Guest Post by Paige Helms, Ryan Moruzzi, Andrea Arauza Rivera, and Robin Wilson
As the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) in Denver, CO approached, there was an unusual amount of tension in the mathematics community. The divisive stance taken by an AMS Vice-President on the use of Diversity Statements in hiring sparked a flurry of responses in print, on social media, and in the Notices of the AMS. This tension was amplified by the uncertainty around the upcoming parting of the AMS and MAA from their joint partnership to organize and fund the country’s largest annual gathering of mathematicians.
Despite the increased anxiety over the circumstances surrounding the meeting, there was great excitement around what seems to be an increase in sessions addressing issues related to equity, inclusion, and social justice. In addition to talks on those topics, there were also special sessions organized by MAA, AWM, NAM, and AMS members that highlighted mathematical research and other contributions from Black, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ mathematicians as well as many allies. We will highlight one such session here, which was the AMS Special Session on the Mathematics of Social Justice.
The session, Mathematics of Social Justice, consisted of six 20-minute talks on a range of topics related to how mathematicians can take up issues of social justice. Some key ideas discussed were centered around the culture of mathematics within our community, its role in society, and how this positioning affects us; work with students around issues of interest in their community; and raising awareness around the mathematical underpinnings of the public policy issue of Gerrymandering. Our goal was to provide some fertile ground for dialogue and for sharing of ideas related to social justice issues, both as they relate to efforts for justice within the mathematics community and as ways that mathematics can be used as a tool for fostering social justice in our society. We feel that we were successful in creating space for our colleagues to voice opinions that do not often have a platform at the gatherings of our mathematical societies.
The idea for the session grew out of a seminar that was organized by a group of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of California, Riverside (UC Riverside). This seminar provided a space for weekly discussions with graduate students, postdocs, and faculty on topics centered on equity in the mathematics field. The organizers of the Mathematics of Social Justice special session have close ties with UC Riverside and have contributed to the discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion in the mathematics community across Southern California. From their various positions and perspectives, the organizers sought to contribute to a shift in the types of conversations that are taking place at the JMM about who and what mathematics is for.
In this blog post, our goals are twofold. We aim to shed light on the social justice work being done that was presented at JMM, and we wish to open the door for responses and self-reflections from the community, especially those who were not able to attend the JMM session. Our hope is that these important conversations continue to have a space at future mathematics convenings. A description of the happenings of the session is below, in the order that the speakers appeared, with links to the slides below.
The session began with work done at the University of Colorado, Denver by Shea Swauger, Michael Ferrara, Dennis DeBay, Diane Fritz, and Matthew Mariner on The Data to Policy Project: A Framework for Social Justice Advocacy in Mathematics Education. The Data to Policy (D2P) project began in 2015, at the Auraria Campus in Denver, CO. D2P challenges students to explore public data and use quantitative and policy-making tools to ask difficult questions related to social justice and propose policies to their communities. The talk outlined the
development of D2P and highlighted some successes and challenges for mathematics educators to consider. The talk also shared examples of student projects.
Brian P Katz, currently at Smith College, gave a talk titled Mathematics is Not Neutral. In the talk, Katz described how common aspects of our disciplinary epistemologies hinder justice and rehumanizing efforts or actively support problematic systems. Katz discussed some of their efforts to have these conversations and make these issues visible with students and faculty, attending to the impact and responsibility coming from their identities.
Marion Campisi from San Jose State University gave a talk on her work with Thomas C Ratliff and Ellen Veomett on the Analysis of Partisan Gerrymandering Tools in Advance of the US 2020 Census. Over the last decade, mapmakers have precisely gerrymandered political districts for the benefit of their party. In this talk, Campisi explored the Declination, a new metric intended to detect partisan gerrymandering. The talk explained that Declination cannot detect all forms of packing and cracking, and compared the Declination to the Efficiency Gap. The talk also showed that these two metrics can behave quite differently and gave explicit examples where that occurs.
Gizem Karaali from Pomona College gave a talk titled Whose
Math and For What Purpose? A Community Seminar on Identity, Culture, and Mathematics. In the spring of 2018, the mathematics department at Pomona College hosted a community seminar on identity, culture, and power in the discipline of mathematics and the role that it plays in society. The talk described the specifics of the seminar, what types of issues were discussed, what a typical seminar session looked like, and what was gained from the experience.
Roberto Pelayo from UC Irvine gave a talk titled Improving Equity and Access in Mathematics Curricula. For many students, access to rigorous and appropriately-paced mathematics curricula in high school and university settings is a barrier to graduation and the completion of a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The talk discussed educational policies attempting to provide more effective curricular pathways, including a re-crafting of the traditional mathematics course sequencing at the high school level and a decrease in developmental course offerings at the university level. Pelayo then spoke of the impacts of these policies and highlighted ways that higher education faculty can contribute to these efforts.
Emille Lawrence of the University of San Francisco gave a talk
titled Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap. Recent cases of partisan gerrymandering have made it all the way to the Supreme Court and the efficiency gap formula, a formula which quantifies the amount of “wasted votes” by a party, played a pivotal role in these cases. The talk discussed the efficiency gap formula as it was originally defined by E. McGhee, as well as some competing new alternatives.
These speakers all shed light on how mathematics can inform us about issues and inequities in society. The common question in mathematics, “How is this useful?,” can be addressed through the very pertinent issues we face today. After the presentations concluded, the last part of the special session was dedicated to small-group discussions. The conversations centered around questions about the different ways we can interact with incorporating social justice issues in our courses; what each of us can do at our institutions, our places of work, and our broader communities; to what resources we each have access, in addition to brainstorming around some ideas within our capacity that we could individually commit to implementing in the near future. As organizers, we were pleased with the large turnout for our session, and we were appreciative of those that stayed to participate in this discussion. Showcasing these talks at JMM will hopefully encourage others to consider reading into these topics or inspire readers to consider the mathematics behind social justice-related issues relevant to our profession, including how they can make contributions (big or small) to create a more just and equitable community both at home and professionally.