Home Bravery and Being Part 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Inclusion
Part 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Inclusion

Part 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Inclusion


By Sabriya Stukes, Ph.D. with a foreword from #VanguardSTEM

I am SO excited to introduce this two-part series from the brilliant Dr. Sabriya Stukes — Microbiologist and Immunologist, who co-founded Connect with STEM. In it, she tackles issues that rise to the top of many of our minds during conference season: inclusion and representation. Conferences can be both encouraging and discouraging, and it has much to do with these two societal ideologies that we have deemed important for success, but are often unaccounted for in STEM spaces. The authenticity and intensity of her galvanizing words gave me LIFE and I hope you enjoy part one of this series as much I did.

~ Natasha Berryman, #VanguardSTEM Editor-in-Chief

Companies, organizations and academic institutions love to trot out diversity numbers and bar graphs, patting themselves on the back when they can record incremental increases in diversity. To these groups, I’d like to posture this stance:

I don’t care about diversity—and I know I’m not the only one.

Of course I want professional environments and workspaces to be representative of what the actual world looks like, but I don’t care about diversity in the ways in which most are currently talking about it. I am not the only person who can check off multiple racial boxes while simultaneously exhaling that long, slow breath—eye roll in tow—when I encounter an article about companies throwing money at a problem no one’s convinced they truly even care about.

I am not interested in hearing about organizations and academic institutions increasing their numbers of diverse men, women or people of color if there isn’t going to be more careful thought and effort to curate environments that sustain these new hires.

I am not here for all the inclusive recruitment efforts that come without discussions about initiatives that are mindful of and nourishing to what few numbers of us are already working there.

Listen … stop being lazy and remember this equation: diversity does not equal inclusion.  

I’ll say that one more time for the CEOs in the back: having a diverse work environment does not make your environment inclusive.  

You do not get to feel good about working on increasing representation and inclusion when the only thing you are actually doing is making feeble attempts to employ more people who have been historically underrepresented.

It’s as if over time, some decided they no longer wanted to do the hard work of dealing with both, and diversity and inclusion  became synonymous.  I don’t think we talk about inclusion in a productive way—and what would that even mean?  For one, it’s not clear to me that we even know what an inclusive environment looks like. I can tell you what one may look like for me, but inclusion doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all aesthetic. How can we build these environments without doing the due diligence of establishing what it is that we are even talking about?

So how do we measure inclusion? How do we measure the feeling of being able to go to work and bring our whole self? How do we quantify the sense of belonging that comes with knowing you can openly talk to your co-workers about racial killings without explaining the heaviness that stems from months and months of seeing the same headlines—of the emotional weight of absorbing images of brown babies face down on the ground.

As someone who identifies as a woman of color, please believe I have sat in a room full of people who have “looked like me” and still felt the twinge of being an outcast, of the self-doubt from wondering, “Am I black enough to have a voice here?” Just as I’ve sat in rooms full of white women and felt compelled to save some of them a plate at the next cookout (I mean, OK—maybe not … but you know what I mean).

And  maybe that’s where we begin, by having an honest dialogue  about inclusion and representation—by not talking about how it feels to be included, but by sharing experiences of exactly what happens when you feel like you might be one of the only ones in the room.


I was eating mediocre pizza (get it together, Artichoke) when the email came through on my phone: I had been invited to SciFOO—Tim O’ Reilly’s annual science “un-conference”—stationed at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA where the attendees decide the sessions and schedule of the three-day conference the night we arrive. Normally, I don’t get invites like this to functions like this—in fact, the first thought that went through my imposter-syndrome-riddled brain was, “How do they know who I am? Should I go to this? Am I smart enough to be there?”

Pushing my fears aside, I arrived at Google on Friday night, received my credentials and made my way to dinner, the first official event of the conference. I was fortunate enough to know one other individual in attendance and we headed to the large conference room that people were being directed to for the opening remarks.

We made a conscious decision to sit in the first row and, as people began trickling in to take their seats, I started to steal quick glances behind me to get a mental image of the roughly 200 people hand selected by FOO to their famed conference. And that’s when the thought surfaced—the idea that I might be the only visible person with melanin abundance at this entire conference. Now, let’s be clear, I’ve been “one of the only ones” before, but never on a scale like this. Ballet classes at 12, sure, but now imagine, I’m 33 and having this same dynamic play out again.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture this: you’re in a large conference room, listening to the organizers tell you that they carefully selected everyone here, that it is an honor  to be here among such impressive individuals. But their words slowly start to fade away because you can feel it happening—the nervousness, the actual tingling of your skin as you start to feel uncomfortable in the very body that you were born in the increasing thump of your heart, the clammy feeling of wanting to bolt out of your chair, but also the paralyzing activity of your feet being glued to the ground.

Their voices come back into focus as you realize instructions are being given. Everyone is going to rapid-fire introduce themselves by saying their name and three things that interest them at the moment. The microphone is getting closer and my brain is rattling from the thought of having to stand up and speak. I turn to face the crowd and my eyes scan the sea of mostly men, largely Caucasian, that lay before me;the words “infectious diseases, under-represented minorities in STEM and, recently, jumpsuits with pockets” tumble out of my mouth.

I sit back down and as the microphone is passed down the line, voice after voice introducing its owner, my scientific brain kicks in and begins to wonder what the gender breakdown of the collective group is.  One slash for women when the science journalist introduces herself; two for men when an astrophysicist sitting next to a cancer biologist speaks. My breathing begins to slow down and my mind is now laser-focused on this new goal.  

It should come as no surprise that the majority of the audience was male, but an interesting thing began to happen as each person introduced themselves. I not only started seeing a slightly more diverse audience, but I also began hearing the thing that brought us all there—the love of science. People passionately excited about questioning the world around them, and while no one else said that they, too, loved jumpsuits with pockets, many others did say they were interested in “inclusion” and “ supporting underrepresented minorities in STEM”.  

Knowing that people who may not look like me were interested in a topic I had been thinking about for a long time isn’t unique on its own, but knowing that they were also at the same conference helped me, for a moment,  feel like I belonged.   

A few weeks before the start of the conference, attendees were invited to submit talk proposals for the conference’s “Lightning Sessions” – 5 minute talks on a topic of our choice. They are considered a highlight of the conference and one of the only aspects that is predetermined. To my surprise, my talk was chosen and I was set to deliver it at 10:45am the next morning.

The title: “Dealing with Diversity While Black-ish”.


Stay tuned for part two—which will be released Friday, 9/30—when Sabriya shares a recent conference experience and how she found (her) representation lacking. There’s more to learn and much to think about. You don’t want to miss it! Were there times you felt this same frustration? Share in the comments below.

Are you interested in tackling a topic on VanguardSTEM.com? Send us an email at hello@VanguardSTEM.com!

Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler

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