No. 6 • 2020-06-10

Subscribe to Newsletter

Watch Reflections on the Color of My Skin, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, renowned Astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, or read his essay.

#ShutDownSTEM / #ShutDownAcademia and #TheShowMustBePaused (Blackout Tuesday)

I have built my professional career on the many positive connections between the Arts and STEM (science, tech, engineering, math). But another link between the two is a blindness to systemic inequities and exclusionary practices. Ironically, both areas also proclaim (embarrassingly loudly, at times) to be about progress and the future. But any tradition built almost entirely on white privilege will, by default, propagate its founding structures. In order to change, we must actively pursue a different course and resist defaulting to the cultural norms of each discipline, tacitly approving institutionalized racism.

The tech industry is rightly receiving enormous criticism right now because of the gross underrepresentation of Black and Latinx people among employees and leadership and the incredible hypocrisy of idolizing a “meritocratic” culture while accumulating enormous financial gains for an increasingly smaller and less diverse group of people. I’m fairly certain no tech founder goes into entrepreneurship with the goal of promoting discrimination… They want to solve problems and build successful businesses, and week to hire the “best” people to achieve those goals. But let’s stop kidding ourselves: It’s not a meritocracy. The tech centers and the college campuses that business and hiring networks draw from are themselves highly exclusionary.

Ah, college campuses. Having been part of higher education nearly all my adult life, I will say that we get an ‘F’ in advancing equity and inclusion. Academics, particularly in STEM, love to use the “rationality” of science and engineering to blind us to the actual discrimination that we are complicit in. Representation, particularly in the high growth fields, like computing, is no better (in some ways, ven worse) than 15-20 years ago.

Again, I don’t believe that’s intentional, but an outcome of an academic culture that is slow to change and where so many perversely believe themselves to be adhering to purely “meritocratic” ideals. Academic rigor, peer review, mountains of prerequisite knowledge, and accreditation “requirements”, are just forms of hazing that disproportionately exclude those from non-white, non-male backgrounds.

In the arts, recall that symphony orchestras employed very few women until they moved to blind auditions (literally, musicians would audition behind a screen) and still employ very few Black and Latinx musicians. It’s still “news” when a lead instrumentalist, opera singer, or ballet dancer is Black. It reminds me of when there were “serious” discussions of whether a Black quarterback could succeed in the NFL, which now seem ridiculous. There are still many many issues with the NFL (mostly having to do with an incredibly exclusive group of uber-wealthy owners), but as a society we’ve moved passed that one. (Unless you start a serious, thoughtful protest movement, in which case you’ll never work in football again.) Still a long ways to go.

Both the Arts and STEM ought to be better aligned with popular culture. While the music industry is far from equitable, Hip Hop has become the predominant popular genre. The film industry is terrible, but #OscarsSoWhite is having an impact. People, not a self-selected exclusionary group, should be the drivers of knowledge, culture, and expression. The Arts and STEM should skate to where the puck is going, and embrace a much more inclusive future.

As with last week’s #TheShowMustBePaused (Black Tuesday), I fully support #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia, and this will be my only post today. This is a day for all institutions to take an honest look at themselves and their practices. A day for each of us to look in the mirror to ask “Have I done all that I can”? A day for us to commit to being on right side of history. I’ll see you tomorrow.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Reflecting on the Color of My Skin[MKBHD] Superstar tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee, inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essay, shares his thoughts on being a black man in technology (and ultimate frisbee). Also check out his many links to black creators in the video notes.
  • #BlackInTheIvory[Twitter] A hashtag where Black colleagues share their experiences in academia’s “Ivory Tower”. See also a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Kill Move Paradise[Wilma Theater] Stream local playwright James Ijames’ 2018 work from June 8 to 21. The play is Inspired by the ever growing list of slain unarmed Black people by police in America. Viewers are asked to donate any amount of money they can to Black Lives Matter Philly.
  • A thread on why change is hard in academia[Daniela Witten] Twitter thread about the difficulties of moving beyond racist figures and traditions in higher education by Daniela Witten, Dorothy Gilford Endowed Chair & Professor of Statistics and Biostatistics.
  • BTS Fans Say They’ve Raised $1 Million for Black Lives Matter Groups[NYTimes] Fans of mega-popular K-Pop group BTS have directed tremendous support and attention towards #BlackLivesMatter.
  • “Share Love, Strength & One Core”[World Cafe Live and Mighty Writers] A new songs collaboration between Mighty Writers youth poets and World Cafe Live teaching artist Ami Yares, inspired by this unprecedented spring of 2020 and the theme of “Community.”

What I’m creating

In support of #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia, I’m not posting any new creations today. I’ll be back with lots of new stuff next week!

No. 5 • 2020-06-03

Subscribe to Newsletter

“I Still Can’t Breathe” (from 2016, in response to the killing of Eric Garner) is performed by The Chester Children’s Chorus, written and directed by CCC founder (and my inspirational Swarthmore College Chorus director), John Alston.


In a “normal” week, this newsletter is about optimism, highlighting new creations that point towards a better future. But this is not a normal week… Not when black people are murdered by those sworn to protect. Not when our city and many others are burning. Not when more than 100,000 people in our country (largely people of color) have lost their lives to a pandemic, the spread of which was highly preventable.

Standing with those protesting the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Tayler, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, this issue is devoted to justice and equity for black Americans. To those who’ve sent in items, new works and initiatives for the newsletter, thank you, and I’ll return to those in due course. But in this moment, I feel we must focus on the state of our nation.

It is abundantly clear how the media we’re exposed to shapes our perceptions. Everyone was horrified by the video of George Floyd’s murder, and so many have rightly risen up to demand justice for him and so many other lives casually snuffed out by those with privilege and “authority”. We are united in our empathy and outrage.

Now, while broadcast media fixates on looting and property destruction, countless disturbing videos of rampant and unchecked police brutality and vigilantism disseminate mostly through social media:

Widespread recording and livestreaming is having an impact. But it also places greater responsibility on individuals to be our own curators of information, not just passive observers relying on others to make sense of it. My wish is for social media platforms to embrace this challenge, providing better tools for individual curation and organization, though I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about that.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • #BLACKLIVESMATTER [ELLECT] Philadelphia musician and activist ELLECT, aka Stephen Tyson (also adjunct professor and doctoral student at Arcadia University), recorded this song in 2016. 
  • Dear CEOs of Philly Tech [ Philly] Advice from Kiera Smalls, Executive Director of Philly Startup Leaders, to the tech community.
  • A history lesson [Erica Buddington] An epic Twitter thread of the history of racial protest and oppression in the United States. Incredibly detailed with so many incidents I was unaware of.
  • Research-based solutions to stop police violence [Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero] A Twitter thread from 2019 summarizing solutions to stopping police violence backed with evidence.
  • Anti-racism resources for white people [Compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein] A starting point for becoming better allies in combating racism.
  • “I can’t breathe… again!” [Nick Cannon] A powerful spoken word video from the well known actor, producer, and rapper in reaction to George Floyd’s murder.
  • 7-day online protest [The King Center] A daily livestream from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (through June 8).

What I’m creating

Racial inequity not only exists, but self-replicates in all fields, particularly in the STEM disciplines of higher education and the tech industry. Here’s my TEDxPhiladelphia talk from last year on how the digital divide is wider than ever.

Photo by Grace Shallow, via Philly