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Q&A With Kailani Acosta on Diversity in the Geosciences

Kailani Acosta is a second year PhD student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, studying biological oceanography in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science (DEES). Her research explores the interactions of nitrogen and phosphorous in the ocean surface and how they change with distance from the shore.

kailani acosta headshot
Kailani Acosta is a second year PhD student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She is studying biological oceanography, and has set up two diversity initiatives on campus to support women and people of color in the geosciences. (Photo courtesy Kailani Acosta)

In 2019, Acosta founded the Seminar Diversity Initiative to prioritize diversity and inclusion in the geoscience seminars at Lamont. Acosta also co-founded the Race Talk book club with fellow graduate students Lorelei Curtin and Carly Peltier. Race Talk, named after the book by Columbia psychologist Derald Wing Sue, provides a space for the predominantly white campus community to discuss issues of race, privilege, and power.

Women and people of color are historically underrepresented in the geosciences. In 2016, 85 percent of people who received doctoral degrees in the geosciences were white, a number that has barely changed in the last 40 years. At Columbia’s School of Arts and Sciences, which houses DEES, only five percent of tenure-line faculty declare themselves underrepresented minorities. DEES graduate students are 51 percent male and 64 percent white, according to survey data averages from 2015 to 2019.

In the Q&A below, Acosta describes the motivation behind creating the Seminar Diversity Initiative and Race Talk book club, the importance of championing diversity in the geosciences, and how to start engaging in productive conversations about race.

How did you become involved in diversity initiatives like those you’ve started at Lamont? 

I grew up on Long Island, which is obviously very white. As an Afro-Latina, I stood out. I didn’t want to “other” myself more, so I generally tried not to think about my race. I assumed diversity would be less of an issue in college, but when I ended up being one of the few people of color in my STEM classes, I realized I needed to take action.

Scientists are trained only to talk about science. But where things like race are concerned, that is hugely detrimental to scientists of color. I became involved because I want diversity to matter to others as it does to me and to other underrepresented minorities. I want science to be accessible and accommodating for all.

From your perspective, what does diversity mean for students and researchers of color? 

I’ve been thinking about all diversity, race, and equity in the U.S. so much in the last few days and weeks. It is hard to condense it to one point. I think diversity, for many people in the geosciences, is tangential. But for people of color, we are black and brown every day. This is everything. It ties into everything we do and everything we want to do. Seeing institutions and departments care about something that is so integral to who you are changes how you work, your priorities, and how you push yourself to be better.

Why did you start the Seminar Diversity Initiative?

I was recruited to be a part of the Biology and Paleoenvironment Seminar Organizing Committee at Lamont in 2019. Each of the five divisions at Lamont usually has one seminar a week. After the first six months, I looked back at all the people we had invited as speakers, and realized we had only invited one person of color to speak. I thought of all the other divisional seminars I had been to, and I didn’t remember seeing any people of color speaking at the other seminars either.

On June 1, 2019, all of the graduate students at Lamont received a targeted racist email. It was the same email sent to everyone in alphabetical order, but the emails didn’t all go out at the same time. At first, because my last name begins with an “A,” I was the only one who got it. I ran around to the other graduate students, asking, “Did you get this email? Did you get this email? I don’t know what’s happening.” The turmoil of this pointed racism was so intense and surreal. I was scared and sad and angry. I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t know what to do, who to contact or how to convey what I was feeling in that moment. In the days and weeks that followed, we had a few forums on race, diversity and inclusion, and I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “We need to do something. This is not what we stand for.” Other than holding forums, though, nothing actually changed.

For others to understand a little bit of what I was feeling, why I was feeling so devastated, and why things need to change, we needed to increase representation, diversity and inclusion on campus. We had diversity initiatives that were mostly focused on seminars about diversity, which have the capacity to silo diversity into a separate category. In order to have real, lasting change, you have to make the people who don’t care about diversity care. This is accomplished by putting scientists of color right in front of them giving a seminar about their research. As an extension of caring about the science, they will care about the scientists. I wanted the initiative to uplift the few people of color we have at Lamont, and create role models for undergraduates, graduate students, and anyone else who hasn’t had the opportunity to see people who look like them talk about their science.

When you reflect on what the Initiative has accomplished over the last year, what stands out to you?

When I started the Seminar Diversity Initiative, I sent out a few emails to the whole Lamont campus. I asked people to send me recommendations for scientists they would like to host to give seminars so we could compile a list of underrepresented seminar speakers. I hadn’t fully fleshed out what this was going to be or made any concrete plans. I didn’t have any funding. After I received all of these amazing recommendations, I brought together all of the seminar organizing committees to try to change the foundation of seminars to include a focus on seminar speakers from marginalized backgrounds.

In STEM, when we usually talk about diversity, it becomes a trite explanation of the lack of diversity, but it doesn’t expand into critical thought about the structural and institutional barriers that exist for the few people of color in the geosciences. I received such an amazing response from that email that I thought, “Wow, this can really be something.” That was one of the best moments of creating this whole thing.

I have had a lot of support from the university — the graduate students, post docs, faculty, and administrators. The Lamont administration has been wonderful. One of my main concerns when I was spearheading this initiative was that I didn’t want this work to just exist because I was continually pushing it forward. I wanted to create structures to allow for diversity initiatives to expand and be critical parts of our work at Lamont. We currently have funding in place for all the Lamont divisions that will increase in the years going forward. We are meeting later this summer to discuss future directions, ways to support our current graduate students and postdocs of color, and ways to increase faculty diversity.

Alongside the Seminar Diversity Initiative, you co-created the Race Talk book club with fellow graduate students Lorelei Curtin and Carly Peltier. What brought on the idea for the book club? 

During the Lamont forums on race last year, there seemed to be hesitation around topics of race, whiteness, and privilege. We created Race Talk because we wanted to create a space and community for talking and asking questions about race.

In Derald Wing Sue’s book, Race Talk, he describes what he calls a “conspiracy of silence” around topics like race. To what do you attribute that “conspiracy of silence”? 

Talking about race in our country can reveal differences in politics, worldviews, and perspectives — things that generally make people uncomfortable. Attending a Race Talk discussion isn’t a passive thing where you can just show up, nod, and then go about your day. The majority of people in the workplace at Lamont and Columbia would rather avoid those discussions because they take a lot out of you. When traumatic things happen, it is easy to stop interacting with people about it because the situation is so dire and emotional. Everything feels like so much work, which it is. It means you have to do a lot of work on yourself as well. Race Talk is a space for those who want to take the time and make that effort.

How does the book club format help people engage in conversations about race? 

The books and articles we read are tools for having discussions. In our current culture, there are people who care about race but, not knowing enough about what to do, would rather do nothing than be wrong. The book club format gives people the space to understand and work through tough subjects, even if that means referring to a passage they found really impactful but don’t have the words to explain why. It is a step in the right direction to informing your views. Especially today, the voices of authors and intellectuals are so important; books like Race Talk take a variety of experiences into account and explain the relationships between privilege, power, and microaggressions.

How do you effectively facilitate conversations about diversity across racial lines? 

Lorelei, Carly, and I have long meetings before the scheduled discussions to create specific talking points and relate them to passages or chapters of the book to keep people grounded. We also have index cards where people can ask questions they wouldn’t be comfortable asking out loud. We want to make it as accessible for people as possible.

It is definitely hard to facilitate something like Race Talk, especially when I am often the only person of color in the room. I’m usually the one having to answer the questions like, “Well, I don’t really have any friends who are people of color, what can I do?” Even now, a lot of people ask me small, logistical things like, “What do you think if I post this to Instagram? What kind of donations are organizations looking for?” I have the energy and capacity to do it, but I wouldn’t want to force that pressure on anyone who isn’t willing or able. I would rather they ask me. I don’t want people to hesitate to learn about something because they don’t know where to start.

What can those at Lamont and in the geosciences at large do to help champion greater diversity in the field?

I think the best place to start is with a book — reading, listening, or whatever other medium works best for you. It’s helpful to be able to reflect on your life, your views, and pick them apart a little bit, using literature as a guide. You don’t have to change your ideas completely, but you can question yourself. You can question why you think something or why you were taught something. Even if you feel like you know a lot, there is always more to learn.

For more information about the Race Talk book club, a list of recommended readings, and access to the book club reading guides, visit the Lamont Race Talk webpage. In recognition of recent events, Acosta, Curtin, Peltier, Arianna Varuolo-Clarke and Lauren Moseley have also compiled a list of resources on how to engage in anti-racism work and support the Black community.

Editor’s note: This blog post was updated on July 21, 2020 to clarify the statistics around diversity in the earth sciences at Columbia.

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