TEDxUCLA 2019: Time
Intersectionality will save the future of science
Shawntel Okonkwo is a Ph.D. Candidate in Molecular Biology and Gene Regulation at UCLA and the founder and creative director of wokeSTEM, a creative and afro-futuristic consultancy that intersects social justice, STEM and science communication, while uniquely centering people of color.
Shawntel’s unique background in being a first-generation born Nigerian-American, dancer, musician, artist, Molecular Biologist, and entrepreneur has uniquely colored her trajectory through adversity and life’s lows to success.
By a raise of hands, how many of us have fallen in love at least once in our lives? And yes, Game of Thrones and cookie dough do count. Beautiful.
For those of us who’ve fallen in love before, have you ever been in a situation where, despite the bountiful love and dedication you’ve had, it just was not requited? Or how about those on the other side of the equation where you just couldn’t quite mirror the love that was professed to you?
Have any of us felt circular love? That is the love that sees and is seen, the love that is connected and positively affirming and thriving for all those involved?
I’d like for you to keep that in the back of your mind as I tell you an incredible and complex story today that involves the love of everyone in this room.
You see, I’m a molecular biologist and I’m getting my Ph.D. here at UCLA studying gene regulation.
Now just to explain what gene regulation is, I’m sure you all are familiar with how awful the traffic in LA is, right? Takes about an hour to drive like five miles or something. Just trash. So we can also agree about how important it is to regulate all of this traffic on the road.
Now I study genes, and if we think of genes as the traffic on the roads, and all of the ways of regulating traffic as our molecular quality control mechanisms, that’s effectively my doctoral research. I’m interested in how these different systems can connect with one another to bring life to our bodies.
Now, I fell in love with science. I mean, I was the kind of girl in college when I’d go to the parties and for an icebreaker, I would talk about the thermodynamics and biophysics of how genes turn on and off. Sorry. But you know, I couldn’t help it. I was head over heels in love with science.
My love story became a little complicated in 2012 when I met Diego as a science teacher. On the first day of school, Diego is a regular shmegular second grader. But by week two, honey, Diego was teaching me how to properly control and design a scientific experiment, okay?
Now, he was a star. He was absolutely brilliant. And I knew he was gonna go really far in life. When I met his mother at the end of the year party, I told them that. “Your son is amazing. He’s brilliant. He’s gonna go really far in life.”
She started to break down crying. You see, she told me that both her and her husband did not graduate from high school. In fact, they dropped out. They immigrated here from Mexico, and even though the English was perfectly fine, they were inaccurately placed in special language courses.
One thing led to another, and a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle messages around whether they belong or not were sent to them. And as thus, they dropped out of high school.
Because Diego wasn’t doing so well on his standardized tests, they felt that the same was going to happen for their son. I told her, “Your son is amazing. He’s incredibly smart and critical, he’s gonna go very far in life.”
Well, let’s take one step back here. Diego’s school is considered low-performing, meaning that their standardized test scores were not high. Because of that, teachers were highly pressured to ensure that they got these scores up and therefore couldn’t bring science into the classroom.
Because Diego’s parents didn’t go to college and dropped out of high school, Diego was more likely to not go to college. And because Diego was Mexican, he was more likely to experience racial discrimination.
Now, when we combine these varying levels of discrimination in Diego’s life, the way he navigates the world, how can we expect for him to experience the age-old adage of equality that society tends to daunt on us at every single moment?
Considering this, I thought about the fact that there are Diegos all over the United States—in fact all over the world—where different aspects of our identity lead to different types of discrimination and marginalization. And when you combine them together, it makes it much more difficult for us to be seen, heard, recognized, and appreciated.
As a scientist, I wanted to see how can I find ways of understanding the blindspots that society places for people like this. So I use my privilege and I went on to find intersectional solutions at places like museums.
I worked at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History, trying to help create socially and culturally relevant science through a government proposal that I wrote by myself to create an internship there.
I spent time in DC going to Capitol Hill, advocating on the behalf of increased scientific funding for schools just like Diego’s. I also at the college level helped to create scientific mentorship programs for first-generation college students who were interested in scientific research.
In addition to all of this, in my own science communication consultancy, I started wokeSTEM, and wokeSTEM is the organization I created that intersects social justice and STEM while centering marginalized people.
Now, even though I endured in all these different endeavors of finding intersectional solutions, of bringing people who are society’s blindspots to the center, I realized that the problem was much more pervasive and complex than I originally thought.
Even though science and technology has been making advances for all of us, there are many people who have been left out. Maternal mortality is a human rights issue that’s affecting women all over the United States and the world, yet black women are still two to six times more likely to die from childbirth.
Artificial intelligence, one of the most sexiest technologies that are out right now, has led to new technologies like predictive policing. You can only imagine what that’s going to mean for communities at the intersection of race and class that have been hypercriminalized and hypertargeted for generations.
The #MeToo movement has found itself into the rideshare industry as well as STEM, which is science, technology, engineering, and math. As female, non-binary, and trans passengers have reported rampant amounts of sexual violence, this number goes up when you include race as a factor.
Right now, we’re in a time where science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are much more intimate than we’ve ever imagined in every single one of our lives. Most of you here are holding one of the most highly advanced technologies in your pocket right now.
If we fail to think about science, technology, engineering, and math as a culture, and that culture having implications for how it impacts all people, as well as those at the margins, what kind of advancements are these technologies really going to have on our collective future?
When we fail to recognize people as whole—that is all of their identities, as well as the different types of discrimination that leads to who they are and how they navigate the world—we create society’s blind spots.
Let me highlight this a little bit better. So I’m a woman. And I am more likely to experience sexual discrimination than others. If you didn’t know by now, I am black. Yes, I am. And I am more likely than not to experience racial discrimination. When you put these two levels of discrimination together, I have a compounded identity that is highly informed by this intersection.
If someone were to come to me and say that, “Oh, like, let’s let’s increase the number of women in STEM.” Well, you know, that’s probably going to mean mainly mainly white women, given statistics and what have you. What about black women? Because I am both black and a woman.
Luckily, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw created a way of thinking about society’s blind spots and the way that we fail to recognize people as whole. This concept is called intersectionality, and I’m sure many of you have heard of it before.
But just to give some clarity, intersectionality is one of the ways that we think about how different aspects of discrimination and marginalization intersect to impact one person’s identity and navigation through the world.
This also brings into context systems of power and systems of privilege. We think about science, technology, engineering, and math. Sometimes we think that these technologies all together bring truth and bring well-being for all. However, like I highlighted before, this is not the case.
Without thinking about the ways that different aspects of our identity can lead to different aspects of discrimination, we start to leave people out because we’re looking at one aspect of their identity and not the whole aspect.
We need to build intersectionality into the cultural DNA of how we think about science, how we teach science, how we fund science, and who science truly serves. If we fail to bring this into the context of how we do science and all of the things I mentioned before, we will continue to have the problems that have been pervasive and leading to the current conditions that we have now.
A lot of the solutions in society right now are pretty prescriptive and a little symptomatic. “Let’s bring more black people into our company because we’re not doing so hot with the numbers,” or “let’s increase this number here, this number there.”
The issue is these are not intersectional solutions. Intersectionality takes account of the systems that brought these issues to the first place.
Systemic issues require systemic solutions. In order to get to the root of the problems that we have in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, we must take an intersectional and systemic solution and approach.
So we’re aware that society has these blind spots. And we talked about intersectionality as a way of kind of theorizing about these blind spots, and what does it mean for somebody to navigate through society with these blind spots?
But it is not enough to think about and say. It means more to do. These three P’s for intersectionality and STEM are a way that we can center empathy as a way to include everyone in the scientific endeavor and a collective future.
One of the questions is privilege. How does our privilege intersect with another one’s oppression? That’s something I would like for everyone to kind of sit on and think about for a little bit. Privilege can be good and it can be bad, you know?
When I think about privilege, I think about when I went through undergrad trying to get research experience and how I really didn’t have a lot of money at all, I actually was completely broke. And I started to understand that students who wanted to get research experience needed to do volunteer research experiences and work in lab as unpaid laborers essentially.
I was like, “That’s not going to work for me because I need money to eat. I need to pay my rent.” Those who are privileged, who don’t need to earn money to live, can’t have higher access to these spaces and thus leads to more advancement in the scientific endeavor.
On the other hand, privilege can be good in terms of the access that we have. If you use your privilege for good—for example, the wild success of the Black Panther movie, which grossed 1.3 billion dollars worldwide, we saw the way that this had an impact on representation and STEM. Shuri? anybody know Shuri? Okay.
That privileged access to Hollywood, that privileged access to telling real stories and about putting the light in the center on people who traditionally haven’t been centered is one way that you can use your privilege for good.
The next thing I’d like for us to consider is power. Power is a way in which we have access to information, and when we have access to resources.
A lot of you here are probably familiar with the CBD industry, right? “I got five on it,” you know, CBDs, cannabinoids, right? It’s kind of wild to think about that in 2022, it’s projected to be on the order of tens of billions of dollars. Venture capitalists are scrambling to pick a piece of this cake, CBT lattes are on every corner, you see billboards of it.
Yet you have people who were impacted by the war on drugs, who are to this day struggling to find a job because they have two felonies for being in possession of the same compound that’s making people filthy rich today.
So when we think about power and when we ask this question about power, how can I use my power for good? Those who are the beneficiaries of this new green boom can help build true early adopters in creating social-equity-based systems and reparations-based systems for paying back these real early adopters.
The last P I’d like for us to consider is passage. Now passage is, how does this particular solution, technology, science, the way we’re communicating this, how does this solution pass the test of time?
True change is sustainable. You can’t implement a solution one time and be like, “All right, we’re good. We’re done.” It needs to pass the test of time.
One quick example of this is one of the undergraduate research programs I was a part of. It was called the MARC program. This program is very, very old and has enabled hundreds, if not thousands of students who come from underrepresented backgrounds to earn Ph.Ds. So we have to consider how sustainable and how consistent is the solution in centering intersectionality for better futures and STEM?
If we always consider these three P’s and the way we communicate science and the way that we fund science, who is represented in science, who is doing our science and who are scientists serving, we can start to move towards a future that actually put science technology to better good for all.
Now earlier, I talked to you all about love and about how love, it can be circular. Audre Lorde is a Caribbean poet, and one of her great quotes that I love to live by and really love to meditate on is that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle as we don’t live single-issue lives.”
Now more than ever, science and technology is changing the way people are living their lives. It’s transforming generations. It’s healing past generations through new modes of connection. Science and technology is really doing it.
But if we fail to implement intersectionality and these three P’s of interrogating systems of privilege, systems of power, and whether or not the solution can pass the test of time, we will fail to create technologies and solutions for a better future.
A hundred years ago, this kind of campus, this kind of place was not made for women. And it most certainly was not made for black people. But here I am: black, a woman, child of Nigerian immigrants, first generation born in the United States. Struggled through discrimination, racism, harassment, and all the things you can imagine.
And yet I’m here, on this stage, on this campus, on Tongva land, urging you about the importance of intersectionality in STEM and how, if we are to center intersectionality, if we are to rewrite the cultural DNA of how we do science, how we communicate science, how we think about science, who science serves—and this is across the board—we can really use science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to change the world. Thank you.