Calling Out and Calling In

A message from our founder, Dr. Liz MacDonald

On June 10, 2020, there was an organized event to shut down STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in support of Black Lives Matter. Aurorasaurus participated with a day of reflective practice alongside members of our community and the scientific community (agenda pasted below). We stand firmly against racism and need to do more. The team and most of the science field of space physics are predominantly white, and failing to make progress on this issue. It is long past time to do the deep work of understanding and holding ourselves accountable.

We are galvanized by the current civil rights uprisings protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. We are also influenced by the events of #BlackBirdersWeek, a grassroots response to a racist incident that happened to Christian Cooper, a leader in the birding community. It turns out that there are a lot of ways that Black birders can feel unsafe and unwelcome that are relevant to our aurora citizen science community. This was most eloquently explored by the Aurora Borealis Washington state group on Facebook and its Lead Admin Debs Gardner’s post excerpted here:

“How is this relevant to aurora chasing? The short answer is that it’s relevant everywhere. More specifically, aurora chasing—like many outdoor hobbies—can be a luxury, and it’s made easier, more accessible, and safer by various types of privilege. If you’re white (and speak English, have citizenship, etc…), it’s safer to jump in a car on an adventure after dark without fear of being pulled over due to racial profiling, or fear that getting pulled over could mean getting killed. (To say nothing of the chronic stress of that fear, which can harm health.)

It’s a privilege to loiter in the dark and not be questioned, or have other folks already there not take a second glance when I show up. How many times have I and many of you bundled up and stood out past midnight at places like Brackett’s Landing in Edmonds—even though the park was closed—assuming that if police came, they’d just tell me to move along and not treat me like a suspect? (This issue of safety and privilege intersects with other issues of identity too—gender and immigration status come to mind.)

We recognize that because racism is systemically threaded into every aspect of life in this country, it takes both proactive and reactive work from all of us to address racism. Racism isn’t just individual feelings or actions of bias. (That’s one reason statements like “I don’t feel bigotry, so this isn’t relevant to me” or “I don’t see color” are counterproductive.) We also recognize that racism intersects with things like misogyny, xenophobia, anti-immigrant attitudes, homophobia, transphobia, classism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other issues, which affect our safety and wellbeing in outdoor activities and beyond.

This group is here to help more people get a chance to see the northern lights (albeit usually weak glimmers thereof at most), and be informed, safe, and curious. A group designed to help people have great experiences should also help notice and address barriers to doing so safely.”

This was a big wake up call: we have been complicit in not fully recognizing and acting on the ways in which the night sky—which should belong to everyone—is not as easy to access for some. In response to Debs’ post, Emile Semmes, a Senior Software Engineer for a lunar exploration focused spacecraft company said:

“As a Black man, literally every time I go out for astrophotography, especially since I have to leave the confines of Seattle into areas that I know aren’t the most welcoming, I worry that I’ll be met with violence. I know there’s only 5 of us in this group 😂, so thank you for standing up for us. I dream of the day that I can move just as freely and without fear. At least when I’m around other fellow group members (excluding the few here who are showing their true colors), I know you’ll have my back and we can enjoy the night sky together.”

White scientists, community scientists, and aurora chasers, we need to act and do the work to fix our problem. There is much more that can be done to affirm BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community members and welcome new enthusiasts—both in birding and aurora science. Doing the work to educate yourself about the history and issues that underlie these challenges will help fellow white people feel more comfortable being uncomfortable. We are hardwired to learn the most when we confront failure with an open mind and an open heart.

We highly recommend watching the eye-opening Black Birders Week conversations “Birding While Black: A Candid Conversation,” and while appreciating the nerdy joy the panelists share, listening to what they also endure, including fear for their safety, deep discomfort, and being silenced in predominantly-white groups. 

As we begin this work, we commit to the following:

  • Continue learning and unlearning, and regularly attend events at which BIPOC leaders speak, with open hearts and listening ears
  • Identify opportunities for co-creation and honor our partnerships
  • Demonstrate accountability and facilitate movement
  • Work with our networks to help establish safer spaces for experiencing the aurora 

We offer our sincere thanks to the Black physicists (Drs. Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein) who led the historic strike to shut down STEM and encouraged these urgent conversations. We are seeking ideas for how we can do more, and we want to hear from the aurora community and beyond. We are both ‘calling out’ (no, the status quo cannot stand) and ‘calling in’ (we are learning and making mistakes, and invite you to learn with us). Saying nothing is the wrong thing. We join with others in efforts to better serve the whole community moving forward, share the beautiful night sky safely, and help make the aurora a more accessible and welcoming starting place for students to discover physics. We will continue conversations and actions. Please email us at aurorasaurus.info@gmail.com to join a mailing list for future discussions. 


With love and science,

Liz

 

Resources

(There are many excellent resources. Here are some that we are currently learning from, please feel free to share others in the comments below).

Books

Webinars and Podcasts

Articles

Websites

Museums and Exhibits (including online exhibits)

  • Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture: Talking About Race
  • National Center for Civil and Human Rights: the American Civil Rights Movement and the Global Human Rights Movement
  • International Coalition of Sites of Conscience Members List
  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum and Cultural Center of African American History, which has an excellent introductory video on its homepage
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site Virtual Tour
  • Some Were Neighbors: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum online exhibit about people who were bystanders, people who were complicit, and people who stood up, and which asks us to reflect on the choices we make today

Handouts and Documents

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