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Why Study Animal Behavior?

Some months ago, I wrote a little essay called “What’s Next,” in which I talk about my evolving views on why studying animal behavior is worthwhile. This post continues that musing, by considering animal behavior’s position in a larger political project of human liberation (which I get at a bit in this recent piece on trauma and standpoint theory).

I’ve been imagining what it would feel like to have a research program determined by the community. I would love to go out to ask people who live near me, “What’s something you’ve noticed in nature that you would like to know more about?” and then use their answers to define my work. Participatory Action Research for organismal biology, if you will. In a 2017 interview in with David Steen for this piece, we talked about what it would look like to formalize such community-based science into our funding institutions. Steen is a herpetologist and science communicator across various media, and we began by talking about his experiencing fielding many strangers’ questions about reptiles and other creatures. Here’s some of our conversation (my questions in bold, Steen’s replies in italics, edited for length and clarity):

So what are some of the themes or topics that seem to come up repeatedly, that you think people are interested in but maybe don’t get quite as emphasized by scientific research or funding?

They want to know how big something gets, and where do they spend the winter and how their populations are doing in their area, and that’s not really stuff that’s easy to parse from a scientific paper, even if they had access to it.

And do you think that just comes from people just being curious about what’s around them?

I think so. I think that people are fascinated by animals around them. Sometimes that manifests in a real appreciation and interest, sometimes that manifests in fear and loathing, but they’re all interested and fascinated by these creatures.

…[other questions were asked and answered]

And so given all of the experience that you have with talking to what people are actually interested in, people who are indirectly funding most of our research, what would you say to scientists or to funding agencies about what you think our priorities should be, or could be, and ways to get more buy-in from people who are not scientists?

Yeah. So I should…I haven’t studied this, I don’t know the intricacies of the policy, I don’t know the people making this decision, so it’s just kind of one person’s opinion, brainstorming. Okay. I think it would be neat if, in addition to these really rigorous committees of elite scientists that currently decide who gets funded and who doesn’t, with public funds, what if the public was involved in at least a subset of that? Because we do know that scientists are best equipped to figure out what’s cutting edge research, what is best to fund to advance human knowledge, but it doesn’t always relate directly to what the public is interested in. Maybe if we involved them to a greater extent in the process, it might also alleviate some of the controversies about, you know, some of the political upheaval that we hear about regarding the NSF and NIH and all that. What if there was some process that the public got to vote on, you know, some proposals, or worked with scientists to talk about what they’re interested in, or what they would want to fund. That might be an interesting way to get them involved in the process. Again, this shouldn’t be the only way to fund research, but it might be neat.

That’s a really great idea, and it makes a lot of sense because then it could be locally or geographically based, so there’s automatically [more] buy-in from the local communities, in whose lands or in whose surroundings we’re conducting this work. That would be really cool.

It would be cool, especially with outreach components to the study.

Yeah it’s sort of flipping on its head the idea that you do research first and then do outreach. This is almost sort of going from “outreach” to defining the research problem and conducting the research. And now this is just me agreeing with you, but that sort of research is so much cheaper than a lot of the research that gets funded, that’s more molecular based, or more sort of genomics-heavy, and so it seems like it wouldn’t be that much of an investment to try and do this sort of thing.

Oh I agree. I mean, if people want to know how many turtles are in a pond, you just need some nets and some cans of sardines. You don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, so yeah, that could be a much more affordable option. Things like—and again, I’m just one person, this is just my opinion. You know, full disclosure, I haven’t had any success about getting NSF funding, so I’m a little jaded and bitter and all that, so all that said—I think that they’re not really funding the stuff that they should be…I think we’re really divorcing ourselves from the ecology of wild systems, and just figuring out what’s out there and how they’re interacting with each other in those natural systems. All of the work is important, but I think that we should be paying more attention to that stuff.

I love this, I love everything about it. But a part of me also thinks that if I were to go out into the communities that surround where I live, telling folks about my job understanding animals, asking them what they think I should study, I am quite likely to be told in response that maybe I should worry first about their access to food, housing, and health insurance. In part, my ability to do curiosity-driven research in the face of pressing political concerns comes from not being accountable to the people around me, and the less insulated I become, the more I wonder about the purpose of the work of animal behavior. Maybe I should just go ask, and see what happens. I suspect I’d have to build real relationships with the people around me before it would even make sense to ask these questions, before I can hope for genuine answers.

I know, firsthand, that doing the work of studying animal behavior has allowed my understanding of myself to blossom and transform, and so of course I want this opportunity to exist for others. In fact, it should exist for anyone who wants it, which is why the goal of making science equitably accessible is worthwhile.

But going further, I have told myself for a long time that this transformative potential of studying the natural world scales and generalizes, through the scientific stories we tell about ourselves and other earthlings. As I wrote about in What’s Next, I believe that studying animal behavior is worthwhile because it informs our understanding of what is ‘natural’, and thus shapes how we understand ourselves as natural beings. And the causal arrow flows the other way too–how we understand ourselves shapes how we study nature, and by thus naturalizing our values and social mores, we reinforce them. So interventions into this process of inquiry from explicitly liberatory standpoints, such as those of feminism or socialism, can have far-reaching consequences for our self-conception. At present, it is the politics of the status quo that largely shapes scientific inquiry, including how we understand the lives of animals, and the status quo demands pushback. I believe this, but also I wonder if this is enough of a project? To what extent have I concocted this justification that allows me to continue my life in the social position of knowledge-creator-and-legitimizer?

In other words, I don’t trust my own reasons at the moment in my search for meaningful work. And so I’ve been turning elsewhere. Often to spirituality, and this morning I began reading Thupten Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart: How the courage to be compassionate can transform our lives. I was surprised to see in his words a persuasive case for engaging in exactly this liberatory intervention into the stories we tell about ourselves and our true nature. Early in the book, he says

“Despite our widely shared experience and beliefs about compassion [a shared eagerness to claim compassion as a virtue], we fail to give it a central role in our lives and in our society. In our contemporary culture, we tend to have a rather confused relationship with values like kindness and compassion. In the secular West [and, I’ll add, the culture of the home I grew up in], we lack a coherent cultural framework for articulating what compassion is and how it works. To some people, it’s a matter of religion and morality, a private concern of the individual with little or no societal relevance. Others question the very possibility of selflessness for human beings, and are suspicious of sentiments like compassion that have other people’s welfare as the primary concern. A well-known scientist [evolutionary biologist and philosopher Michael Ghiselin] once remarked, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.””

Jinpa goes on to say,

“As a society, we have long ignored the fundamental role our compassion instinct plays in defining our nature and behavior. We have bought into a popular narrative that seeks to explain all our behavior through the prism of competition and self-interest. This is the story we have been telling about ourselves.

The thing about a story like this is that it tends to be self-fulfilling. When our story says that we are at heart selfish and aggressive creatures, we assume that every man is for himself. In this “dog-eat-dog world” it is only logical, then, to see others as a source of rivalry and antagonism. And so we relate to others with apprehension, fear, and suspicion, instead of fellow feeling and a sense of connection. By contrast, if our story says that we are social creatures endowed with instincts for compassion and kindness, and that as deeply interdependent beings our welfare is intertwined, this totally changes the way we view–and behave in–the world. So the stories we tell about ourselves do matter, quite profoundly so.”

There is a question here for every evolutionary biologist, behavioral and evolutionary ecologist, ecologist–how are we complicit in telling and legitimizing through science a single story about the nature of what’s natural? To what extent is that story aligned with the hegemonies of our sociopolitical status quo?

Since my work on anole territoriality followed by interdisciplinary work on the nature of territoriality writ large, since our collaborative work on the evolution of same-sex sexual behavior, since reading The Dialectical Biologist and delving this year into the links between the logics of neoliberal economics and adaptationism, I can’t escape this answer: our fields are very complicit, and this complicity is baked into the very core of our theoretical constructs. This isn’t an especially cheery answer, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I can imagine a different science, one with a primary goal of understanding interconnectedness, one with a sense of purpose that truly serves democratic interests as opposed to a nebulous and colonial sense of discovery that seems often to be a veneer for preserving hegemonies. I can imagine it, and it looks pretty excellent. I can imagine a biology department, a university, where we work on problems of interest and concern to those living around us. Where it’s my job to study the behavioral dimensions of these problems and when my behavioral answers lead me to development or cell biology or genetics or ecosystem science or political ecology or philosophy, I pop over next door and pass the problem on to another scholar, and receive other problems in exchange. Where we regularly give our answers back to the people who asked for them, and every few years we step back to fit our work into some broader theoretical picture. Where generalizability is a happy happenstance, and not a goal. This means a different sense of purpose and responsibility.

And I think when we do science this way, we’ll have the room to understand and experience real interconnectedness, both in what we study and how we study it. That is our part to play in changing the stories we humans tell about ourselves and our world, which is the work of liberation.

Doing the Work, part four: a trauma-informed politics for academia

I am no longer on twitter a lot, but sometimes things I want to say emerge as though I am. Here’s something that began as a tweet-essay and bears its hallmarks. Pretend this is on twitter, if you like.

I find this essay by @OlufemiOTaiwo really interesting and important (h/t @dynamicecology).

I’ve only recently begun understanding standpoints in relation to myself and my work. The key thing to hold, I gather, is that standpoints derive not from oppression itself but from the political resistance to oppression. Táíwò’s essay discusses how this difference has been elided in practice, and how this elision is damaging.

Especially in light of trauma, the damage caused by conflating oppression and resistance to it rings very true to me. In traumatic conditions, we do what we need to do in order to stay safe. Of course this will often imply aligning with hegemonies. The power I have accrued has come from aligning with hegemonies—of caste, class, the ivory tower. It was the security that came from accruing this power that eventually positioned me to heal from the trauma of my childhood in a verbally abusive and emotionally neglectful home. When I consider why my parents were the way they were, and their parents before them, it is deeply entangled with alliance to hegemonies within systems of oppression.

Experiencing trauma was not inherently freeing for me–it was the opposite. For me, freedom has lain in my healing from trauma and in the resistance to hegemonies that derive from and perpetuate conditions of trauma.

The truly transformative standpoints I have access to now have come from healing from my trauma and starting to resist the specifc hegemonic alliances in which I sought shelter from trauma—through feminist thought and action, community building, organizing and collective action, spirituality, and the work of healing.

Yet, I’m in the position of deriving continued power from my hegemonic alliances, and I don’t actually think it should be this way. The question then is, what do I (we) do about this? Anything I (we) do needs to involve giving up power. How, and how best, do I (we) build?

What Táíwò’s essay gets at, accurately I believe, is that in places of power such as academia now, we want people who symbolize to us a history of oppression and trauma (which may or may not align with actual experience), and maybe we even want even academic work emerging from standpoints that resist that oppression. But do we want actual change in the conditions that bring about trauma and oppression, given that such change will mean giving up power?

I don’t really know if we do. I’m not the arbiter of that. What I do know is that during one of my job interviews for a position ostensibly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I was told quite explicitly that what mattered to them was not different thought or different work, but a name with differently arranged syllables and, just maybe, a face of a different color. It is not hard for me to guess that I was interviewed for this position because of my alliances with hegemonies combined with the veneer of my name, gender, and skin color, and not the work of change that I have done and am learning to do, not the work that derives from my standpoints resisting the very hegemonic alliances that make me palatable.

But if we recognize that the work ahead of us is dismantling the very systems that bring some of us power and yet keep all of us trapped in trauma, if we recognize that collective liberation lies in the redistribution of power, if we decide that we want to work to build an academia that is accountable in some true way, the question then becomes—individually, for each of us, and collectively—what are the right loci of action? That’s something I’m wrestling with these days, and I don’t yet know my answer.

What I do know is this. I’m here, my path here was both straightforward and complicated depending on the lens you look through, and my goal now is human liberation.

(This is part four of a series on what it means to do the work of culture change. Here are parts one, two, and three).

A Little Love Letter to Ross Gay’s “Book of Delights”

May 29th 2020, from a post I made on Instagram:

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What does it mean to be a well-loved object?

I’ve been using this sliver of wood as a bookmark. But I had oiled the wood lightly, and so it’s been leaching little oil stains into successive pages. The first sign of a stain stabbed me a bit, I felt shame at having damaged this book. But if there’s any book that can hold these marks of use, it’s Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. A book I’ve wanted to race through, read in one sitting, but which instead I’m reading only one essayette a day. That I need a bookmark at all is a sign of my commitment to the book, and to learning a healthy discipline.

The wood–cedar, I think–smells lovely. So each morning, I hold and sniff my bookmark as I read. Weird, I know. Today, the bookmark has begun to smell of pages, that glorious new book smell. Smell in exchange for oil, a commingling born from healing ritual. This book, this bookmark, are loved. 

A few weeks ago, my mother died, and I stopped my daily readings of The Book of Delights for a few days. When I returned to them, I found a glorious delight waiting for me, one that, miraculously, captured the confusing transcendent feelings of my grief. I tried to excerpt it for you, reader, but it just works so beautifully in full…here it is:

60. “Joy is Such a Human Madness”: The Duff Between Us

Or, like this: in healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground, and be wrong in our imagining, given as the bulk of the tree, the roots, are reaching through the earth below, there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused.

By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen, and a nearby tree has extra, so the hyphae (so close to hyphen, the handshake of the punctuation world), the fungal ambulances, ferry it over. Constantly. This tree to that. That to this. And that in a tablespoon of rich fungal duff (a delight: the phrase fungal duff, meaning a healthy forest soil, swirling with the living the dead make) are miles and miles of hyphae, handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people, yes it did. Evolved the people into mushrooms.

Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things–the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this–joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.

Somehow, returning to The Book of Delights in a world that no longer held my mother, seeing her death ring out in the words on the page I returned to, I felt released from the discipline I had cultivated over the last two months. I started reading with abandon. In some minutes, I made it to the sixty-fourth entry. When you read the little excerpt below and think back to the words I wrote about this book at the end of May, a little less than two months before my mother died, I think you’ll experience  some of that same transcendence that I did, the just-so-ness of being connected with the world, oneself and one another across space and time. 

From 64. Fishing an Eyelash: Two or Three Cents on the Virtues of the Poetry Reading.

Books are lovely. I love books…

…As I write this it’s occurring to me that the books I most adore are the ones that archive the people who have handled them–dogears, or old receipts used as bookmarks (always a lovely digression). Underlines and exclamation points, and this in an old library book! The tender vandalisms by which, sometimes, we express our love. Or a fingerprint, made of some kind of oil, maybe from peanut butter, which it would be if it was mine. Or a tea stain, and a note to oneself only oneself could decipher…

…[But] There are multiplicities within a human body reading poems that a poem on a page will never reproduce. In other words, books don’t die. And preferring them to people won’t prevent our doing so.

Find Yourself a Trauma Informed Politics

So many times in this past year, I’ve wanted to speak to the complexities and nuances of how we approach difficult things in our difficult world–injustice, forgiveness, inequity, mental health. And each time, it just comes back to this: find yourself a trauma-informed politics. It’s a journey, it’s systemic, it’s human-oriented, it’s radical, it’s messy, and, above all, it’s hopeful. I’m going to write more on this, once I’ve read and absorbed more by Kai Cheng Thom, by Clementine Morrigan, by Mariame Kaba. For now, here’s a poster.

TIP
Words: Ambika Kamath, Image: Karen Arnold, on public domain, Design: Ambika Kamath & Ned Burnell 

 

Doing the Work, part three.

You may have seen this recent profile of my Ph.D. advisor, Jonathan Losos. If you scan the quotes, most from his former grad students and postdocs, you can tell that many of us like and admire him quite a bit. There’s a line from me in there, but I wrote a lot more for the interview that didn’t make it into the piece, and there are parts I want to share (edited from original quite a bit; thanks Elizabeth Pennisi for asking thought-provoking questions!).

Specifically, I’m writing this post as part of my Doing the Work series (see parts one and two here) because what Jonathan and I learnt in our interactions was how to disagree well about difficult things, which is a key component of shifting academic culture towards equity and justice. None of what I write here is to suggest that Jonathan is perfect in this realm. Far from it. Indeed, the most revealing moments were moments of imperfection, and by talking about them I hope to illustrate that “getting things perfect” is mostly irrelevant for making culture change in academia. I hope that white professors who lead diverse labs and research groups (and all the rest of us too, of course) will use this piece as a way to reflect a bit—honestly, and with a mind and heart oriented towards growth and not self-congratulation—on how you show up for your people.

(What made you decide to join the Losos lab?)

My decision to join the Losos lab was made easy because I had a great feeling about it. Part of this great feeling came from the fact that the lab was racially diverse and included many women scientists. During my visit, I had a pretty frank conversation about racial dynamics in the department with the lab’s grad students, and I was encouraged that there were folks willing to speak openly and honestly.

One thing I remember from when I visited the lab after being offered a place in it gives a nice insight into the kind of person Jonathan is. I visited along with another future grad student, and Jonathan had planned to give us each a copy of his 2009 book on anoles. But I had already bought and read his book, and it would have been silly for him to give me another one. So the next day, just before I left, he coordinated with the grad student we were staying with to come over with a different gift—a stuffed toy anole (you should ask him why he had a box of 50 of these in his office, it’s a great and ridiculous story). He didn’t want me to go home empty handed or feel less valued than the other prospective grad student, and I noticed and really appreciated this gesture of care and consideration (and the other student got their stuffed toy anole when they joined the lab in the fall, I’m pretty sure). I was 95% sure I wanted to join the lab before that, but that sealed the deal.

(What challenges did you, he or the lab face while you were there?)

In the second year of my Ph.D., I started to feel like I wasn’t getting enough guidance. Jonathan was traveling a lot that semester, which probably contributed to it, and I had my qualifying exams coming up, and so was nervous. I remember building up the nerve to have a phone conversation with him in which I told him I needed more advising from him, more concrete advice. He was slightly taken aback, I think. But from our very next meeting, he changed how he showed up to our meetings. He was more present, more proactive. I learned that I could ask him for things I needed, and he would do his best. I think I learnt how to have difficult conversations in a healthy and respectful way from my interactions with Jonathan, which has turned out to be an invaluable life skill.

Another place in which we struggled in the lab was with the culture of our lab meetings. I’m not sure everyone in the lab felt this way, but there was a period in which I found lab meetings to be sort of hostile, and difficult to ask questions in. Not too many of us talked. And there were definitely times when Jonathan was part of the problem, contributing to the creation of hostility. But a bit later, after some turnover in personnel and when Jonathan was on sabbatical, a couple of us who remained made a proactive effort to turn things around, to be friendlier and more relaxed. To Jonathan’s credit, he was completely accepting of this changed culture that he encountered on his return.

I also think the lab faced challenges surrounding creating a welcoming environment for people from different backgrounds. The lab was remarkably diverse for our field, especially for herpetology, especially for a lab headed by a white man at a place like Harvard, which institutionally has, at best, only a surface level commitment to diversity. And we certainly had challenging moments in the lab around this—comments were made that would have been par for the course if the lab were an “old boys’ club” but that weren’t acceptable to many of us. And again, there were certainly moments in which Jonathan was part of the problem.

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Losos Lab Meeting (Losos + Revell labs) in 2016.

Would it have been better if these sorts of comments had never been made, if the culture had been different right from the start? Of course, but that wasn’t the reality. Change can only happen if we first accept the place that we are in. Jonathan and I began having explicit conversations about diversity in the lab in my third year in grad school, and I was so surprised at how he was always open to listening to my views, always open to learning. I came to understand that no matter how much our opinions diverged, no matter how uncomfortable I made him feel, he wouldn’t lose respect for me. To be able to learn how to speak truth to power in this relatively safe, relatively sheltered context was tremendously important to me. And equally, Jonathan was supportive of my activism outside of lab, my public outreach in the form of writing. He never told me, as so many advisors tell their students, to just focus on the science, even when I challenged other powerful people in the department and in the field. He’d sometimes advise me against speaking up in particular contexts, but always also reminded me that, ultimately, I could make my own decisions about how to use my voice. I was confident I wouldn’t face repercussions from him for being true to myself. Being able to reassure students who have come after me of this has, I hope, made a difference to their relationships with Jonathan too, and of course they know they have an ally in me always—in this way, the work is made communal. Jonathan made it a point to mention my activism as an achievement when introducing me publicly at my Ph.D defence, which, I think, speaks volumes.

(How do you feel about your time in that lab?)

 I loved my time in the Losos lab. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t struggle, or even that I was happy in grad school. I faced mental health challenges that were exacerbated by departmental and institutional culture, and by the capitalist culture of academia itself. I have since learnt  that an environment in which people feel safety, connection, and agency is an environment in which they can bring forth their most creative selves (I learnt this from Joyce Dorado at UCSF; I’m in the process of building a mentoring framework that is trauma-informed for my own lab, stay tuned for more!). I am tremendously lucky that I felt safety, connection, and agency in the Losos lab, and it makes me so sad to recognize that the combination of safety, connection, and agency is rare in academic workplaces. I don’t think individual people have the power to change the course of science except insofar as they nurture a scientific community, and it really helps when that community is founded on kindness and generosity, on unconditional respect for one another’s humanity across lines of power, identity, and privilege. There’s quite a bit that I intend to do differently from Jonathan as a PI, but in this way, I hope to emulate him always.

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Jonathan and me at my Ph.D. graduation. You can read about how he made me go to this event here.

An accidentally delightful vegan lentil coconut curry

Here’s a recipe that was easy, delicious, and entirely “what do we have lying around and can we throw it together?’ plus “salt+fat+acid+heat”…

  • Cook some red lentils (masoor dal) in water in a pan, not pressure cooker.
  • Once mostly cooked, add in salt, cayenne, turmeric, and Chinese five-spice powder, in sensible proportions (sorry, can’t be more precise!). Let bubble for a bit.
  • Add in a can of coconut milk.
  • Concurrently, saute some broccoli and asparagus in oil, until well cooked, still-crunchy, and lightly browned. Can get creative here, other veggies would probably work well. I’m excited to add potatoes to a future version, and green beans perhaps.
  • Cut a mostly ripe but not overly sweet mango into cubes. Err on the side of a more sour than less sour (mango was the only acid we had available!). Add into the coconut/lentil mixture when the lentils are almost entirely done.
  • Once the lentils are fully cooked, turn off the heat and add in the sauteed vegetables.
  • Serve warm, with pieces of avocado on the top.

The spiced lentil/coconut served as an excellent neutral-delicious base, and each of the added veggies and fruits retained their particular flavour because they were either edible raw or pre-cooked and incorporated late. Quick, nutritious, filling, yum!

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Doing the Work, part two.

(here’s part one from February; this essay stands alone too).

In this moment, in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd by police and nationwide protests in support of Black lives, many of us in academia are waking up to the need for anti-racism. Others of us, who’ve been doing this work of moving away from injustice and towards equity in academia for a little while longer, are somewhat buoyed by the energy. We’re working hard to direct the current momentum into channels that will sustain for more than a few days, weeks, months and that will yield systemic change. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to transform this moment’s energy into the enduring work of lifetimes.

(Part of why my biologist brain loves this question is that the answer hinges on the spanning of scales—short-to-long and past-to-present-to-future time scales, small-to-large spatial scales, individual-to-collective-to-systemic scales of organization. And this, precisely, is why becoming an activist and becoming trauma-informed has alchemized how I think as a scientist. Stay tuned for some weird academic work that arise from this transformation, as well as longer creative non-fiction writing about it.).

My more immediate reason for writing this essay, though, is to explore the annoyance I feel about my fellow academics seemingly directing so much of the energy of this moment towards reading books about anti-racism (I wrote that sentence a couple of weeks ago, now even the book reading seems to have died down, at least according to the twitter and instagram posts). Before you get upset at me, I promise you I have nothing against books. As Victor Ray and Alan Aja put it in a recent perspective, “Nothing warms our nerdy professorial hearts like seeing people buy books, and we understand the need for knowledge to attack entrenched social problems (please keep borrowing, exchanging and buying books, everyone)…But,” they continue, “we also are aware of the limits of the education-as-cure-for-racism trope when it is uncoupled from commitments to redistribute resources.” Reading a book, or many books, is not the same as action, though we academics can readily delude ourselves into thinking that understanding a (complex) problem is no different than solving it. I’m going to repeat that so we can all take it in—understanding systemic injustice is not equivalent to dismantling it.

So in this moment, we have lists of books to read. We also have lists upon lists of actions to take. And what I’m interested in is the psychological and practical gap between them—how do we become the kind of people who are committed, who are intrinsically motivated to recognize where we can and must act against our individual self-interest (i.e. leveraging and dismantling our privilege) for the sake of the equity and justice we claim to believe in? How do we become the kind of people who see lists of actions as inspiration but not a how-to manual? How, in other words, do we do the work, especially once the moment has passed, once the books read and the lists of actions either checked off or forgotten or no longer relevant?

I want to speak to these questions, as a human and an academic. I think my voice might be useful here is because doing the work is, in large part, about reconfiguring one’s mind, and because I’ve seen in myself the wild transformations that can happen to a person when they commit to reconfiguring their mind. I love how Gil Scott-Heron puts it in this clip, where he says “The revolution will not be televised…that was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you’re living and the way you move. So when we were saying that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that the thing that’s going to change is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film.”

So how can one reconfigure one’s mind? The desire to reconfigure your mind stems from discovering where you do not want to be. You’ve recognized that something about how you think and feel and show up in the world is not okay, and needs to change. You’ve hit some kind of bottom, be it big or small, and you’re finally saying, “Enough.” But the process of reconfiguring a mind is not just a turning away from—your mind also needs something glowing to grow towards. As I put it recently, “seedlings live in tension too, between the soil and the sunlight that nourish them, equally and inextricably.” In this metaphor, you are a seedling, your mind rooted in the present soil and growing towards a distant sun. You never reach the sun, and yet it shapes exactly where you go. You could ignore the sun and keep growing towards soil, wondering why you aren’t seeing more light. How you grow is going to depend on the other seedlings around you, plus the rocks and caterpillars and gardeners with an agenda of their own. Sometimes, you won’t really see the sun for days on end. And yet, you must keep growing.

To extend the metaphor, imagine, specifically, that your mind is the seedling of a vine that wants to grow towards justice. What you need is a frame to grow on. In my life, this frame has been, again, a list. Not a list of books or actions, but rather, a list of core principles and principle-driven practices. Simple statements of what I believe and who I want to be, but don’t yet fully know how to act according to. Not so vague as to be unhelpful, not so specific as to be inapplicable beyond a particular situation or moment in history.

The list around which I have built my practices of equity and justice was created by Lizzy Cooper Davis and Eleanor Craig, educators whose anti-racist values and practices have, in turn, been shaped by their work with and learning from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (Lizzy and Eleanor), the Urban Bush Women (Lizzy), the Network/La Red and the Asian American Resource Workshop (Eleanor). When Lizzy and Eleanor shared this list with us participants in a workshop on Identity, Privilege, and Power in the Classroom, I knew I had to hold on to it. Most entries on it didn’t make much sense to my logical mind, but they resonated with something deeper inside, and so I kept the list and pinned it above my desk. I looked and looked and looked at the list, and slowly, these words began to emerge unbidden into my mind when I was far from my desk. Listen for understanding rather than potholes, I’d suddenly think during lab meeting or a seminar. Or I’d come back to my desk, glance at the list, and recent experiences would wholly reconfigure themselves in light of an entry on it. I read Know you, too, will be triggered with a sigh of relief, after I did a poor job of moderating a conversation on inequity in academia. In recalling these principles and practices at relevant moments, I had begun the slow, patient, unglamorous work of reconfiguring my mind towards embodying justice.

And so here’s the thing. What popped into my head and changed my actions at a crucial moment was not a treatise, not an understanding of a nuanced argument laid forth over 200 pages, but a seemingly simple little statement of my core values that I had inadvertently committed to memory. In this way, Lizzy and Eleanor’s list has been the framework that has helped me orient my life towards equity and justice. Here is the list in full:

Identity, Power & Privilege in the Classroom: Core Principles and Practices Offered

  • Tend not just to the way you engage when difficult moments arise but to the way you set up the classroom environment and follow-up on the class’ work.
  • Remember there is no quick fix.
  • Be curious about what people bring into the room and invite your students’ whole selves to be present; No topic or classroom is neutral.
  • Experiential knowledge is as valuable as book knowledge.
  • Multiple truths can and do exist.
  • Co-create group agreements.
  • Remember that safe space is not necessarily comfortable space.
  • Consider naming your interest in these issues as part of setting up your classroom environment.
  • Assume best intent and separate intent from impact.
  • Value dialogue over debate.
  • Listen for understanding rather than potholes.
  • Don’t take on more that you can hold and don’t ask the group to take on more than it can hold; Draw on your resources.
  • Practice being accountable to people over institutions.
  • Commit to recognizing and undoing the manifestations of your own oppression; Know you, too, will be triggered.
  • Commit to continual reflection on your power and privilege as a teacher. Understand it as a process and know that you will make mistakes.
  • Be generous and forgiving with your students and with yourself.

Each time I read this list, a different part of it resonates with me. I am far from feeling fully at home in any of these principles or practices, but they now furnish and color the environs of my mind. The one I think about most often in the context of science and scholarship is Multiple truths can and do exist. The one I think about most as an organizer is Practice being accountable to people over institutions. The ones I think about most often in the context of deepening relationships are Safe space is not necessarily comfortable space coupled with Be generous and forgiving with others and yourself. The ones that reminds me how far I still have to go, how much more I have to learn and practice, are Commit to recognizing and undoing the manifestations of your own oppression, Commit to continual reflection on your power and privilege, and, of course, Remember that there is no quick fix. In this way, everything I do attempts to embrace identity, analyze power, and acknowledge privilege. Most of the time, a principle will pop into my head when I just did the opposite of what it suggests, at which point its useful to remember to Understand it as a process and know that you will make mistakes.

So in this light, I hope it’s clear why I think reading all the books, or even education more broadly, does not constitute sufficient action. This resonates with something Imani Perry said the other day, “Trainings and consultations will not dismantle racism and racial inequality. In fact, we have to consider how they might prop up racism, giving participants a false sense of virtue and a tidy way to disengage from the harder work of creating new & just social arrangements.” The lists of actions could be useful nonetheless, because there’s a bunch of stuff you can do (like calling your representatives to push for policy change) where it can be helpful to do the thing you’re told to do by thoughtful, justice-minded-people, regardless of your motivation. But lists of actions can be co-opted—there will be people who work to check these boxes to assuage their own guilt or to accrue social capital, but who don’t actually commit to inner change and continued principle-driven action. These people become a better-disguised part of the problem (many thanks to Divya M. Persaud for a twitter thread that helped clarify this thought for me!).

A list of principle-driven practices is harder, perhaps impossible, to co-opt, though that makes them prone to being ignored altogether. And also, we can’t wait for everyone to have the same principles guiding their lives before we take action, because that will never happen. And there is always some room for pragmatically tempering one’s expectations. As Roxane Gay puts it, “Something about this moment feels different, but I am not sure anyone knows how to move forward in ways that will effectively eradicate racism once and for all. I am not sure that the people who most need to do that difficult work have any incentive to change.” But let’s return the focus to you—if you believe you want to do this hard work but aren’t sure how, consider making this list of principles and practices the core of your anti-racism toolkit.

P.S. So much gratitude for all of you who have helped me grow and grown with me this past decade. This essay is a capsule of my love for you–you all know who you are. Thanks, of course, to Lizzy and Eleanor for their work as educators and for permission to share and build on their list. Please cite them and the organizations they acknowledge when you use this list. Please reference this blogpost for any ideas from it (beyond the list/other references) that you may incorporate into your work.

P.P.S. I’m still offering academics the opportunity for one-on-one (or several-on-one!) conversations to brainstorm strategies for effecting change towards equity and justice in your workplace; if you’re interested, send me an email! I’ve done/plan to do about fifteen so far, I’ve found them delightful 🙂   These conversations are no longer on offer except follow-ups for those of you who have chatted with me previously.

Another important P.S. If you found this or any of my social justice work helpful, please consider donating to the following organizations–the ones mentioned above by Lizzy and Eleanor, as well as two Berkeley institutions that are near and dear to me, that help to keep me healthy, happy, and able and willing to do this work. 

Pacific Center for Human Growth

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

Urban Bush Women

The Network/La Red

Asian American Resource Workshop

Craig and Cooper Davis

A seven-step authorship plan for scientific papers

N.B. This is a do-as-I-say, not a do-as-I-have-done plan. This is the plan I intend to implement explicitly from here on out. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings on this! 

  1. At the start of the project, have a list of things that feel like substantive contributions for your project (idea generation, data collection, statistical analysis, context and interpretation, writing, funding, etc). Allow this list to evolve as the project evolves.
  2. Any time you invite anyone to work on any aspect of the project, explain this method of authorship assignation to them.
  3. At the point when you are ready to start WRITING THE PAPER, make a list of everyone who has contributed to the project by seeing which substantive contribution boxes they check.
  4. Anyone who checks two boxes is an author. Offer them the chance to contribute to the writing because they might enjoy it, might learn, and may make your paper better.
  5. To anyone who checks one box, OFFER THEM A CHANCE TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE WRITING. If they take it and do any non-zero amount of work, they’ll have checked two boxes, so make them an author. If they don’t take it or agree but contribute zero work, they’ll understand that they had this opportunity and chose not to take it. You can tailor what it means to “contribute to writing” as appropriate for your constraints but be as clear and as generous as you can.
  6. Get really good at wrangling contradictory comments :p.
  7. Ultimately you are first author, you get to decide what goes in the paper. Embrace that responsibility, deferring to the expert authors for sections where you lack expertise.

On the flip side, sometimes we find ourselves being offered authorship as collaborators and not being entirely sure of whether to accept or not, of whether we’ve done enough work to warrant authorship. A rule-of-thumb that I learnt from Ben de Bivort that works for me also is to ask myself the question: have I done one full day’s worth of work on this project on my own and beyond that which my role asks of me? (e.g. in Ben’s case, he was on my dissertation committee, and chose not to count the time he spent advising me in one-on-one or committee meetings, deduced that he had not spent a full day working on the project outside of those meetings, and therefore declined my offer of authorship).

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Picture of a Cape Glossy Starling because posts without pictures look so sad 😦

Quick Recipe for an Excellent Tomato Sauce

  1. Prepare tomatoes for roasting by making two incisions about halfway through (like an X), drizzle over some olive oil, sprinkle salt, black pepper, and dried basil.
  2. Roast tomatoes in the oven at 400F for about 30 minutes, until the bottoms are slightly blackened and the tomatoes are squishy.
  3. Cool for a bit and then liquefy.
  4. Simmer on the stove, add in crushed Szechuan pepper corns, chopped fresh basil, and a dash of toasted sesame oil. Add salt, if necessary.
  5. That’s it! I’ve made this twice now, ate it once just with rice and once with roasted little potatoes and turkey meatballs. Worked great in both contexts 🙂 Looking forward to trying it with pasta, as a soup base, and more!

    tomatoes | liz west | Flickr
    tomatoes, by liz west

Seedlings

The last three nights, Michiko Theurer, Jonathan Leal, and I organized a series of evening conversations and gatherings with the theme of Seedlings (featuring guests Nicole Mitchell and Lisa Harris on their new project EarthSeed, and Jonathan and Charlie Vela on their upcoming project Futuro Conjunto. I’ll update/add these links as the projects release!) The third night was an evening of community gathering, for each of us to share bits of things we’ve been thinking about and working on. Michi and I both, independently, host similar events in person in our living rooms, during non-pandemic times, and now we had a chance to bring them together. All three evenings were beautiful and, to me, life giving. 

I wanted to share a couple of bits of writing I did for the evenings. 

Text Statement about our hopes for this space, in solidarity with uprisings against police brutality inflicted upon Black people in the US, to share at the start of our evenings.

Injustice has long been woven into the fabric of our society, in this country, this world. There are countless dimensions to this injustice, so many of which are painfully apparent right now. Now, when Black, Indigenous, and Brown people are suffering disproportionately worse health outcomes in the middle of a pandemic, continuing to experience state-sanctioned violence at the hands of police and militaries, and facing an increasingly precarious future under growing xenophobia and a changing climate, it is crucial that all of us come together to care for one another, protest alongside one another, and fight for justice in whatever ways we can. Equally, it is important that we come together to find joy, connection, and solidarity in the present, so that we can imagine radically better futures. So that we can begin to build these better futures through acts of vulnerability, bravery, and care. We hope this evening is a space in which we can imagine better, and share our imaginings, and so nurse the flame of change. We hope this evening will nourish us and energize us so that we can build and keep building a more just world.   

And here’s what I wrote to share at the third evening.

When all of your searching leads you to the same unexpected thoughts, as a jarring unfamiliar discomfort turns into a familiar revelation, you know that you are heading somewhere true. I wonder if this is what it feels like for a seedling to wake up each morning, knowing that its direction is set: sun-ward.

The thought that I’ve been encountering, over and over again in these last few months, is that everything lives in the tension between things. For me, these have been months in which global upheaval has coincided with reaching a stable and clear sense of myself and my place in the world. That, right there, is a tension. In my work as an evolutionary biologist, I’m coming to fully inhabit the idea that nature lives in the tension between stasis and change. Honestly, everything—and everybody—lives in the tension between stasis and change. We live, individually and societally, in the tension between trauma and freedom. The work of emancipation lives in the tension between simple and impossible. Seedlings live in tension too, between the soil and the sunlight that nourish them, equally and inextricably.

And what’s wonderful about the tension between things is that it’s where the imagination sprouts. With my eyes, mind, and heart opened to this tension, there is a springiness to existence (a “bouncy feeling” as my yoga teacher says). A buoyancy in which anything feels possible. And so it is no longer surprising to me that in the last few months, as I have found this sense of tension to be everywhere, I have also found god. What I’m realizing now, as I type this, is that, for me, god is an unfettered imagination born from tension. An infinity of seeds suspended in a giant spider web, floating somewhere above my head. I angle my eyes slightly upwards and with a soft focus, to talk with my god, this curtain of seeds and tough silk.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting with the silhouettes, in the New York Times, of the one hundred thousand people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. It was hard not to see each of them as seeds. Even a life lived long and lived well can hold promise. Death is close, always, and a seed knows that. Hence its hard coat. Hence its fatty sustenance. I think of all the older people I know from the context of recovery programs, how they are germinating into their truest selves at sixty-five, seventy, eighty-two. They’ve endured the longest winter, and now they live in a pandemic world that says to them, “Enough. No longer. You are not wanted here.” I wish that by the time I am old, I have found a way to make peace with death. I try to broker that peace now, just in case, because I am lucky to have found both my soil and my sunshine.

*****

It is the season, here, of fruit trees. My partner and my house mate are both low key obsessed with fruit trees. They pin locations of fruit trees in maps, and delightedly report new discoveries to one another and to me, of a laden loquat tree just down the road whose fruit are sadly out of reach, behind a fence, perhaps, or just too high. Or a fig whose fruit will ripen months from now. The other day they were discussing the present state of a neighborly persimmon tree—I tuned out, in part because I know for a fact its fruit won’t be ready to eat until August! But then it struck me that this conversation isn’t about what we can take from the fruit trees. It’s about seeing fruit trees as members of our community. Seeing their wholeness, slowing down, living in tree time.

 

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