Thursday, August 1, 2019

Be Like Branch Rickey and Create Opportunities: Equity and Inclusion

My favorite baseball player of all time is Jackie Robinson. I grew up in LA, and have been a lifelong Dodgers fan, and Jackie Robinson was for me a wonderful role model. He was from Pasadena, not far from where I grew up in Glendale, CA, and became a celebrated, historical figure. But this post isn't about #42. It's about something else. It's about what we can do.

This post is about making a case for ordinary people, specifically math instructors or educators, to act like Branch Rickey.  Who's Branch Rickey?  There are links at the bottom, if you don't know who he is. Let me say this first. Jackie Robinson had the goods to play hall-of-fame baseball, while taking in daily verbal and physical abuse. What he accomplished is truly amazing, but he did not have the power to create his own opportunity to play in major league baseball. That power was held by the Dodgers, specifically the Dodgers' general manager at the time, Branch Rickey. Branch Rickey is one who gave Jackie Robinson the opportunity to play major league baseball.

If baseball was a meritocracy before April 15, 1947, then players of Robinson's ability would've been on MLB teams by that time. While "equal opportunity for all" is one of America's high ideals, it isn't yet a level playing field. Hence, someone had to go out of his way and create opportunities for those not included.

A clip from the movie, 42, "Why did you do it?" (Staring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford).

What does this have to do with math teaching and learning?  Mathematics classrooms and schools are not yet gender, race, disability, LGBTQ+, and socioeconomic status neutral as of 2019. Further, Mathematics is a gateway or barrier into STEM fields, where many of the economy's current and future high paying jobs are.  I've highlighted some other issues in equity and inclusion HERE in the 20 year challenges I posed to the profession two years ago. In short, women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields, and underrepresentation is not only wrong (which is bad enough by itself) it's also just plain dumb for Math and Science. Diversity of thinking is needed to bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to complex problems. We should be harnessing all the talent and interest in our society possible, because it's simply the morally correct and smart thing to do.

Some people have claimed that Math is a logical, abstract subject, and has no connection to culture, race, gender, and so on. I understand where this argument is coming from. In the pursuit of knowledge we try our best to remove personality and bias, and consider logic, reasoning, and data.  Theoretically our identifies should not matter in mathematical studies. This viewpoint though conflates Math as an academic subject and the human constructed systems that educate young people (i.e. schools). While Math itself is an abstract logical subject, separated far from what many would recognize as everyday culture, teaching is a cultural activity. Where people learn Math is almost always in formal education settings, and these systems are part of our culture. Math teaching and learning environments are not immune from the influences of the culture within which they exist. People teach the courses. People are the administrators and staff at the schools. People setup standards and assessments. People are at the decision points in the system for who gets into advanced math courses and who does not. People determine resource allocation that funds schools. There exists inequity in society... Cultural assumptions, biases, and inequities are baked into the education system, because our schools are a reflection of our society.

A lot of what we do in Math is good. We should and do value Geometry, Algebra, Trignometry, Calculus, problem solving, proof, and so on. And in some instances we are teaching these subjects really well! But just because there exists good, that does not mean we are done.  It's not all bad or all good. It's a mix. Strong communities are willing to look at the hard issues, and think of ways to fix them. The key is to keep the good and improve on areas where there are issues. Inclusion and equity is one of those areas that needs attention and improvement.

What I believe we need are multiple analogies for a "hero."  I don't believe in hero worship, thus what I mean to convey are examples of how we can act that improves equity and inclusion.  Branch Rickey is one (and not only) example. The reason why I like Branch Rickey is that he created an opportunity, and was an active ally.  He didn't just think about or complain about the problems. He did something. He created an opportunity for Robinson and supported him through the tough days. And that created more opportunities for more people of color in the coming years. We need more people like that in education (and the rest of society), who intentionally create opportunities for underrepresented groups. These heroes are pulling others up, and helping us achieve one of the highest ideals of our American democracy, a level playing field.

Let's say a person asks, "I'm just an instructor/educator. What can I do?"  You may not realize it, but you are powerful! Yes, instructors/educators are powerful.  Within your communities, especially if you are male and/or white, you have the power to influence. Specifically every instructor has the capacity to be like Branch Rickey in their own way, and create opportunities for others. As educators, I believe we should view ourselves as forces for good. If we are passionate about our subjects, then it's also our responsibility to help create learning environments, where all students feel included and supported.

Opportunities come in different forms and sizes. You might say, "I haven't been trained to do this." That's true. Most of us haven't, but there are things you can do, without having do anything outside of your job description or sacrifice all your free time.  If we teach better, we can do impactful things that make a difference.  Below is a starter list of 10 things you can do, beginning with easier steps.
  1. Use inclusive teaching practices and frameworks (IBL), that encourage more students to be engaged more often. This is increasing daily learning opportunities for your students. 21 practices by Tanner are HERE
  2. Add an equity statement in your syllabus to signify the importance of inclusion and equity. This helps create a positive learning environment in your class.  Imagine a student of color, sitting in a room full of people not like her.  Examples HERE
  3. Post a inclusivity flyer or image in your office door to help establish a safe learning environment. 
  4. Point out non-inclusive behavior and shut it down (in a nice way of course. "Hi John, how are you? Let's chat after class. For now, stop X and do Y."). Hopefully this never happens in your classes, but if it does, it helps immensely if you speak up. The cost of inaction is high, because  silence can be viewed as tacit agreement with the behavior or not caring.
  5. Show up to some campus events and learn about cultures different than your own. Showing up is valued. If you're not sure, just ask the organizers and be a humble, respectful participant.
  6. Amplify voices of those who are marginalized. Some students or colleagues are quiet, not because they were born shy, but because they have not been invited in and have been conditioned over a lifetime that their voices won't be heard. "I like Maria's comments and agree with them..."
  7. Mentor or be the advisor to students from underrepresented groups, including them in research projects, jobs, etc.
  8. Support organizations that support women and people of color, and become a member.
  9. Volunteer or do projects with local schools, such as organize a Math Circle or Math Teacher Circle.
  10. Work on hiring committees and include implicit bias training for the committee members.
The list above is not complete. It's a starter list. I'd say start with doing what you can, and add on as you go. Perhaps you'll find other things you can do that match your personality that may not be on this list. Some of the items above do not require much effort, and yet they can make a lasting difference.

Let's address some of the common questions and concerns that come up...

"It's not my job. I teach math." I hear this sometimes. We teach math, so why do we have to think about things like inclusion or equity? Branch Rickey's job wasn't to integrate baseball. His job was to be general manager of the team. Sure he saw benefits from a business standpoint to integrate, but there were also risks and costs. Most importantly he saw that something was wrong and he could do something to right this wrong. The point of view of "It's not my job..." is understandable but misplaced in world that is not a level playing field. Our profession has flaws, and we can try and fix them. You have the power to make a difference!

"Is it my responsibility?" Let me put it this way. If you were eating lunch at restaurant, and someone next to you falls and breaks their arm and asks for help, you'd help the person. You don't go on eating your sandwich like nothing happened. It's normal human nature to help those in need. In the case of equity and inclusion, the tricky part is that you aren't being asked to help in clear, direct terms like the restaurant example. Some issues become known by looking at data, reading history, and learning about what is going on. Some of these issues are things you can't see in your everyday interactions, likely due to your identity and privilege. If you didn't know there are issues, then now is a good time to inform yourself. Check out the AMS page on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.   See also this post on Math Ed Matters, MAA by Beth Burroughs, Montana State. (Side note, my ancestry is Japanese. None of my ancestors owned slaves or created the inequities we have in the U.S. Yet, I view this issue as all our responsibility. It's specifically my responsibility to help and do the right thing, where I can make a difference. I don't feel guilt or shame for having privilege, as an asian male in STEM, and neither should anyone else. Instead, I view my role as using my privilege to help others who didn't start life a second or third base.)

"What about white men, are we excluding them?" The answer is definitely no. Society isn't pie. Society is not a zero sum game, and in fact society is a team sport. We're actually competing with our international peers, not the guy down the street. All our successes are tied together. Your success is my success, and my success is your success.  If a woman or person of color learns more Math in a class, it's obviously not taking away learning from someone else. Learning isn't a fixed commodity across society, where only N people can learn topic Y. More people succeeding in school is better for team USA, which benefits all of us. We aren't ignoring or taking away opportunities from one group, by emphasizing the needs of other groups, who have historically had far fewer opportunities. Highlighting inequities in order to fix longstanding issues is something we do, because that's adulting. That's a grown up version of sharing. An analogy is that what we are doing is making room at the dinner table for everyone.  There's plenty to eat, so we can scoot over, make room, and break bread together in fellowship.

Speaking of fellowship, Pee Wee Reese is another person we can learn from. Pee Wee Reese was a great player and teammate of Robison, and more importantly a good human being. He famously put his arm around Robinson before a game, when the fans were being hostile to Robinson, in a show of visible inclusion. It wasn't enough that he agreed with Branch Rickey and supported Robinson in concept. He showed who he is, when it was his turn to come into the light.
But his [Pee Wee Reese's] most important action on a baseball field may have been prior to a game. In 1947, the Dodgers were visiting Cincinnati, and the fans and opposing players were getting on rookie Jackie Robinson. Reports of the game state that Reese calmly walked over to Robinson, put his arm around his teammate’s shoulder, and chatted. The gesture is remembered as an important moment in both Robinson’s career and the acceptance of African Americans in baseball—and American society. 
Scene from 42, "Maybe Tomorrow We´ll All Wear 42." (Lucas Black, Chadwick Boseman)

"I'm a nice person. Isn't that enough?" Kindness alone isn't courageous. Kindness is part of basic manners. It's assumed. Being nice doesn't create opportunities.  This is why including people and ensuring qualified people are included is fundamentally important for progress. Robinson appreciated the kindness of Rickey and Reese, but really what changed the game and society was being included on a major league roster.  Kindness without action is sitting on the sidelines. The thing that frustrates me the most is seeing good people sitting on the sidelines in silence. Hence,

Kindness + Inclusion = An Act of Courage

Within each of us is the capability to positively change our communities. Within each of us is the power to understand why we must act, and the power to build up the necessary courage to take action and create opportunities for others. The good news is that instructors don't have to go outside of their job descriptions to do some of this work. It can be accomplished via good teaching and mentoring -- things we do as part of our jobs. Teaching is something we already care about, and that means that we all can make a difference today. That's an encouraging thought!

“It's a thrill to fulfill your own childhood dreams, but as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others is even more fun.” -  Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture.


  4. AMS page on Equity
  5. 21 practices by Tanner are HERE
  6. Examples of equity statements for course syllabi HERE