEMers, family is a strong motivation and support for completing the degree. Giving back to families and providing financial support to family members are part of many BIPOC plans. Marginalized STEM students and faculty of color who achieve academic success often feel responsible for younger and older generations and use their STEM skills or positions to advocate for a more equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist world.

Equity ethic also includes the concept of linked fate, that is, feeling that the fate of one is affected by what happens to other BIPOC folk, in this case racially marginalized members of the STEM community. Linked fate helps explain Black, Latinx, and Indigenous expressions of political commonality, racial consciousness, and at times racial solidarity. It is a broad recognition that the consequences of collectively shared oppression are relevant for one’s personal fate.

An effective way to attract and retain Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students with an equity ethic is to design curricula that give them the chance to apply their skills to humanitarian projects and the frontlines of racially conscious efforts in concert with the discipline. Law schools have institutionalized service learning under the mantle of clinics, which almost always are oriented toward underserved communities; perhaps STEM programs should do the same, incorporating service learning or clinics into the curriculum. Establishing learning communities of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and faculty is another educational approach that enhances interpersonal interaction, collaborative learning, and sharing information. Finally, valuing the diversity of culture and offering culturally affirming content will create an inclusive environment within institutions. Creating water purification systems for developing nations, engineering robots that help children with autism, and critiquing the surveillance technologies used to police BIPOC communities are just a few examples. Careers that offer research in these areas should be promoted as much as aerospace or nuclear engineering careers.

So, STEM needs to make a revolutionary shift to legitimize and value scholarship that harmonizes with diversity, equity, and inclusion. The STEM workforce perpetuates an ideology of being globally competitive, cutthroat, and totally dominant. But the STEM fields should also promote the message that STEM jobs can provide ways to do and be good. STEMers can be equity justice advocates. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students with an equity ethic should know there is a place for them in STEM. Oh yeah, and they just might be the very ones to save the planet!

About the Author: Ebony Omotola McGee is associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation (Harvard Education Press, 2020).