Thanks to a series of social media movements organized by Black researchers and nature lovers, science and academia are finally waking up to some of the ways they have pushed out Black people.
From May 31 to June 5, #BlackBirdersWeek helped change the narrative that Black individuals don’t participate in outdoor activities—after the racist incident at New York City’s Central Park in which a white dog owner called the police on a Black birder. On June 10 #Strike4BlackLives urged scientists to take a day off from research: non-Black people who participated spent that time educating themselves about racism in higher education and throughout society and planning actions against it, while Black academics took the day to rest. Black students and faculty have also been sharing their stories using the hashtag #BlackinIvory. Now it’s astronomy’s turn.
Ashley L. Walker wanted her parents to buy her a star when she was a kid. Noticing her interest in astronomy, her uncle gave her a telescope when she was five. After earning her B.S. in chemistry from Chicago State University, where she focused on studying planetary atmospheres and planet formation, she now works (remotely) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a part of the Undergraduate Research Associates in Astrobiology program. Walker is also one of the forces behind #BlackInAstro, which is running this week: she partnered with Astrobites—a daily astrophysical literature journal written by graduate students in astronomy—to highlight Black astronomers, past and present. Scientific American spoke to her about how #BlackInAstro week got started, what can be done to prompt change and what advice she has for future Black astronomy students.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
How did #BlackInAstro week come about?
I was inspired by #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackinIvory and everything that's happening to Black people in the U.S. People have really big misconceptions about being Black in academia, and I wanted to show that we, as Black astronomers, go through a lot of things, too. I also wanted to highlight that there are few of us out here. Currently there are only 22 African-American women with Ph.D.s in astronomy and astronomy-related fields. And there are fewer than 100 with Ph.D.s in physics and physics-related fields. We know this from Jami Valentine, who founded the African American Women in Physics organization—I'm very grateful for her. And I was seeing how police brutality and racial injustice were really, really affecting Black folks, so I just wanted to make a special point of saying that we matter, and we’re here. I wanted to show that we do really good science, [even though] some of us don’t have the luxury of not worrying about police brutality or crime rates.
How has the reception been? Did you have any expectations going into this week?
No, I didn’t. I was just like, “Okay, I’m going to do this and hope for the best.” People are being a little more receptive in trying to understand—questioning why there are so few Black astronomers. I just want to see this change.
I’ve received support from Carnegie [Institution for Science’s Earth and Planets Laboratory]. I received support from African American Women in Physics. I’ve talked to my committee members on CSMA (the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy), which is a part of the American Astronomical Society. They said, “We support you.” I also received support from a NASA astronaut—Cady Coleman. That was really, really, really exciting to see.
Going into #BlackInAstro week, I was just like, “Okay, we’re just going to support this, and let’s see how it goes.” I really didn’t expect this much positive feedback and so much love.
How do we make astronomy more welcoming and diverse?
There are so many different things to do to dismantle racism. For graduate studies, we want to get rid of the GRE [Graduate Record Examinations]. For undergraduate studies, we want to make sure that they have a built-in support network. Also, [we need] funding for black astronomers. I know a lot of students where I went to school were paying out of pocket. Speaking of which, Lavontria Miché Aaron has an entire list of fellowships and scholarships for people of color. So that’s just some of the things that we can do. We do so much work behind the scenes. [And now] other people want to pitch in and help us do the work. [They can] take the time to read the literature on how to move forward and actually practice it.
What is your plan for the rest of the week and beyond?
The plan is for Astrobites to continue highlighting a different astronomer each day, for Black astronomers tell their stories. Today [Tuesday], I'll be talking about some #BlackInAstro LGBTQ folks. Tomorrow [Wednesday], more senior Black astronomers will come and tell the stories and give advice to the younger Black astronomers. For Thursday and Friday, we will be reflecting on how things can be better, and how to encourage Black students to tell their story.
People [have started] sending me other students to highlight, which I'm going to update in this upcoming September for a special Black history series.
What kind of changes do you hope #BlackInAstro week will prompt?
Well, first and foremost, I want to make sure that more students are accepted into supportive institutions. I also want to make sure that we get more opportunities for Black students. I want to make sure that they know about the resources—a list of summer internships, [postbaccalaureate] positions, skill building, and so on. I also want to make sure that people pay attention to the science [that Black astronomers practice] and say, “Hey, that person is a good fit for my group,” and reach out to these students.
What can non-Black people do to change things?
The takeaway message is to just support us. That’s all. Just support us—and speak up for us. [Other things] they can do are continuously retweet contents, donate to African American Women in Physics. They can also actively check in on their Black and brown students, just to make sure that they’re okay, to show that they care. They can educate themselves by reading books and just sitting down and listening to the stories.
Are you feeling optimistic that change will actually happen?
Yeah, definitely. I just want it to stay that way. I want to see what happens next.
Do you have any words for future Black astronomy students?
Don’t give up. Keep going and be yourself. There is a community that will support you.