Taking Action for Racial Justice: Postdocs at Yale Organize

January 10, 2022
a group of young-looking people wearing Black Lives Matter tee-shirts and holding Black Lives Matter signs march peacefully down a street David Geitgey Sierralupe/Flickr
Aileen I Fernandez

On May 25th, 2020, Minneapolis police arrested and killed George Floyd, sparking outrage across the nation and world. With his killing came a forceful nationwide reckoning on the racial injustices experienced by marginalized people. Driven by the desire to make changes within our immediate environment, several postdocs within the Yale Postdoctoral Association began to meet. Over the first few ad hoc meetings we started to outline our main focus areas:

  1. Retention, support, and community for underrepresented minority (URM) postdocs
  2. Community outreach within New Haven
  3. Assessment of diversity at Yale and education to Yale community

With that, we set out to define the best way to accomplish our goals, and thus established the Yale Black Postdoctoral Association (YBPA) and Yale Postdoctoral Association’s Racial Justice Subcommittee (RJS) in July 2020. While many of these goals overlap, the YBPA and RJS work harmoniously, collaborating often on efforts.

The Yale School of Medicine Black Postdoctoral Association’s mission is to recognize the diversity of postdocs, work to promote Black postdocs where the greatest disparities exist: faculty and leadership, and create a supported and thriving community to promote retention of postdocs in the academic pipeline. It was formed by three Black women at various levels of their postdoc experience at Yale. Together, we recognized the broken academic pipeline and were determined to address it head-on.

We created the YPBA with hopes to provide a special community for all postdocs, especially those who identify as Black and/or are supportive allies. Since its induction, the YBPA has focused on 4 areas: visibility, professional development, community building, and outreach, all of which lend to retention and building a community within this group of postdocs.

Examples of the type of programming the YBPA brings to Yale include:

  • “Wine Down with Raven the Science Maven,” a viral and brilliant STEM educator who shared with the audience the importance of being “unapologetically yourself in science”
  • A “Natural Hair and the Law” seminar where Tracy Sanders, Esq., discussed legislation including the CROWN Act, recently passed in Connecticut, which bans natural hair discrimination in the workplace. She also elaborated on the difference between natural hair and natural hair styles and shared with employees and employees alike how to both avoid and respond to discrimination.

These events were widely attended by postdocs, graduate students, faculty, and staff in and beyond Yale. Many of the comments in the chat and in feedback shared afterwards mentioned feeling “seen at Yale for the first time” and utter shock at the discrimination URMs often face.

The Racial Justice Subcommittee’s (RJS) mission is to create a diverse, inclusive, and supportive community of postdocs, whose voices and contributions are valued and respected. This group works on many kinds of programming and focuses on connecting postdocs at Yale and supporting the quest to work on racial justice issue at Yale and in the broader New Haven community. We provide educational materials and facilitate discussions for people to share their thoughts on various injustices that exist in the world.

Our most notable event is the annual Run for Breonna Taylor, which began in November 2020. In just a few weeks, postdocs passionate about fueling change organized a virtual run, gathering sponsors, printing t-shirts, and most importantly, creating letters for action that registrants could send to their local and national representatives. The run had more than 200 registrants and raised more than $4000 for local and national causes, as well as Breonna Taylor’s family. The event was overwhelmingly successful and a second successful run was hosted on October 16, 2021.

The YBPA and RJS have accomplished a lot in a single year, and we encourage anyone who is ready to incite change to take the first step. Having started these two successful groups, we can share some important notions we stick to:

  1. Know that we are all important and that there is power in numbers
  2. Power mapping is vital!
  3. Recognize the passions and strengths of your members. Within both groups we encourage everyone to shine bright
  4. Constantly work on effective communication
  5. Be amendable to change

We know that we have a long road ahead of us and are excited to continue to bring programing to Yale and the greater New Haven area communities, such as a workshop led by Union of Concerned Scientists in November 2021, “Power mapping as a Tool for Science Advocacy.” Learn more about YBPA and RJS and explore how you can bring these lessons and approaches to your own institution or community.

Aileen I Fernandez is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. David Rimm at Yale. She is currently a fellow in the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation. Aileen is passionate about leveling accessibility in science and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also strongly believes in improving science communication to better disseminate information from the scientists’ bench to society. Since joining Yale, she co-founded the Yale School of Medicine Black Postdoctoral Association, is a founding member of the Yale Postdoc Association's (YPA) Racial Justice Subcommittee and co-coordinates the YPA Professional Development committee, as well as the Department of Pathology's DICE committee. Through these efforts, she actively works on an initiative with other postdocs to highlights the needs of URM postdocs and how we can address them to increase retention in academia.

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