Change – Now FAQ

Questions the Change – Now collective have collated through research and extensive conversations. This page will be updated as we continue conversations across the lab and come across questions we deem useful to share.

For more educational resources on anti-black racism and building just institutions click below. We suggest beginning with AntiRacismInStem.

Table of Contents

Why was the message from Fermilab on June 2nd racist?

The message from Fermilab:

As the anger and frustrations on the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis continue to boil locally, nationally and around the world, the injustice but also the imbalance in the broader system is being highlighted. Protestors were relatively close (Butterfield) to the lab on Sunday, resulting in the closure of Kirk Road and forcing authorities to impose a curfew on Aurora citizens. The emotionally charged local demonstrations in Geneva, Naperville and other nearby communities drove these messages home with me and I assume a number of you. I am sure we can find a spectrum of views on these events represented at the lab, and all thoughtful and constructive views should be respected. However, given our privileged existence, we need to lead by example. First, if you are participating in the protests, please do it peacefully. Violence of any kind is unacceptable. Second, reject racism and lack of inclusion in your daily life, at work, and when with friends. Finally, if these events are making you anxious and uncomfortable, I encourage you to contact our Employee Assistance Program. I am concerned for your health and safety during these trying and stressful times. 

The Fermilab family is a microcosm of our local community and also an interesting mix of people from around the world. We all enjoy that diversity. However, Fermilab is not a demographics microcosm of US society. Our diversity and inclusion ambitions are laudable, but progress has been glacial. We have had some successes, but it is not nearly as far along as many of us would like to see happen. The statistics show we are not advancing in improving the number of women and underrepresented minorities across all jobs in the lab. In the long run, this will put the lab at a competitive disadvantage, as I have discussed in the past, and we need to make extra effort to have a fully diverse staff. Now is a good time to motivate yourself and colleagues to improve our performance.

The present national anguish over injustice to our fellow human beings should motivate us all to respect others. We owe it to ourselves, family and the next generation. To make a difference, I encourage you to get involved in activities at the lab and the community that support inclusivity and mutual respect. Talk about values and mutual respect with friends and others at work and how we can make Fermilab and our community a more accepting place. Please be tolerant and respectful at work and in the community. Thank you in advance for trying to make Fermilab and our community and nation a better place to live for everyone.

The message was racist, insensitive, and harmful for several reasons.

  1. Prioritizing the discussion of violence instead of anti-racism: The message expressly prioritizes condemning violence in the protests over standing against racism. Furthermore, the message implies that some members of the Fermilab community may be responsible for inciting violence. Due to the societal context, the mention of “violence” has an implicit association with Black people enacting that violence, and not with well-documented actions of the state (i.e., police who have incited violence at protests) or with white people using the protests as an opportunity to advance other causes. By solely identifying protestors as the responsible party, this message perpetuates misinformation, and implicitly associates Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement with violence, which is inaccurate. 
  2. Ignoring the roots of the problem: The message suggests that the problem at hand is rooted in lack of respect and intolerance, and that many perspectives (“a spectrum of views”) are equally valid. This is incorrect. The problem originates in the existence of white supremacy as a structure that pervades all aspects of our lives. This is a fact that is not open for debate. Just as gravity holds us to the Earth, white supremacy holds down Black individuals in our institutions and communities. The solution doesn’t lie in the shallow tunes of tolerance and mutual respect; these have been tried, and they have failed. The solution resides in our refusal to accept racist acts and policies so that the structure is fundamentally changed to be incompatible with white supremacy. A viewpoint that ignores the pervasiveness of white supremacy is not based in fact and should not be considered a valid perspective.

The closing remarks about “injustice to our fellow human beings” and “try to make Fermilab, our community, and nation a better place to live for everyone” are statements that diminish the reasons for the protest and hint that there are two acceptable sides to the issue. The text fails to specifically state that our Black colleagues, friends, and family are more affected than others by these events, and failed to affirm that Black lives matter.

  1. Erasure of people and identities: Terminology, like “women and underrepresented minorities” is erasure of individuals at the intersections. Women are not canonically considered underrepresented minorities (which is itself a problematic term), but people who are underrepresented minorities can also be women. Moreover, at the time of this message, it was widely known that multiple Black people had been murdered by police, including Tony McDade, a trans Black man, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman.
  2. Commodification of Black lives: Statements that prioritize how an institution is at a “competitive disadvantage” by not hiring Black people is a commodification of Blackness, which historically dates back to enslavement during the colonization of the Americas, and which remains an active method of oppression through the criminal justice system.

There are some correct points, including the admission of the lack of progress at Fermilab. In a second email sent by the laboratory to the employees, they addressed some of these issues. 

We do not have further comment.

Why are Black scientists speaking for non-scientists or other marginalized people at the laboratory?

We are not. We clearly state in the document that, because we are scientists with Black Heritage at Fermilab, we are speaking from that perspective only. From this vantage point, we know what our needs are; from research, we have developed a plan to address those needs. We do not know, or attempt to prescribe, the needs or vision of any other of the laboratory’s stakeholders — be they non-scientists or other groups of marginalized and minoritized people. While we share some of the identities of these other groups, those distinct communities must be afforded the agency to speak for themselves as communities. We also don’t attempt to speak for people who hold other job categories or status, such as administrative assistants, accelerator operators, or engineers. Non-scientific/non-technical staff do not have the same power and agency as scientists, and they are not treated as well across the lab as scientific staff — a dynamic which further enhances oppression. We acknowledge the privilege we hold as scientists at the laboratory, and we want to use our privilege to end our privilege. We believe that working to end our oppression will have an impact on other communities’ struggles for equality. This doesn’t end with us; not one of us is equal until we all are.

Do Black scientists think they should be in control of defining the future leadership and decision-making processes at the laboratory?

We do not, and we do not claim to. As stated in the document, we have particular (and extensive) expertise in navigating structures of racism, white supremacy, misogyny, and other bigotries within the physics community (laboratories, academia, etc.) and other aspects of society. Given this expertise, our voices should be equitably valued when identifying problematic structures and when designing new practices for shared leadership. While we have taken a leadership role in assembling information about existing methodologies, we do not have all the answers. We expect that our efforts will be respected and built upon in an appropriate way. The lab community, like any other, will need to work together to create a set of practices that work for it. We are committed to sharing our knowledge, with the expectation that the lab will work with all stakeholders to assemble a shared vision for the community.

What’s the difference between “justice” and “equity, diversity, and inclusion?” You use both in your document, don’t they mean the same thing?

The terms “equity,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” (often grouped together into acronyms like “EDI”) are terms that were recently popularized to enable a watered down or shallow discussion and implementation of the underlying principles and modalities that actually connect to creating justice-driven spaces for human interaction. On the other hand, “justice” itself is directly related to the issues at hand. Justice requires equitable treatment of people based on how systems oppress or uplift them through structures of accountability within the environment. EDI does not typically itself require accountability. Justice, by its nature requires rooting out white supremacist systems and EDI rarely prescribes systemic change. Consider reading these works on this topic: Race on the Brain by Jonathan Kahn and Diversity is a Dangerous Setup by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.

What happened on July 6, 2020 and August 6, 2020, the dates by which you called for change and new plans?

On July 6, 2020, representatives of the Directorate (the primary decision-making entity at the laboratory) filed a memo to the Change Now group in which they expressed (a) support for the seven major principles stated in the document, and (b) an interest in working together to achieve solutions for each element. By August 6, 2020, the laboratory had called on multiple groups to produce ideas for addressing racism at the laboratory, and commissioned the Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer, an unprecedented position within the Directorate. Both actions were closely related to specific calls within the document. While there does not yet exist a full plan for change, progress is being made, and the next steps should employ shared leadership and decision-making in planning and enacting change.

Why do you say we need to bring in experts from outside the lab to help with equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts?

Expertise in EDI is deep and multi-faceted. Organizations need large teams in this area, and they need to continuously update their expertise and knowledge. This is also true in science, and we already do this for independent guidance on the scientific program. We also already bring in experts from outside the lab to lead activities in improving our EDI efforts — e.g., the Fermilab Inclusion Matters presentation series and LGBTQ+ Safe Zone Training. We have done it, we currently do it, and we should continue to do it.

How has the lack of checks and balances in the UEC led to disenfranchisement of Black scientists?

The Users Executive Committee (UEC) is intended to represent the interests of Fermilab Users through (among other things), responding to issues raised by the user community, co-organizing the annual high energy physics trip to Washington, DC, and organizing the Fermilab Users Meeting. The UEC operates without clear policies for oversight or checks and balances of its internal operations. This has allowed for racist power imbalances to develop in the past. These imbalances have directly affected Black scientists, and have resulted in the loss of advancement opportunities. While the UEC should remain independent from the lab, there need to be sufficient checks and balances such that racism and other forms of discrimination do not occur.

Where can I find more information?

There are many great resources on the web. We made a page on the site for this.