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Black text on a yellow square background that reads "black lives matter" in all caps.
First Aid

Responding to anti-Black racism in our academic communities

I shared this email with my department, the School of Biology and Ecology, on June 1, 2020. I’m sharing it here for two reasons: 1) I was inspired by an email written by Dr. Julie Libarkin at MSU, which she shared on her blog. I hope others feel empowered to reach out to their research and learning communities, just as she empowered me to reach out to mine. 2) Many of our leaders have been far too silent, and my white colleagues need to hear more messages like this. And if you have any suggestions for further resources, please feel free to share them in the comments. I also encourage you to seek out and amplify Black voices (this week on Twitter, check out #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackInNature and #BlackAFinSTEM). If you can’t be on the front lines to support our Black students and colleagues, please also consider joining me in donating to bail funds. I chose Philly Bail-Out, the Massachusetts Bail Fund, and Buy Black Atlanta. 

Hello all,

I hope this finds you all safe, healthy, and well in these challenging times. I want to start by saying that I’ve been really proud of the response among our students, staff, and faculty to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve come together to support one another in our teaching, research, and everyday lives in a time of tremendous uncertainty and stress. I’m proud to be a part of this community.

There have been so many intersecting challenges in recent months, including new and ongoing threats to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, immigrants, members of the queer and trans communities, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations, many of whom remain underrepresented in our disciplines and our department.

Black Lives Matter is an anti-racist advocacy and protest organization that started in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

These challenges may be new, or may be compounded over a lifetime or many generations. If you’re having a difficult time concentrating on your work, or are struggling to find meaning in your research right now, you are not alone. Many of us were struggling even before the protests began. For many in our community, the struggles long pre-dated the pandemic.

As the graduate coordinator for the School of Biology and Ecology, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge two important points:

1) Black people comprise 13% of the US population, but are underrepresented in graduate programs, and our field is no exception. According to NSF, in 2015 Black students made up 5.1% of biology doctorates, and only 1.8% of all PhDs awarded in EEB-related sub-disciplines. Ecology in particular remains one of the whitest sciences in the United States.

2) Not only does this lack of diversity affect our disciplines, but it also influences our research and the communities we serve. From scientific racism (dating back to Linneaus and beyond) to Henrietta Lacks to the Tuskeegee trials, biology and racism have a long and interconnected history. Black communities still disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution, and face ongoing health disparities due to lack of access to healthcare and racism within the healthcare community. These facts intersect in the disproportionate impacts the COVID-19 outbreak is having on Black communities, including here in Maine.

Black students in SBE, I want you to know: your lives matter. It’s understandable if you’re struggling right now or finding it difficult to get work done. It’s okay if you need to take break to take care of yourselves and focus on your safety and your physical or mental health. If I can help in any way, I’m here.

Non-Black members of SBE: we have work to do.
Institutional racism can be very difficult to spot, but that work starts with two of the things we do best: research and education. Black students face many barriers that we as a community must actively address. Many feel a sense of not belonging (often because of a lack of representation in faculty or racist behavior from peers or instructors). Others find barriers in outdoor experiential education or field research. Many experience micro-aggressions on campus in the classroom or public settings. We must actively work to confront racism in our classrooms, in our hiring practices, in our faculty meetings, our labs, in our fieldwork, and in the communities in which we live and work.

As we do this work, white faculty, staff, and administrators should acknowledge the power dynamics that may act as barriers to students and colleagues speaking out. Often, diversity initiatives fall short, because they focus on recruitment but not mentoring or climate — or because of backlash from within the department. We should actively be fostering an environment were Black and other underrepresented students can thrive, and not merely survive. We must educate ourselves. And we must be ready to feel uncomfortable, to make mistakes, and to be committed to doing this work in the long-term.

I hope you join me in this work.

Best wishes,


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Jacquelyn Gill

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