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Podcast: Geo Conversations with Vashan Wright

Words by Marissa Lo
1 February 2024

Geo Conversations is a podcast series featuring in-depth discussions of topical issues affecting the geosciences.

In this episode of Geo Conversations, Marissa Lo, Assistant Editor, discusses the Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) programme with Vashan Wright, Assistant Professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California San Diego.

For more information about the URGE programme, please visit urgeoscience.org

Episode Transcript

[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello and thanks for listening to this podcast episode by Geoscientist magazine. My name is Marissa Lo and today I’m joined by Vashan Wright from the University of California, San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Vashan is an assistant professor in geophysics and the project lead for URGE: Unlearning Racism in Geoscience. So, I first came across the URGE project in 2020 as a PhD student when I was trying to start conversations about diversity within my own research group. So I’m really looking forward to learning more about the project from you, Vashan. So, can you please introduce what URGE is and tell us about the main aims of the project?

[00:52] Vashan Wright: The URGE programme is one that aims to use the existing literature, personal experiences of people (particularly geoscientists of colour), and the opinions of people who’ve been studying diversity, equity, justice, and inclusion (and particularly as it relates to anti-racism) – it takes all of those things and uses them to create policies and resources that are proactively anti-racist for geoscience communities, particularly departments at universities, for example, or governmental agencies, or just, like, businesses that have a geoscience focus. And so, what we do and what we put out on the website is that we have four objectives. The first one is to deepen the geoscience community’s knowledge of the effect of racism on the participation and the retention of people of colour in the discipline. And then, as I said, it draws upon the existing literature, expert opinions – expert being people who’ve been studying anti-racism and policy in higher education or geoscience organisations – personal experience to develop the policies and resources. And then we want to share them, discuss them, and modify them in some sort of dynamic community network on a national and international stage. And the final objective is to really implement and assess the anti-racist policies and resources in geoscience workplaces. So, in essence, you implement them and then you ask the question, do they actually work? Have they increased the participation of people of colour and led to increased belonging, accessibility, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion overall in geoscience as it relates to people who’ve been historically excluded from the discipline? So that’s what I would say is URGE.

[03:10] Marissa Lo: How did the project get started?

[03:12] Vashan Wright: So, I think it was during the pandemic, and the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And there were some things that happened, right? Like Breonna Taylor was murdered by cops, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery by civilians. And what was clear to me was that there are many people in the geoscience community who was hungry for something to do. There was this pandemic that was disproportionately affecting people of colour or people who’ve been impoverished. And then there was all these social injustice movements, and there are people, like, a hunger for things to do. And then I saw everybody was like: I’m going to read White Fragility, I’m going to read this book, right? Is that what people of colour in geoscience want? For you to read the book and then what do you do with the knowledge? And I didn’t think that that was necessarily what people of colour want. It’s like, okay, you can feel a certain type of way about racism, but how you feel needs to be translated into action. It’s the action that affects our lives. And so, I did see that, but I did also have hesitation. And particularly I talked to one of my friends about this, her name is TK Francis. And she was like, Vashan, if you’re going to do anything, please don’t do a book club, just going to make people just read a book and do nothing. And so, I was like, well, what’s a spin on a book club? And I sent out a tweet like, geoscience community, how would you feel about reading the same book then together? Maybe something that we read the same chapter every day, one every month, and then we share it and discuss it within our groups and as a part of a community. That was my initial spin on a book club.

As time went by, I spoke to NSF, which is the National Science Foundation in the US and I pitched an idea. They were receptive and said, yeah, please submit a proposal for a modified version of a book club where we’d no longer be reading books, but we’re reading journal articles and we’re having discussions in groups and we have a deliverable or something that, it’s a product that’s actionable. And those became the anti-racist policies and resources. And then that tweet went out and so many people were interested. I kept tweeting out updates like, I spoke to NSF, they were receptive. And then people reached out to me via Twitter DMs and said they were interested in helping if it ever gets off the ground. And so, then that’s how the team formed and then the team came with their own ideas that ultimately we worked on together to arrive at what exactly URGE became. And particular shout out to Gabriel Duran, who also reached out to me, just wanting to meet and talk about some of these types of activities, diversity, and what he could do. And I told him I might have this opportunity and I could put money in there for someone to work on this stuff. And so he became a very instrumental member of URGE. So that’s kind of like the genesis.

[06:45] Marissa Lo: I think when I checked the website, that was back in 2020, so that was very new, there was only a few bits on the website. And checking it now in 2023, I’ve seen that the project has grown so much, there’s so many different sections and people involved with this now. So, what are the main branches of what URGE does now?

[07:09] Vashan Wright: So, the first component was what we call development and that is the stage where participating groups, that we call pods, produce a first draft of an anti-racist policy and a resource. And so that section had like 310 groups sign up, of those 310 groups, be it like university departments, government agencies, people from industry, they went through what we call a curriculum. And this curriculum was 16 weeks, there’s eight, sort of, sessions over the 16 weeks, so each session was two weeks. And each session had one to two journal articles that we’d ask the groups to read. Then they would attend a live interview and then they would have discussions between themselves in groups and from those discussions they would create the anti-racist policy and resource using a guideline that URGE provided to them. And so that’s what happened in the first stage that we call development, you create a draft.

What we’re doing now is refinement and in this stage we’re trying to improve the anti-racist policies and resources because surprisingly, people told us like: we wanted more time. Three weeks was not enough to create one policy and resource. And so, we took all the feedback from people. And in this stage we wanted to amplify the voices of geoscientists of colour in the program. And so, we had individual sessions with geoscientists of colour because there are some pods where there’s just like one or zero geoscientists of colour. And then you’re like, oh my god, all of a sudden you’re creating an anti-racist policy and resource without a geoscientist of colour in the actual process where you discuss in your local groups and write. And so we wanted to see what geoscientists of colour wanted from each policy and resource, what their experiences was like, et cetera.

And then we talked to leaders because people were saying like, the leaders are the gatekeepers and they had questions for their leaders and they were super worried about leaders. And so we spent time like having focus groups and surveys with leaders. People also wanted to be trained on how to have these conversations better. And geoscientists of colour were saying, yes, you should train people, particularly people who are White on how to have these conversations. But also people of colour on how to also have these conversations that doesn’t centre Whiteness, but at the same time there’s emotional, sometimes stress or toll that those conversations have. And so how do you do those in a way that’s healthy for you as a person of colour?

And then the final stage of this is that we share all that information with the pods. And then the other part is that we wanted to give people as much flexibility as possible during this time and so flexibility to work on it whenever they wanted, to meet other folks that’s working on the same thing, to work on it asynchronously – that’s the stage that we’re in now.

And then once this is done, the future depends on additional resources, a.k.a. more grant funding. But very quickly, the goal is that we want to peer review those policies and resources, including at a conference where there is a lot of geoscientists of colour, lots of people who have done scholarly work in this field, but also people who’ve been historically included in the geoscience, give it to scholars to peer review. We peer review at that conference, then we move to providing that feedback. And so, it’s kind of like a paper, you write your first draft, you improve your first draft, it gets reviewed to make sure there’s not harm being done in these policies and resources. To make sure there are institutional things that people have to think about that might not have the knowledge when we’re thinking about university policies and resources or workplace policies and resources, government agency policies. Then, since the URGE groups are really a subset of each workplace, it’s the dissemination stage where you communicate those policies and resources to the rest of your workplace, and URGE will guide that. And then I want sort of like a referendum, like here’s a policy and resources, the entire workplace should vote on that and choose whether or not you want to implement it, then assess it. And only then, if all of this works, then you get to the final stage, which is you can market it to other disciplines to try and see, if it works in the least diverse STEM field, maybe it will work for you.

[12:17] Marissa Lo: So how far has the reach been then?

[12:19] Vashan Wright: Yeah, so 310 groups signed up. So, on the day of the sign up, I remember just like tweeting every time we hit a milestone, we’re, like, we’re at 50, sign up – deadline is today! And I’m like, we’re at 100. And I’m like, okay, keep going, because let’s get the 200, and then we got to 200 and I’m like, can we get the 300? And it just kept coming, we just kept seeing sign ups on the website. And since the 310, between 10 and 20 have reached out to join since then.

[12:48] Marissa Lo: So, you mentioned that sometimes it’s university groups, sometimes it’s businesses. How has it been working with different types of groups? The academic environment has its own quirks and characteristics, whereas I’m sure working with people in industry is the same thing. How has it been working with different groups?

[13:11] Vashan Wright: Yeah, so most of the groups were academic and in the US. But we had groups in Canada, we had groups in the UK, we had groups all over Europe, and then there’s some government agencies that were huge. And then it was hard to fit the deliverables instruction, the deliverables, the anti-racist policies and resources, it was hard to fit it for each group, it was hard to fit the papers for each group. And we tried to get a mix and diversity, but I think what the groups ultimately did was take our instructions and modified it if it didn’t match their particular situation. For example, there were some predominantly undergrad institutions, but we were talking about admissions and that’s usually graduate school, so they modified for that. But also we knew what the biggest audience was as well, and so we had to play that wrestling game.

[14:13] Marissa Lo: So at this stage, what would you say the main achievements have been of URGE?

[14:19] Vashan Wright: Yeah, so that one’s always hard for me because I have always been of the opinion that the goal is implementation that leads to increase belonging, accessibility, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And we have not yet gotten to implementation, in at least our plan. So that’s been hard to sort of know what the successes are. But this is just me being very hard on what the goals are and having a very defined boundary or defined notion of what success is.

If you talk to people, what they’ll tell you is that they learned a lot. A lot of people will come up to me at conferences and say, thank you so much for all the work, that was truly a transformative experience. A lot of people will tell me when I go give department talks, that, hey, we started doing some of these things, we changed our hiring plan or some of the easiest stuff in our department. I know, like, for example, the USGS had done a lot of work going towards implementation. USGS being the United States Geological Survey, it’s a federal agency. And all 310 places now have policies and resources that are on the website and so this resource will always be there. And so, it also made a place where people could communicate openly about those things and gave people a lot of practice which they could use again in the future. URGE has received several awards in recognition from the community, from the American Geophysical Union, and I’ve been also recognised by National Association of Geoscience Teachers. The other thing that it did was that there’s a lot of people now who adopt the method of URGE for their diversity program. So, I think those are the sort of current benefits of URGE and a lot of it haven’t been reported.

[16:24] Marissa Lo: What have been the main hurdles for the URGE project?

[16:27] Vashan Wright: I think I have to convince people that URGE project is possibly a five-, six-year project. They spent hours working on the first draft, right? And there are people who are hungry to just implement them. And so graduate students who worked on it in 2021, they will graduate by the time you possibly get to implementation, and they will have been in the URGE pod in stage one, development, but wouldn’t have been in refinement and then might come back in and out. And the people who created the first drafts in the development stage might just check out by the time you get to implementation. And it’s a completely different group who never actually worked on it. And so, this idea that you’re working on something for your community for five years and that you do the first draft and somebody else picks up the baton and somebody else picks up the baton and you come back in, that’s hard to message. Well, so that’s been one sort of hurdle that I’m thinking about moving into the future, that you’re a part of the process to get to the end stage. You might not be a part of the entire process, but we can’t rush this.

[17:56] Marissa Lo: How have you managed your time in terms of working on URGE but also being a researcher? I know, like, it’s often the unfortunate case that people who are interested in doing diversity work often have to split their time. How have you managed that over the past few years?

[18:14] Vashan Wright: I think I spent more time working on URGE when I was a postdoc in the first stages than I do now. I probably spent upwards of 20 or so hours a week on the URGE programme during development, but somehow I managed to get stuff done. But it helped that I already had a job, so I knew some of the postdoc stresses were off me. As a professor, Carlene Burton does a lot of the URGE work, and she works as a research data analyst too at Scripps Institution of Oceanography with me. And so she does a lot of the work, and so I don’t do it alone. The first one, there was five members of the team, and here Carlene has done a tremendous job. And then we write papers that are scientific and we try to write rigorous papers, and so that goes into my scholarship. But for sure, once I had a professor job and had students and I had to build a lab, I’ve spent more time doing that than on URGE. But I’ve also been like, I’m not rushing this, do it right. That’s how it’s been.

[19:29] Marissa Lo: My final question for you is, how can people find out more if they want to get involved with URGE, use your resources, where can we find everything?

[19:38] Vashan Wright: Yeah so www.urgeoscience.org. That’s U-R-G-E-O-S-C-I-E-N-C-E.org and it does have a link to our Twitter and our YouTube and our email on the header of the homepage. And it has all the recordings, videos, papers, resources, the list of pods, all their anti-racist policies and resources, pictures of the team, frequently answered questions, et cetera. It’s all there.

[20:12] Marissa Lo: Super. Okay. I’ll put a link for all the information in the episode description so people can look them up after this. So, all that’s left to say is thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today.

[20:23] Vashan Wright: Thank you.

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