From its inception, one of the primary aims of the Banneker Institute has been to build community within astronomy that can can be supportive and even nourishing for students of color. To be sure, this is a radical proposition. The field of astronomy and the social structures upon which it is built are extensions of the structures of US society at large. And building off of those structures, solidarity is not a natural outcome.
During previous summer programs, John et al. told the students that they'd like them to be in community with one another, and we even had a pledge that attempted to bring mindfulness to the values that we hoped would help us get there. Things like being greater than the sum of our parts, recognizing that things can get difficult, and standing up for each other when things get tough. This wasn't much to go on, to be honest, and the fact that so many cohorts did form a supportive community is a testament to the strength and good will of the students. Banneker students are great!
While things worked extremely well in the main, there were occasional breakdowns in communal bonds that could be traced back to the people involved not dealing with conflict in a generative, growth-oriented manner. This should come as little surprise because our society offers few opportunities to learn to deal with conflict in good faith. Conflict is a natural and normal outcome when people from different backgrounds and lived experiences gather together in close proximity. There will inevitably be butting of heads, disagreements about the best way of doing things, or unintentional yet hurtful words and actions. Conflict is not the problem. Instead, issues arise when people in conflict rely on the default tools handed to them by society: refusing to talk, whispering behind each other's back, ostracizing, or generally ceasing dialogue in favor of punitive measures.
To reiterate, these negative actions have been rare during the first four summer programs. The larger Banneker community avoids such actions and leans toward open, honest communication as a primary mode, which is admirable and uncommon especially compared to society at large! However, when breakdowns occur, they leave outsize wounds. Saying that conflict is normative and can be addressed differently is easy, doing it is hard. Indeed, it is The Work.
This summer we (Stacey, Duney, John and Vale) are trying something new. Instead of declaring that there will be community, providing a minimal set of rules, and crossing our fingers, we instead endeavor to be much more intentional. During the first week we had a daily, two-hour community building workshop. Vale and John ran the workshop, and we started on the first day with some basic questions: "What do you need from the instructors, mentors, advisors and your fellow students in order to learn most effectively?" and "What has worked for you in the past, and what was sub-optimal when you were learning and working with others?"
After reflecting on the good, the bad, and the ugly of past (mis)adventures in academia, the students shared richly what they had learned. The group collaboratively developed a set of agreements that articulated what they knew about themselves and responded to their needs. Rather than receiving a pledge from above, the students gave us and each other a purpose-drawn blueprint for how to be in community.
Norms like "listen[ing] to each other to understand, not just to respond" and agreeing to "foster a collaborative learning environment by offering information rather than imposing direction" (a.k.a. the abuelita rule) are testaments to their desire for mutual connection. Students also laid the foundation for encouraging self-care with the "free to pee" rule (the freedom to take care of biological needs) and setting the intention to practice a "gentle inclusion" where staying in for a night doesn't mean missing out on invitations for the rest of the summer. Of particular interest to us as educators and scientists is the declaration for collaboration: "We are teammates not competitors; we have learned something once we all understand it". These are radical notions in our individualistic society and even more so in let-me-demonstrate-how-I-am-better-than-you halls of academic science.
Since creating the group norms, the students have introduced them to each new instructor before the start of each topic, thus setting the tone for the classes that follow. Preparing the agreements together was an important way to center the students' knowledge and discover what this cohort means by "community." But, what about some time in the future when sticking to them gets hard, or it seems like one of our fellows has failed to uphold them? Surely these would be the moments for conflict to arise.
We spent the next two days talking about conflict and how to handle it. Cultural norms around punctuality provided a relatively low-stakes difference where it could be easy to have a hurtful misunderstanding. Are we on "American-time" or is it just "time" with the expectation that we will be punctual? How disrespectful is it to arrive late? Does my existential discomfort about our proposed scheduling parameters warrant discussion? even mention? The discussion was as practical as it was revelatory: we agreed on timeliness (with flexibility for self care) and saw how normative difference could be worked through collectively. Raising the stakes meant that we (John and Vale) had to dip into our personal history. In describing moments of tension and discomfort in our friendship and working relationship, we sent a postcard from conflicts future; its message was: come bearing questions rather than accusations and you can make it through.
The lasting efficacy of our strategy will be seen over the course of the summer. However, the space of normalized conflict and demonstrated vulnerability provided by the workshop has already seen this summer's students knit themselves together in beautiful ways. They've already been able to share uncomfortable truths, hold one another when wounded, and push back, gently, but firmly, against each other and us in moments of disagreement. Certainly, difficulty will come, but we are extremely proud of the groundwork the students have laid to face it.
We are the Banneker Institute!
Written by John Johnson and Vale Cofer-Shabica
Written by John Johnson and Vale Cofer-Shabica