See, Accept, Affirm

The mathematical community is one, which—while not as diverse as it could/should be—counts as members individuals from all backgrounds and of all identities. These individualities are something we as a community should cherish and support.

One outlet for such support that I recently had the opportunity to help implement here at the UW–Madison (sorry for the humblebrag), is a statement of community commitment to, and value of, inclusivity. Based on this experience, I would like to talk about what such a statement is, why I think they are meaningful, and to (not so) secretly encourage others to do similar things within their own departments.

To start, such a statement simply outlines what inclusivity and diversity mean to you/your department, how this group values these concepts, and how they will fight for and support them. For example, here at the UW–Madison, the department adopted the following statement,

“As a diverse group, the Mathematics Department strives to foster an open and supportive community in which to conduct research, to teach, and to learn. In accordance with these beliefs and § 36.12 of the Wisconsin Statutes, the Mathematics Department affirms that all community members are to be treated with dignity and respect and that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated. We further commit ourselves to making the department a supportive, inclusive, and safe environment for all students, faculty, staff, and visitors, regardless of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, parental status, or any other aspect of identity.

To all members of our community, we, the members of the Department of Mathematics, welcome you.“

Of course what precisely such a statement should say, and how it should say it varies person-to-person and group-to-group. I see power in these statements having unique, personal voices—serving as honest expressions of one’s beliefs and commitments, laid bare for the reader to hear. So if you are thinking about drafting such a statement, consider trying to make it personal. Be honest and speak to those who you hope eventually read it.

As a second example of such a statement, and to highlight a slightly different voice, here is (in some sense) my own statement. (Note my statement was influenced by Federico Ardila-Mantilla’s amazing recent article in the Notices, “Todos Cuentan: Cultivating Diversity in Combinatorics”.)

No student may be denied admission to, participation in or the benefits of, or discriminated against in any service, program, course or facility of the {UW} system or its institutions or centers because of the student’s race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, disability, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status or parental status.” ~ § 36.12, Wisconsin Statutes

I recognize the importance of a diverse, inclusive, and supportive community. In accordance with these beliefs, as well as § 36.12 of the Wisconsin Statutes, I am committed fully to the following axioms:

Axiom 1: All members of the department/university community should be treated with dignity and respect.

Axiom 2: I strive to promote a supportive, inclusive, and safe environment for all students, faculty, and staff, regardless of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, parental status, or any other aspect of identity.

Axiom 3: Incidences of hate, bias, discrimination, or violence have no place in a department/university community, and will not be tolerated. 

Axiom 4: I will, to the best of my abilities, aid those facing instances of bias, discrimination, hate, or violence; directly and by helping individuals find the appropriate campus and community resources.

These axioms serve as guideposts in teaching, research, outreach, and all aspects of my career/life. Moreover I am dedicated to working/partnering with other campus organizations (Multicultural Student Center, University Health Service, LGBT Campus Center, End Violence on Campus, McBurney Center, Campus Women’s Center, etc.) to promote these axioms.  

Finally, to all members of our campus community, I would like to say:

I see you, I accept you, and I affirm you.

At this point, some of you reading this might be wondering what the point of these statements is. You, or well the conveniently constructed strawperson I so often use rhetorically at this point in my writing, may be thinking, “Surely people know that our math department is a nice friendly place, which is inclusive of all people.”

Well, a couple of points:

First, be careful in thinking your department and university are friendly places free from bias, hate, discrimination, and violence. The fact of the mater is that most are not. (Some privileges checklists!) So taking a moment to write this, and honestly evaluating your, and your department’s, commitment to inclusion and diversity can be eye opening. You may begin to see incidences of bias, hate, and violence you were previously blind to.

Secondly, even if your department is a magical land free of bias and hatred—it’s not, but regardless—not everyone knows this. Sure you might, but I am certain that there is someone, another grad student, a visitor, and a calculus student, who doesn’t. Someone who is unsure of whether the department will respect their identity, or whether there is someone who they can turn to for support. Letting this person know that you recognize them and will do your best to support them is meaningful. There is power in being an ally and power in recognizing and affirming the identities and rights of others, especially those who often face bias, hate, discrimination, and violence. This can even more true in turbulent times like these where many people feel uncertain, unwelcome, and unsafe.

All this is to say that creating a statement of commitment to inclusivity can be both meaningful and powerful. However, they are not ends in themselves. They will not end bias, hatred, and discrimination within your department, university, or the mathematical community more generally. So while I encourage everyone to the time to write such a statement, I also think it is important to recognize that such a statement is best seen as a starting point, a guidepost that can direct your actions going forward.

  • Did you say your department is a safe place free from hate? Well how will you, or others, handle a situation where someone creates a hostile environment in the classroom? Moreover is there training to help instructors identify and handle incidences of bias and hate in their classrooms?
  • Did you commit yourself to being an inclusive place for people of all gender identities? Well are the health plans your department offers inclusive of trans-persons? Do you have gender-neutral washrooms in your department? Do instructors ask students what pronouns they use?
  • Did you commit yourself to support victims of violence and harassment? Well do students know who they should report incidences of violence and harassment to within the department? Are your department’s policies on these matters clearly articulated and publicized? Do instructors know what campus resources exists to help victims of violence?

I could go on—in fact, that might make an interesting future post—but to keep it short: creating a inclusive, supportive, and safe community takes dedicated, deliberate, and thoughtful action; writing a statement of commitment is just a first step. (I know that this is my goal here at UW–Madison.)

Finally to all those reading this—especially those who may be spinning, either a bit or a lot—let me reiterate what I said above:

I see you, I accept you, and I affirm you.

About Juliettte Bruce

I am a fourth year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. My interests lie on the algebraic side of things. In particular, I work somewhere in the intersection of algebraic geometry and commutative algebra.
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