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Allyship and Counterspaces

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Hello again dear readers, 

The summer is wrapping up, and fall looks to us from over the horizon. As many of us in college slowly make our way back onto campus in the upcoming weeks we’re bound to be facing new situations. For some of us, this means going to classes in-person for the first time in over a year, or the first time in general, and for some of us, it means new altered learning situations in this ever-changing world. Personally, I fall into the first group, and while in a lot of ways I’m super excited to see all my friends and professors I like again, I’m also nervous about dealing with certain social situations again and the consequences of being a minority in a fairly homogeneous field. I remember with mixed feelings of concern and anger how some of my white cis-het male classmates would talk down to me, and make side comments about my abilities. So now would be a greater time than ever to look back and reflect on what a post-pandemic world can offer us. 

This story starts at the end of 2019. It was around that time that a mix of rising economic and racial tensions here in the US led to graduate-student union strikes occurring at a number of large universities across the country. Besides many of them demanding fairer pay, and better university management of the rising pandemic, many also demanded that their institutions start to seriously look introspectively and improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion practices for minority students. I can give accounts from my university that the main office got flooded with anonymous letters by graduate students about their unequal treatment by professors, staff, and peers. So by mid-summer of 2020 university, college, and departmental committees on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) were being set up. 

And that’s about where I came into the picture! Seeing a call for undergraduate student representatives for the physics department’s new DEI committee, I jumped on the opportunity immediately. In the year I’ve been working with this committee I’ve learned a lot about what it takes for minority students to feel included and relieve some of the stressors an academic environment can cause. Today I’d like to go over two big concepts I’m planning on implementing in my own department this upcoming fall and I hope you all are able to learn from them as well; allyship and counterspaces. 

Most of what I’ve learned in my time with this committee actually comes from a report done by the American Institute of Physics on initiatives to increase the number of African American students in physics and astronomy. This extensive report is almost 200 pages of interviews with Black students, statistics on the success and dropout rates, findings on key areas of academic development, and recommendations that departments can follow to improve their own practices. Most studies done on minorities in the sciences are generally conducted on African/Hispanic populations, women in the sciences, or an intersection of the two. While I’m white and also not a woman, I still found it amazing how much of these findings I related to; the common feeling of imposter syndrome and lack of individuals like yourself to look up to. While each under-represented community and individual will have their own unique challenges and needs, we can find solidarity within each other. 

This is where allyship and counterspaces come into play. Allyship is something most of us have heard about in the past but we rarely get a cohesive definition of what being a good ally means. Not only does it mean uplifting minority voices and helping where you can, but it also means looking inward at your own learned implicit biases and complacency with systemic injustices. Working to better understand others even when it goes against what you’re used to is a key aspect of learning how to be a good ally! Counterspaces, on the other hand, was a term I wasn’t as familiar with when I first saw it used in DEI reports (though I had occupied many counterspaces already throughout my life). Practically, a counterspace is an area where an oppressed minority can feel more at ease. Generally, a stricter social situation in a homogeneous group can lead to minorities feeling like they have to mask a part of their personality to fit in, but a counterspace acts to give people the freedom to be themselves. By creating these spaces within a particular department, minority students can gain a better sense of belonging which can combat feelings of imposter syndrome. 

This upcoming year I’ve been invited to work with the Women in Physics Society, a social group that invites not only the women of the department but anyone who wants to participate! This has created an amazing counterspace within the department and it makes me really excited to help them out where I can. Even though I’m nervous about returning to classes in person and the social situation that can come with that, I know I have allies besides me and places where I can be myself, and I’m thrilled by the prospect of doing the same for others. As we all truck on into this unknown post-pandemic future, we should all be working on making our spaces healthy and inclusive spaces for everyone. 

Till next time readers & best,