On January 20, 2009, I joined a large crowd of students, faculty, and staff at the Reitz Union at the University of Florida. We were there to watch the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama. The room was filled with joy, happiness, and of course hope. Strangers hugged, and many of us were struggling to hold back tears as we listened to President Obama’s inaugural speech. I most particularly remember these words:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.Barack Obama, Jan 20, 2009
As I heard these words, I decided that I needed to do something. I am a white man of Jewish decent who has had great privilege and opportunity given to me. For anyone who has read earlier entries of my blog, I have had the privilege to drop out of college, pursue saddle making, build a house in the Santa Fe National Forest, etc. I had safety nets aplenty, and there was never a time that my wife and I thought we wouldn’t be able to buy food or other essentials. Even when my passport photo could have been mistaken for an FBI most wanted posting, I was never harassed or even pulled over by police. In fact, this passport photo was taken so that I could fly to Europe to do folk dancing with a troupe from Salt Lake City, Utah. I was never stopped by airport security or police in the US or any country we visited in Europe. Privilege.
So when I heard President Obama say that “we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly”, I decided to start a new weekly science club for disadvantaged elementary school children in Gainesville, FL. This was my second foray into this business, the first being in an after school program at Prairie View Elementary School. We called ourselves the “Prairie View Rattlers Science Club”. The Rattlers Science Club was an amazing experience that I and several other volunteers did for 2 years until Prairie View Elementary School was closed in 2003. The students served by Prairie View were almost all African American and poor. Greater than 90% qualified for free school lunch programs. I wanted to show the children that there were other options for a job beyond pro athlete (a common aspiration) or minimum wage labor (a path that seemed laid out for them). We had amazing after school teachers, who helped organize the children and to provide some discipline to keep them from getting too crazy.
Prairie View Elementary was a neighborhood school that families and students loved. When the school board needed to cut funds and consolidate students, there were many protests about closing the school. But close it they did, despite the fact that none of the schools on the more economically prosperous side of town (largely white, middle class) were closed. Privilege.
President Obama’s words were similar to President Kennedy’s in 1961: “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”. I pledged in the Reitz union as Obama ended his speech to start another science club. This time, it was in the Pineridge Community Center in Gainesville, FL. Pineridge was a low income housing complex with many disadvantaged children, most African American and all poor. I modeled the Pineridge Science Club after the Prairie View Science Club, and I even was able to recruit more volunteer helpers, including several amazing graduate students in the UF College of Medicine and Education. The volunteers enriched the experience for everyone, but the critical thing that was different was that there were no after school teachers. We were on our own, and none of us were trained or comfortable with discipline. We wanted it to be fun (which it was much of the time), but it was also clear that we needed someone who knew the children and could exert their “tough love” when things got out of hand (which they did rather often).
We stopped the Pineridge Science Club after 2 years that were mostly positive but also very challenging. I was exhausted and didn’t think I could handle it any more. It was harder to find volunteers, though a few stayed with it through the end.
I am now an Eminent Scholar and Professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. Athens is much like Gainesville, FL with a vast racial and economic divide. We have lovely neighborhoods where people like me live and some very poor neighborhoods where people struggle to pay rent or utilities and have no internet for their children. I still have not been pulled over by the police, but I know that many of my fellow Athenians are routinely pulled over and scrutinized for the color of their skin or the style of clothes that they are wearing.
George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020 by a police officer kneeling on his throat for 8 minutes and 46 seconds for the suspicion of trying to spend a forged $20 bill. The world is protesting, even in the current COVID-19 pandemic. George Floyd and others that have been killed since him are in a long line of African Americans who have been brutalized at the hands of white people since before the founding of the United States. The Prairie View and Pineridge students are part of that brutalization, because they never had the same choices and opportunities that my own children and now my own grandchildren have. I only wonder how many of my former Science Club students have been beaten or even killed during the past 20 years.
We now have a racist president of the United States who doesn’t trust science enough to control the pandemic responsibly or recognize the continuing crisis of climate change. Both COVID-19 and climate change disproportionately hurt economically disadvantaged people, many of whom are African American.
But we can’t blame everything on the current occupant of the white house. Over about 30 years in science, I have not seen any significant change in the number of African American Professors, Eminent Scholars, Nobel Laureates, Associate Professors, and Assistant Professors in my field. I do see many young African American children and a beautiful diversity of race and ethnicity on college campuses now. So far, we have failed to give these young people a fair opportunity to climb the ladder of academic science. This is a real failure that needs to change, and I am hoping that George Floyd’s death, and #BlackLivesMatter, and #ShutDownSTEM will start to make a real difference.