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The Banneker Institute at Harvard: Summer of 2015

Looking back at my blog this Summer I was both surprised and not surprised that the last post dates back to the beginning of July, more than a month ago! It's surprising in the way that time often seems to fly, especially during the summer months in contrast to, say, late February during a snow storm. But I digress. It was not surprising because I was giving all of my available energy, along with some of my reserves, to my latest "Moonshot" initiative, the Banneker Institute (our new website is now live! Ups to Erin Johnson for the pro bono web design work. Also, follow @TheBanneker Institute on Twitter).

I'm proud to report that this summer was a smashing success, thanks in no small part to the brilliance of my students. Make no mistake, #BlackExcellence and #BrownExcellence were on full display this summer, f'real. This is not surprising give that race is a social construct, completely divorced from scientific reality. This is surprising given our nation's foundation on the principles of white supremacy*.

I'm so very proud of my students:

Ana Colón (rising sophomore, Dartmouth)
Ryan Diaz-Perez (rising senior, UMass Boston)
Moiya McTier (rising senior, Harvard)
Justin Myles (rising junior, Yale)
Justin Otor (rising senior, Princeton)
Jamila Pegues (rising senior, Princeton)
Maurice Wilson (rising senior, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University)
Aara'L Yarber (rising senior, Howard University)

The links for each student's name connect to their summer blogs where they kept a running journal of their experiences and research notes. My instructions on style were open-ended and this is reflected in the diversity of writing styles the students brought to the fore. The key was to document what they were learning, so they could look back on the summer and remember important aspects of their development as burgeoning astrophysicists.

At the end of the summer I gave a review of the Institute's first summer; the students gave outstanding, grad-level research presentations; and we had three guest lectures by Dr. Jedidah Isler, Prof. Jorge Moreno and a keynote address by Prof. Sylvester "Jim" Gates. It was a wonderful, and historic day at the CfA. Dare I say that there has never before been such a display of excellence from so large a group of astronomers of color than Friday, August 15, 2015. And as the Institute grows and meets its ultimate goals, this summer will mark the start of excellence through diversity here at the CfA and beyond.

Here's the Google Slides presentation I gave at the beginning of the end-of-summer celebration, along with some notes for various slides below the embedded slides. The student and guest talks were recorded, and I'll post them once they've been edited. 

Slide 2: Not convinced that white supremacy and racism are still things? Then ask yourself why such a remarkable man's history is not taught in our "American history" courses. Banneker's biography is available on Amazon, and you can read a nice summary of his life and accomplishments on Wikipedia. cf also E.E. Just and Kathrine Johnson, among other Black scientists of note (but not noted in our country's history).
Slide 3: Astronomy is a white pursuit with a strong overrepresentation of white people and a corresponding order-of-magnitude underrepresentation of Black, Latino and Native people. This is not due to a lack of interest. The study of the Universe is...universal, and non-white people pay taxes that fund NSF and NASA, too, even as they have been and continue to be actively excluded from participating in science. Still? Note that the Harvard has only 1% Black representation across all sciences despite earning 8-9% of STEM degrees nationwide. These numbers hold for Latin@ representation at Harvard and degrees earned nationally. 
Slide 4: Old/busted vs. New/hotness. Striving for diversity without addressing the historical causes of the lack of diversity (e.g. racism) is like calling for people to do less coughing during a tuberculosis outbreak. 
Slide 5: Harvard Exolab represent, represent! Big ups to Exolab members Jason Eastman, Luan Ghezzi, Ben Montet and David Kipping for advising/mentoring six of the Banneker students. Prof. Karin Oberg and I advised a student each.
Slide 7: Dr. Dawson = Bekki Dawson, who spent a week with us. Dr. Joye = CfA software engineer and DS9 author Bill Joye who gave generously of his time to teach us how to maximize the potential of his powerful image processing and analysis tool. Dr. Imara is Harvard Future Faculty Leaders postdoctoral fellow Nia Imara. Dr. Shields = NSF AAPF and UC Presidents Postdoctoral Fellow Aomawa Shields who spent the summer at the CfA acting like the professor she'll soon be, and Dr. Swift = Jon Swift, teacher at Thacher School and director of the Thacher observatory who spent a week with the B.I. 
Slide 14: Social Justice Fridays are just what one needs at the end of the week as a person of color studying science! We all learned volumes from our various visitors. Note that this slide shows only a third of all who participated. Big ups to Prof. Jorge Moreno for helping out on Fridays in particular, and all summer long generally as a Harvard visiting scholar this summer. Look out for the partner effort known as the Aztlán Institute at Harvard starting next summer thanks to the support of Harvard Astronomy chair Avi Loeb, the NSF AAPF, and funding sources TBD!
Slide 15: AARG matey! Challenging whiteness on this high seas of academe since 2015!
Slide 16: Arrows pointing to: Brenda Achison, founding member of the Banneker Institute and CfA admin; Dr. Nia Imara; Dr. Aomawa Shields; and John Lewis III.
Slide 19: "It's not just a pledge, it's a way of life!" - B.I. scholar Moiya McTier
Do you know of any outstanding Black or Latin@ students at your institution going into their sophomore or junior years who would benefit from the Banneker Institute? Please send me an email and put me in contact with them!
*One of America's "founding fathers," Thomas Jefferson, wrote in 1784:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind...This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. 
Jefferson called upon scientists to back up his suspicion and demonstrate why Black people were lesser than whites (not if, but why). The call was ultimately answered in 1850 by Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz. From the transcript of NPR's Race: The Power of an Illusion (Episode 2):
NARRATOR: In 1850, Louis Agassiz by then Harvard's most prominent professor, told his fellow members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that "viewed zoologically, the several races of men were well marked and distinct." Josiah Nott wrote to Samuel Morton, "With Agassiz in the war the battle is ours." 
BAKER: Here was the most objective, the pinnacle of the scientific man influenced by American racism, and who transformed his deeply held belief in the unity of mankind. I think that says more than anything else, that the power of the ideology of race can change peoples' minds. 
NARRATOR: Three years later, Agassiz contributed a chapter to a forthcoming book co-authored by Nott. The 738-page Types of Mankind was greatly anticipated. It pre-sold its entire first edition. 
BAKER: Types of Mankind was tremendously influential. It was the first time that scientists pulled together all of the research that justified the argument that African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, et cetera were different species.


Katelyn Allers said…
JohnJohn- this is SO exciting. I poked around the student's blogs a bit and it seems like they has an awesome experience. They have some fantastic posts on python and statistics that my students (and me!) will find useful. A huge congrats to you, the students, and the other instructors, for what I hope will be described in coming years as "pioneering". This is the sort of thing we need *much* more of in phys and astro!

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