Project to create anti-racism education wins Mellon grant

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded $5 million to fund an interdisciplinary, multi-year project to advance anti-racist practices and pedagogy in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM).

Selected as one of 16 winning projects in the Mellon Foundation’s “Just Futures Initiative” competition, the University of Wisconsin–Madison-based “Humanities Education for Anti-racism Literacy (HEAL) in the Sciences and Medicine,” will bring together faculty, students, community members and Tribal partners to address a lack of awareness of histories of racism in academic disciplines, especially in scientific disciplines, and a lack of diverse representation in STEMM across sectors, from academia to industry.

The Mellon Foundation is the largest funder of the arts and humanities in the U.S. The foundation’s “Just Futures Initiative” will provide funding over a three-year period to support multidisciplinary and multi-institutional collaborative teams contributing to public understanding of past racism and leading to the creation of socially just futures.

Elizabeth Hennessy, a UW–Madison professor in the History Department and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, will lead UW’s project. Other team members include Christy Clark-Pujara, a professor of history and Afro-American studies, Maxine McKinney de Royston, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, B. Justin Hougham, director of the UW-Extension’s Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center, Erika Marín-Spiotta, a professor of geography, Monica White, a professor in Community and Environmental Sociology and the Nelson Institute, Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, director of the Earth Partnership program in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, Todd Michelson-Ambelang, a senior academic librarian at UW–Madison, Robin Rider, a historian of science and curator of UW Special Collections, and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, an assistant professor in the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.

Hennessy, who teaches in UW’s history of science program, had been wanting to respond to the inequities she knew existed across academia. The Black Lives Matter protest movement following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the spring of 2020 motivated her and other colleagues.

“The history of science faculty started brainstorming about how we could increase the teaching we do on histories of race in the sciences and medicine,” she says. “When I saw Mellon’s call for proposals, I knew that colleagues and I could develop something. I reached out to Erika Marín-Spiotta, who has been working on equity and diversity issues in the geosciences for years, and she was excited about it as well. It was the perfect time to put this together.”

UW’s team is cross-university, and even inter-institutional, with a co-PI from the University of Washington, another collaborator at Duke University, and several community partners.

The project has three phases:

  • The first year of the project will focus on oral histories and information-gathering, particularly regarding the lived experiences of Black and Native students.
  • In year two, the team will use the data they’ve collected to develop humanities-based, culturally appropriate curricula and courses on histories of systemic racism for students and educators.
  • Year three will see the implementation and dissemination of these resources, including teacher training and workshops.

As the project unfolds, outcomes will go beyond curricular offerings. One community partner is Winnie Karanja, the founder and executive director of Maydm, a Madison non-profit organization that focuses on skills-based training for youth of color in the technology sector. A fierce advocate for fueling young girls’ interest in technology and engineering, Karanja’s work will involve gathering oral histories of notable women in STEMM, for a book rich in stories and photographs. The Center for the Humanities at UW–Madison will collaborate with such community partners to place public humanities fellows with organizations that are working to close the racial equity gap in STEMM education.

“The contributions of BIPOC women have not been historically recognized in mainstream outlets,” she says. “This book is intended to inspire the next generation – but it’s also a way to pay tribute to those women whose work is fundamental to the technologies we now use every day.”

Nelson Institute Dean Paul Robbins called the project “incredibly exciting.”

“This represents the culmination of a great deal of work and foment amongst scholars dedicated to, and concerned about, the critical problem and history of non-inclusive STEM scholarship and STEM academic communities,” Robbins says. “Formed by a great team, including several key Nelson Institute scholars and staff, it reflects the Institute’s ongoing dedication to environmental justice and to becoming a better partner to diverse publics, especially including the sovereign Native Nations around the state now known as Wisconsin. It’s very good news.”

Bauer-Armstrong, who leads UW’s Earth Partnership: Indigenous Arts & Sciences to better prepare and support Native students for academic life, will work closely with University of Washington partner Woelfle-Erskine on collaborative projects that will build on current strengths in Indigenized curriculum and pedagogy, as well as strengthen partnerships with Tribal members and students in the development of new ideas and practices. Learning about the land from a Native perspective is a profound shift in thinking that influences everything from designing field courses, to re-examining restoration practices for waterways and other ecosystems.

“I am very, very excited about the possibilities of working with the University of Washington team,” says Bauer-Armstrong. “Mellon Foundation funding will also deepen our work with Native students and Tribal communities in Wisconsin in order to have a greater impact on pathways for Native youth, curriculum, and courses for undergraduates.”

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing deep inequities in American society, and academic institutions are examining their hiring and inclusion practices and committing to robust anti-racism education, the Mellon Foundation “sees humanities playing an important role by helping to shed light on the past, make meaning of the present and analyze the conditions required for socially just futures.”  For Hennessy, whose academic work intersects with both humanities and STEMM disciplines, the need is urgent and clear.

“It is important to understand how science, like any other knowledge endeavor, is shaped by the cultural moment,” she says. “Biases shape the sciences. They shape the questions we ask, and they’ve led to unequal inclusion in many disciplines. The humanities can help us put cultural histories of racism and exclusion in the academy into perspective and we think that learning first-hand from students of color is essential for promoting effective change.”

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