Last week we began piloting our JEDI in STEM Outreach series. We anticipate this being the first of many offerings within the college. We, along with most STEM colleges in higher education recognize that we lack diversity in some key areas, including by race, first gen status, low socioeconomic status, and beyond. Because our college community members tend to hold more dominant identities, we have some work to do to be sure that the outreach we do is done responsibly and honors the communities where we seek to do outreach.
Understanding intersectional disenfranchisement
Communities that are disenfranchised have experienced intersecting oppression. These communities are often made up of people with in a low socioeconomic status, are often disproportionately made up of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, have lower graduation rates, and have worse health outcomes. To understand how systems of oppression work to multiply marginalize these communities, we can look at racist and classist systems like red lining, environmental injustice, food deserts, gentrification, and beyond.
When we look at the historical and contemporary policies that have disenfranchised some communities we see some of the of the barriers that people living in these neighborhoods have confronted. But beyond this systemic oppression, we need to also look at the barriers to higher education that we’ve created and problematize those instead of problematizing the people impacted. We need to look at the history of higher education, which at its inception explicitly prohibited people of color and women from participating. But we also need to look at the ways we continue to limit access, including reviewing unnecessary standards (like standardized test scores) and funding availability that for some push a STEM career or interest out of reach.
Resisting a Deficit Perspective
Oftentimes when we’re discussing STEM outreach in disenfranchised communities, folks think of the barriers in these communities being people themselves. Even well-meaning people sometimes think that children or parents in these communities just don’t understand the importance of STEM or they don’t value STEM or higher education as much. This is what a deficit perspective is; it’s assuming people are the problem instead of the barriers they face.
Responsible outreach means rejecting a deficit lens, understanding and acknowledging systems of oppression, their history and current state, and valuing the cultures, perseverance, and unique contributions of these communities in STEM.