Make Time Now for Cultural Inclusion and Healing

Professional headshot of Dr. Mica Estrada
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Mica Estrada, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Institute for Health & Aging
University of California, San Francisco
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David Asai, Ph.D.
Senior Director for Science Education
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

When future generations ask, “What did people do in the decade of the 2020s to make the future better?” we hope they will see that this was when we began to change the STEM culture, from a culture based on exclusion to one centered on belonging in which all persons know that they can be themselves and be successful. We are observers who work with STEM educators and administrators who are committed to equity, inclusion, and anti-racism, and we have noticed recent signs of progress that can lead to lasting cultural change. In this short blog, we first highlight a few observations that portend positive culture change, and then offer thoughts on how to sustain this momentum through the remainder of the decade.

Our first observation is that there is a growing cadre of champions who are committed to establishing a more inclusive culture.

We have met scholars and educators who are exploring creative, data-informed ideas to create inclusive science culture. These champions are practitioners re-thinking introductory curriculum, creating discovery-based laboratory courses, providing professional development for instructors, and changing the faculty rewards system. Champions are also educational researchers with expertise in the scholarship of inclusive pedagogy, mentorship, campus climate, and institutional transformation. The collective efforts of these champions are all the more heroic because they are being pursued in the midst of the “three pandemics”—racialized violence, climate disruption, and COVID-19.

Our second observation is that the movement towards culture change is gaining traction even as it encounters entrenched resistance.

Students, faculty, and administrative leaders recognize how difficult it is to change the culture of disciplines and academic institutions, sometimes experiencing disrespect or having to try to navigate a “cancel culture” they cannot control. Champions driving change frequently encounter strident resistance in academic institutions, which are too often motivated by national rankings and cling to a definition of institutional “excellence” that is divorced from the people who comprise the institution.

Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Our values are expressed through the structures we build and the behaviors we exhibit (West, 1993).  The existing dominant academic culture was designed to uphold the values, aims, and norms of the privileged few, and exclude the many who do not share their history, skin color, abilities or gender. This exclusionary culture stubbornly persists. Even as the demographics of our nation rapidly change, institutional resources continue to be disproportionately hoarded by the true minority group in American – non-Hispanic, white males (Srikanth, 2021; Riegle-Crumb et al., 2019).

Despite our history of exclusion, there is movement towards a more inclusive culture in science, led by champions acting in their departments and academic institutions. Important changes include:

  • There is an emerging commitment to development instead of selection. Educators and learners are pivoting from a fixed mindset, which assumes that intelligence and ability are unchangeable, to a growth mindset in which we are all continuously learning (Dweck, 2009; Paunesku et. al. 2015). For example, today many universities are re-thinking their reliance on standardized test scores to decide who belongs, thereby rejecting the disproved theory of “mismatch” (e.g., Kurlaender and Grodsky, 2013; Carnevale et al., 2016; Hall et al., 2017).
  • There is a growing emphasis on nurturing instead of weeding out. All too often, science education adopts a gate-keeper mentality in which the goal is to protect science from persons deemed unsuited for a narrow definition of a scientific career. Two examples of programs that emphasize nurturing are the Biology Scholars Program at UC Berkeley (Matsui, 2018) and the YouTube series on humanizing online STEM education led by Dr. Michelle Pacansky-Brock.
  • There is a new focus on community instead of competition. The definition of success as an individual who is superior to everyone else is obsolete in a world in which scientific advances depend on diverse, interdisciplinary, collaborative teams. For example, there are STEM courses in which students are taught skills in communication, leadership, and problem-solving to support community building and enable research teams to work more effectively and creatively (Full et al., 2021).
Our third observation is that there is increased recognition that the creation of an inclusive STEM culture requires the immediate AND long-term commitment of time.

Champions implementing good ideas are necessary drivers of culture change, but they are not sufficient. Turning away from old biases and stereotypes requires that the stakeholders are able to devote time to become aware, interrupt the automatic responses, and forge new inclusive interactions. To effect lasting culture change in STEM education, some students, staff, faculty, and administrators are engaging in regular and frequent interactions to build relationships and collaboratively develop their theory of change. Progress requires both urgency and patience. We observe growing recognition that the work is now, and that we must commit to the longer-term journey of intentionally growing inclusion in our classrooms and institutions.

A series of clocks layered on top of each other to emphasize the idea of time.

Image Credit: Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Time to Heal

Amanda Gorman, in her 2022 New Year’s poem (Gorman, 2022) recites:

Come, look up with kindness yet,
For even solace can be sourced from sorrow.
We remember, not just for the sake of yesterday,
But to take on tomorrow.

These words capture the importance of processing our yesterday to be better able to meet tomorrow. Taking time to acknowledge and address the truth that American higher education was shaped by slavery, genocide, gendered discrimination, and other forms of prejudice is essential to envision our tomorrow. The historic and persisting intergroup conflict results in trauma and damage to those experiencing abuse and to those who do the abusing (Menakem, 2017).  In “America the Complicated,” many of us carry ancestral burdens that include being colonizers as well as being the colonized. To re-center the dominant American culture on inclusive practices through equity will require healing and forgiveness, processes that cannot be completed on a predetermined schedule or relegated to a prescribed agenda of activities. These processes require daily practices that are reflected in our behavior toward one another. To prioritize equitable relationships in our departments, classrooms, and decision-making means that we must find the time to listen and to process both our cognitive and emotional experiences.

In providing time to heal, some of the concrete skills to train students, faculty, staff, and administrators include:

  • Effective listening – This is the practice of listening to understand rather than listening to form a rebuttal or disaffirm another’s experience.
  • Empathy – The capacity to understand and feel what another person is feeling. Empathy is associated with inclination to help others and show others kindness.
  • Problem-solving – Being able to identify common interests and solutions that satisfy all involved (as opposed to focusing on “winning”).
  • Racial trauma & healing – A variety of exercises and practices that involve self-reflection and willingness to feel through and process ancestral and lived experiences.
  • Forgiveness – Practices that help us let go of negative emotions felt towards self and others.
  • Gratitude – The conscious thanking of others (including our natural world) for the gifts given (as opposed to hyper-focusing on what is missing).

To our knowledge, no institution has committed the time for all its stakeholders—students, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni—to engage in this sort of skill building. Now is the time to do so because these are the skills needed to heal and practice inclusion. The good news is that the decade of the 2020s is still young, and we have time to catalyze this culture change.

Going Forward

Today, all of us—individuals, departments, colleges, and universities—have an amazing opportunity to act on our commitment to diversity and inclusion by devoting the time required for this deep and essential work of transforming the culture of science towards greater inclusion. As funding agencies commit resources to advance diversity and inclusion, they should create effective incentives for grantee institutions to set aside the necessary time to create culture change. Making difficult choices about what activities to pause in order to find the time for culture change work requires courage and committed leadership. We celebrate the people who are making this choice daily and believe in the possibility that the community of champions will grow.

Culture change cannot occur outside of our ‘real work’; rather, culture change is our real work. Here’s one thing each of us can try: Devote time in every department meeting and at every decision-making moment to consider the question, “How does this choice increase inclusion and access for all people?” If the answer to that question is that the decision perpetuates exclusion, then let us spend time to find a more inclusive alternative. Transforming our culture will also require taking time to pause and acknowledge the racialized hurt that arises because we are human and imperfect. In these cases, having people with good communication and empathy skills will be an asset to our work.

Here are three questions which we encourage you to consider as you work towards creating cultures of inclusion and healing in your classrooms and institutions.
  1. How will you make time to begin the process of increasing inclusion and healing? To make time now means deciding what other activities you will set aside.
  2. Are there ways that we can create reward structures that celebrate people who are taking time to engage in anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and healing work on campus?
  3. What can we do today to allow people to bring their full, authentic selves to our academic institutions without being harmed and perhaps even to heal? And how will we sustain these efforts over the longer term?

When a future generation asks, “What did people do in the decade of 2020 to make the future better?” we hope that they will see that this was when we, as a community of individuals and organizations, found the time to create a new and inclusive culture by changing our structures and behaviors.

Featured image credit: Clay Banks, Unsplash