Empowering Change, One SPS Chapter at a Time

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Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Congress (PhysCon)

November 3, 2016 to November 5, 2016

San Francisco, CA

Meeting host:

Sigma Pi Sigma


Katee O’Malley, Caitlyn McConnell, and Mia Vega

SPS Chapter:

Students from across the country came together to discuss best practices for inclusion.

Physics as a whole is not as diverse as the population of potential physicists, though the field has made great strides recently. And as diversity of all types increases, so does the need for an inclusive community.

Therese Jones, former president of her SPS chapter at Penn State University , led PhysCon attendees through a workshop called “Making Physics a Community.”

While at Penn State, she wrote an article called “Make Your Physics Lounge a ‘Safe Place’: How to become an advocate for inclusion” for The SPS Observer, Summer 2015 issue. Jones mentioned she was sexually harassed as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and she witnessed serial harasser Geoff Marcy inappropriately pursue other undergraduate students (he ultimately resigned from Berkeley under pressure from colleagues).These experiences inspired her to help others advocate for themselves within their departments. The main goal of this workshop was to empower undergraduates to effectively change the climate of their physics department to promote an inclusive environment.

To start the workshop, Jones laid out some ground rules to ensure that everyone felt safe in their choice to share, or to not share, their experiences. These rules were for the workshop, but chapters can also use these rules to talk about the current climate of your SPS chapter or physics department. The ground rules included:

Attendees were encouraged to share openly about challenges they have encountered in their departments.

  1. Don’t deny someone’s lived experiences, if they feel as if they have experienced discrimination don't deny how they felt

  2. Do not force someone from a minoritized group to share their opinion; if they do choose to share, listen respectfully

  3. Listen to everyone, each individual and chapter has valuable insight to share

  4. No department is perfect, there are always ways to improve and it is okay to admit you have made mistakes in the past.

Next, Jones asked the group to look at question prompts she placed on the table and to answer them first individually, then as a group.The prompt questions included:

  1. What is the toughest part of being a physics student?

  2. What is something you wish you knew as a freshman (or when you started your program)?

  3. Have you noticed someone who was excluded from your program? This could be by their peers, or by their circumstances (e.g., working 60 hours a week at a job, a student with a kid they have to take care of after classes)

  4. If you could ask your department to make any improvements, what would they be?

After letting these questions simmer within ourselves, we were asked to then share our answers with our group. We came up with a number of suggestions for improvements, including undergraduate representatives to attend staff meetings to address concerns within the department, a mentorship program to make newcomers feel more welcome, and review sessions led by upperclassmen.  Jones then asked us to choose one idea and create an action plan.Our group decided to choose fundraising for our SPS chapters.  We suggested new ideas  for fundraising, like selling club mugs or t-shirts, creative incentives like prizes for the SPS member who raises the most money, and encouraging e-board members to help get club members enthusiastic about the project. Jones also gave us some factors to consider when starting a new effort.

Starting a New Effort

  1. How many people do I need to accomplish this task?

  2. How much will it cost and where can I get the money?

  3. How much time will it take?

  4. How long will it take to accomplish this task?

  5. What is the end goal?

  6. What are the intermediate goals?

  7. Is it possible to evaluate the success of this effort?

  8. Can faculty, graduate students, students from other institution, or university/external organizations help me? Does this complement any other work in progress?

  9. Can I get my entire chapter onboard with this effort?

The discussion then shifted to the topic of inclusion and how to create  an inclusive environment for all. Jones gave us a number of ideas to improve equity and accessibility (see sidebar), then asked us to come up with our own ideas.

One thing our group came up with was to have an anonymous comment box followed by a forum. The anonymous comment box provides an outlet to bring up topics that need to be addressed and the forum can allow the chapter set forth a plan to address the issues. Overall, the session was extremely successful. We took the idea of the anonymous comment box back to our SPS chapter and we got positive feedback. We plan to put up the box if our chapter agrees, and we hope that it helps keep our physics community accepting of everyone. Like Jones said, no chapter is perfect and it's okay to make mistakes, but more importantly, it is imperative to advocate for yourself and your fellow peers to ensure a safe and productive environment.

How to Create an Inclusive Environment

by Therese Jones, as told to attendees of the Making Physics a Community workshop at PhysCon 

  1. Create a Code of Conduct so everyone feels comfortable in the physics lounge, and hold people accountable to it

  2. Make sure your events and your department are physically accessible to people with disabilities.

  3. Determine whether your events and department is accommodating to people with different schedules/obligations (e.g., students with families, students who have to work long hours)

  4. Learn how to report conduct issues at your university (e.g., harassment, discrimination)

    • Does your university have a climate committee?  Title IX, Title IV (gender, racial discrimination) offices?

  5. Create a way to inform students of the programs and groups targeted at underrepresented populations listed in this document!

  6. Request an APS site visit to evaluate your department’s climate [https://www.aps.org/programs/women/sitevisits/]

  7. Ask your department to invite speakers of different demographics—APS has funding for minority speakers [https://www.aps.org/programs/minorities/speakers/travel-grants.cfm] (and a speaker list!)

  8. Start a discussion series on equity issues

  9. Not everyone has the same level of math/physics background—are there any ways you can make the transition to your program easier academically?   A summer program?  A beginning of the year boot camp?  See the Berkeley Campus Project [http://www.berkeleycompassproject.org]

  10. Are there any study abroad opportunities that are particularly good for physics majors?  If not, is there a faculty member who would be a good sponsor for a course or a foreign institution that would be a good partner?

  11. Partner with other equity-related organizations at your university to host events.  Attend orientation events for different groups (e.g., transfer students, first generation students)

  12. Host outreach events targeted at minoritized groups

  13. Join the Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy Facebook Group [https://www.facebook.com/groups/astro.physics.women/] if you want more support!

  14. Mental health services: make campus resources known, host stress-relief events

  15. Compile a list of scholarships for physics students both inside and outside of your university

  16. Create a mentoring program!  Older to younger undergrads, grads to undergrads, alumni to undergrads