One year organizing in the mathematics community

Guest post by the Just Mathematics Collective

As we reach the one-year mark of the Black Lives Matter rebellion of Summer 2020, many of us are reflecting on the actions we promised to take last summer and on what we’ve done in the intervening year. Our main objective in writing this post is to let folks in on our experiences organizing in the mathematics community. Tl;dr: we would’ve never thought that something that so often feels like herding cats could also be so joyous and inspiring! We’re also here to give a round-up of our past and current campaigns and to let people know how they can get more involved in our fight for a more just mathematics.

The Just Mathematics Collective (JMC) formed last summer in an effort to try and push our community towards a freer and more just mathematics. One year and several campaign launches later, we write this post in the same reflective spirit mentioned above, and to catalog some of our experiences, victories, and challenges.

We’re overjoyed by the connections, friendships, and solidarity we’ve built with one another! Our collective is now an organizing home to more than 50 mathematicians and scholars of mathematics, including undergraduates; graduate students; post-docs; tenure-track faculty; and tenured and full-time faculty at R1’s, teaching-focused institutions, and liberal arts colleges. We were frankly surprised to find so many mathematicians who are interested in an abolitionist mathematical future!

On the other hand, we’re also frustrated. We’re angry — on behalf of both ourselves and oppressed people all over the world — at the apathy of those who continue to stay on the sidelines. We’re disappointed in senior mathematicians who’ve made names for themselves in the DEI industry but still refuse to take political risks by attaching their names to genuinely radical ideas or pledging to take actions that — by virtue of how true justice is resisted by the status quo — might get them in trouble with colleagues and their home institutions.

In this post, we’ll summarize our year of campaigning and what it’s taught us about risk, seniority, and different forms of power as they relate to organizing within the mathematics community.


“Once I get tenure, I’ll speak my truth”, and other lies we tell ourselves

“It’s just too risky to rock the boat right now — you have to think about your career and your future! Just wait until you have tenure: then you’ll have real power to make change.” JMC members have heard versions of this advice countless times, but most senior mathematicians’ engagement with our work has been to loudly dismiss our campaigns. In light of this enormous gap between promised action and observed inaction, we need to ask: where are all the boat-rocking tenured mathematicians?

In our experience, senior people have played by far the smallest role in the work required for meaningful and lasting change. This lack of engagement is a real shame, since their job security puts them in the best position to take political risks, and because their professional seniority grants them a huge amount of influence in our community. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but we want to highlight four major types of senior mathematicians we’ve encountered in the last year:

  1. The Apathetic Academics
  2. The Militantly Opposed
  3. The DEI Specialists
  4. The Accomplices

We view the Apathetic Academics and the DEI Specialists as the biggest impediments to our organizing efforts.

Complete disengagement is sometimes worse than active opposition. Apathetic Academics do not want to be inconvenienced in any way, and being principled is often very inconvenient! Of course, the Militantly Opposed are not our friends, but unlike the Apathetic Academics, they are at least honest enough to admit that they have political beliefs (regardless of how abhorrent these beliefs actually are!) and are brave enough to express those beliefs in a public forum.

And the eagerness of the Militantly Opposed to share bad and/or misinformed opinions can sometimes be useful to our organizing efforts. For example, consider a hypothetical in which someone announces that they’re so opposed to the idea of ethics informing academics’ choices in where to direct our labor that they would personally recruit for Satan if he were hiring mathematicians. By pointing out how morally bankrupt this position is, we can facilitate a much needed conversation about the relationship between academic freedom and ethical participation in the academy.

Unlike the Apathetic Academics, the DEI Specialists are willing to be inconvenienced. Many of them spend countless hours organizing equity events or conferences tailored to underrepresented and marginalized students. DEI Specialists often portray their work as going completely unnoticed and uncompensated, and they see themselves as rebellious scholar-activists in search of “good trouble”, as evidenced by right-wing extremists targeting their efforts. One problem with this narrative is that right-wing extremists wouldn’t know true equity and justice from a hole in the ground. Moreover, genuine “good trouble” actually requires the possibility of getting in trouble! And since much of the DEI Specialist’s work is institutionally sanctioned, they rarely need to worry about that.

Along these lines, the JMC believes that conventional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work — much like the neoliberal policies of the Democratic party — simply does not (and fundamentally can not!) address the root causes of injustice in our communities. Toothless DEI work provides cover for our institutions, allowing them to launder their reputations and feign concern without the threat of meaningful, radical change to the oppressive systems they benefit from. It is for precisely this reason that conventional DEI efforts are actually showered with immense amounts of resources and institutional time, and the folks who lead those efforts are often recognized with personal accolades, promotions, and social clout.

Last, and  sadly very much least (in quantity!), we have the Accomplices. Some have become JMC members and contribute immensely to our active campaigns. Frankly, it’s thanks to them that the more junior members of our collective know it’s not impossible to have both tenure and integrity!

Lessons learned: We absolutely can not rely on senior people. The system rewards those willing to uphold the status quo too overwhelmingly for the existence of a strong contingent of senior folks with radical politics. We won’t give up on them as individuals, but we can’t afford to wait for them.


Power: who has it, and who doesn’t? 

Obviously, senior mathematicians with tenure do have power and security, but where do we draw the line between the powerful and the powerless? That there’s no clear-cut way to measure power makes it possible for so many senior academics — including chairpeople — to claim powerlessness when asked to implement even the most minor departmental reforms. Different people have access to different amounts of power, but anyone can feel powerless. And no environment is better at producing spinelessness than professional academia. Researchers are trained to believe that any wrong move could make the difference between a coveted tenure-track position and unemployment; that is, we’re trained to forfeit our power. This is the problem with the “wait until you’re tenured before making waves” advice: by then, this training has already been fully internalized.

Nevertheless, most academics have access to at least a baseline of power: institutional affiliations that can navigate behind paywalls; opportunities to mentor and teach students who themselves may go on to wield power in the future; and spending time in classrooms, offices, and hallways from which most human beings alive today are effectively barred. So instead of asking “Do I have power?”, we think the far more pressing questions are “How do I honor the responsibility to use the power that I do have? How can I be accountable not only to my students and mentees, but to the people I’ll most likely never meet in an academic context?” There’s no single right answer to these questions, but junior members of the JMC believe in our power, and over the last year, we’ve proved that we can exert it to make serious impacts.

Of course, many of us don’t have tenure, and there’s undeniable differences in power and safety from member to member. Collective anonymity is a useful tool for mitigating some of these differences, and acting collectively made us realize that we need to move away from the model of power that sees the individual as its key source. Collective action is where power is built. When those with the authority to make changes are unwilling to do so, either because they’re invested in the oppressive status quo, too cowardly to claim their own power, or more often both, our goal is to organize movements with sufficient energy, volume, and momentum to force hands and shift culture.

Lessons learned: The view of power that ascribes the most to senior people and the least to marginalized folks is reductive and presumes that power originates with the individual and not the collective. In some ways, this view ultimately reinforces the hierarchies we want to dismantle. For example, the more people who sign on to a risky or politically controversial campaign, the more powerful the campaign becomes, and the more the barrier to participation is lowered for the next person. Every time we choose to stand up for our principles, we exercise and claim our power, and when people get together to do this collectively, new power is generated.


Mathematics Beyond Prisons and Policing

About a year ago, an open letter began to circulate calling for an end to collaborations between mathematicians and police. At this time, the JMC was still in the process of formation; some JMC members were coauthors, and many of the people who would become members helped to edit and advertise the letter once it was written. As abolitionists, we envision a future without police and without prisons, and as mathematicians, we have access to the mathematics community. Organizing is most effective when people know each other and have preexisting relationships, so we came together to fight for our principles within our sphere of influence. In a relatively short time, we collected hundreds of signatures. Looking back, we think it was so successful because:

  1. There’s a genuinely strong desire for a police-free mathematics community.
  2. The political energy of the moment placed this issue at the forefront of many peoples’ minds after the police murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
  3. We weren’t asking most people to make major changes in the way they did their math — many people already didn’t collaborate with police in their professional work and didn’t plan on doing so in the future.

Of course, Militantly Opposed senior mathematicians acted quickly to express their disagreement with the letter. Several letters to the editor opposing the campaign appeared in the Notices of the AMS. As frustrating as it was to see so much justification for throwing human beings in cages at a time when Black and Brown people were rising up against police violence all over the country, the AMS’ decision to dedicate so much space to folks who thought we should keep working with cops gave us the opportunity to respond on this very blog. We used this moment to introduce an unapologetically abolitionist stance to the practice of professional mathematics and to expand our membership, increasing our labor power and our capacity for deeper and richer organizing work.

Lessons learned: Reading political energy and taking advantage of the right timing is essential to effective organizing. People with little experience claiming their power — such as those in the mathematics community — are often only ready to take small steps, and will therefore be most willing to sign on to campaigns that require little change in their daily habits.


Mathematics Beyond Secrecy and Surveillance 

After laying down a foundation with our Mathematics Beyond Prisons and Policing campaign, we were ready to take on a more demanding organizing project. Security and surveillance organizations play a much larger role in our community than do local police departments, and when it comes down to it, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and their international analogs are policing organizations. They act to uphold the same oppressive hierarchies that local police departments do, and they criminalize liberationist dissent all over the world. As we argued in our campaign document, being a member of an international mathematics community is impossible for so many of the Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of the world in part because of the brutality meted out by these organizations. So we believe that a mathematics event centered around equity, inclusion, or social justice which includes recruitment at the NSA or any related agency, fails on its own terms. There is nothing socially just about training a new generation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous imperialists!

Our ongoing campaign revolves around asking mathematicians of conscience to divest from these agencies. We designed a pledge campaign that allows signatories to pick and choose their commitments, ranging from sharing the document with colleagues and sparking discussion, to refusing to collaborate with the NSA on conference organizing and grant proposals, to refusing to write letters of recommendation for NSA-related programs. This flexibility allows people to sign on only to the parts of the campaign that they felt they could personally support and we’ve noticed that it’s encouraged more participation.

We’re thrilled with the energy the campaign has generated around these issues, and we’re grateful for the number of mathematicians who have already signed on. But in spite of the ease of participation, there are many DEI specialists who have definitely heard about the campaign several times (we’ve made sure of it!), but have yet to engage with it. As far as this campaign is concerned, these folks are far closer to being Apathetic Academics than they’d like to admit.

And if you’re a senior person interested in DEI work and you think we’re referring to you, we probably are. We’d love to have your participation in any of our campaigns and we leave space always for growth — even if you don’t feel like you can support this initiative now, we’re not giving up on you. But in the meantime, we encourage you to engage even in disagreement. You have a point of view; pushing through the fear you may have about airing it publicly is what sparks motion, growth, and dialog. In short: express disagreement with your chest, not your silence.

This isn’t the place for rehashing all of the arguments that cropped up around this campaign: readers can check out the FAQ we wrote for that purpose. We do, however, want to highlight one typical concern:

I’m just one person, struggling to get funded in an environment where money for basic research is harder and harder to come by. If the NSA is giving it out anyway, and my work isn’t really even that related to national security, what’s the big deal?” 

We really do sympathize with this point of view! But we also feel that it misunderstands how agencies like the NSA purchase influence with their grant money. Funding organizations jockey for larger percentages of total awarded dollars so that they can more actively shape the research landscape. A world where surveillance agencies are responsible for a significant portion of available funding is also a world where:

  • research towards a mathematics for the people (e.g., developing open source and freely available technology for people to protect themselves from the police and from governmental surveillance) is much less likely to be funded, and therefore much less likely to be carried out at all;
  • even “pure” or “basic” research conducted by folks who express interest in a mathematics for the people is less likely to happen, since we have no way to hold surveillance agencies accountable, and they have a history of political blacklisting.

Again, we see how an individualist framework misses the forest for the trees. We can only see what “the big deal” is when we zoom out and think about the impact the NSA has on all of us, as a community. And it’s only collectively that we can remove its hold over mathematics, because the sorts of changes required here are big, including: putting pressure on those in power to lobby hard for more basic research funding detached from surveillance agencies, and thinking collectively about more ethical job opportunities for our students so that no one has to choose between leaving mathematics and working with the police state.

Besides asking mathematicians to make individual commitments, this campaign also called on the AMS to explain the nature of its relationship with the NSA, and in particular, to not grant surveillance agencies the space and resources for recruitment at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. Campaign participants were asked to write emails to the AMS, and the AMS responded in an official email from its president, claiming that “the AMS invites any potential employer of mathematicians to engage with our community…” Given the the utility of mathematics and the many organizations with power and money who are also actively white supremacist, queer and transphobic, sexist, etc., we need the AMS to clarify what it means here.

This campaign is active and there are future phases in planning that we can’t say more about yet. For now, you can play a role by taking the pledges, and by joining the email action by sending this updated script in response to the AMS. We also urge all professional societies that claim to care about justice to heed our call and commit to not accepting any funding from the NSA and other surveillance agencies. Spectra has already set the bar by doing so — what will it take for your organization to be next? Please join us!

Lessons learned: Making bigger asks means we need to work harder to achieve the same level of engagement. Integrating flexibility into a campaign allows people to pick and choose how they want to participate. The sort of change we are looking for requires long-term planning and open-ended campaigning. And when we campaign for justice in math, we’re not just standing up for oppressed peoples. We’re also standing up for the healthy — and well-funded — future of our own mathematical community.


Mathematicians for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

On the Day of Action (May 18) in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising, and in light of the recent escalation of Israeli violence towards the entire Palestinian nation, the JMC officially endorsed the Palestinian call for the academic boycott of Israel, and urged individual mathematicians and their societies to follow suit. While this campaign is very similar to our first two in terms of its abolitionist goals, it diverges from them from an organizational perspective in that we didn’t design its guidelines. Our campaign for a liberated Palestine falls within the broader Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, one that had already been gathering momentum, while also enduring various forms of suppression.

There are already deeply ingrained patterns in how detractors express their opposition to any speech or actions in solidarity with Palestinians, and we’ve seen those patterns play out very predictably in our own campaign. We won’t address all of the opposition here, in part because we think our campaign document already does a good job of that. But, as in the last section, we’ll highlight one or two that have a lot to do with the common theme of this post: power building is collective, and when we stand up for a truly just cause, we stand up for everyone, including ourselves. 

The first common objection we’ll spend some time with revolves around academic freedom:

“I can’t participate because this boycott is a violation of the academic freedom of Israeli mathematicians.”  

We can’t stress enough that the guidelines of the boycott are clear: individual academics are not boycottable. In particular, collaborating with mathematicians from Israeli institutions, inviting them to conferences and seminars, and hosting them at non-Israeli institutions do not constitute violations of the boycott. The “academic freedom” straw man is particularly absurd as an argument against boycott in light of institutional efforts to silence, harass, intimidate, and punish anyone who express sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Not to mention the reality that, as is consistent with the colonial paradigm under which they live and work, Palestinian scholars have little to no academic freedom or mobility.

By endorsing the Palestinian-led call for boycott, we’re at the same time honoring the freedom of Palestinians to determine the best strategies for their own resistance, and honoring our own freedom to express radical political beliefs. So many people have been blacklisted, fired, and shunned for expressing solidarity with Palestine (many of them Black, Brown, Arab, Muslim, and/or Jewish) that civil rights groups refer to the “Palestine exception” to free speech. This is the battleground issue when it comes to the right to express radical and just political points of view, so when you join us, you’re fighting for yourself, too.

The second common objection we’ll highlight focuses on efficacy and impact:

“Academic boycott has low impact. My decision to go to a conference at the Technion has no bearing on the course of the movement.”

In spirit, this response is almost identical to the one we spent time with in the last section: I’m just one person, so what’s the big deal? The whole point of collective power building is that when we join a movement, we get to be more than just ourselves! We’re no longer just a few academics taking a principled stand. We are part of a broad and strong mass of people from many industries — shipping/imports/exports, arts and culture, research and development, agriculture, construction, the list goes on! — who stand together to say NO to apartheid and settler-colonialism. Beyond that, academics, and especially mathematical scientists, play a special role here because academia holds so much power in shaping and shifting culture, and the occupation and apartheid regime rely heavily on the mathematical technologies that we study and teach.

There’s so much we could get into, but we’ll end by emphasizing how much more challenging this campaign has been than either of the others. We were thrilled to find (so far) 65 mathematicians who were ready to sign on with us, but there’s so much more work to be done. Understandably, people are afraid to claim their power. We understand this and we empathize with it, because many of us who have already signed on are also afraid. But we did it anyway because it was necessary to be in line with our own answers to the questions we’ve raised above in the section on power: this is how we use the power we do have to be in solidarity with oppressed people. If you’re on the fence and what you’ve read here resonates with you, ask yourself how you’ll live in alignment with your own answers to those questions. And remember that when you join us, you make participation less risky for everyone.

This campaign is active, and you can join by signing on here.

Lessons learned:  There is a lot of fear in the air around taking this stance. Overcoming that fear requires more targeted organizing strategies: one-on-one conversations, political education, and small group discussions. Progress is slow, but there is ample room for growth and opportunity for impact.

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