by Simran Bakshi
Simran Bakshi is currently completing an Honours Specialization in Biology at Western University. She strives to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and women of colour and investigate action-based solutions by conducting research through an intersectional lens.
“I feel safe and confident that I can be my authentic self”. This is a sentiment every Black, Indigenous and women of colour (BIWOC) wants to relate to, whether they’re entering a personal, professional, or academic setting. But, how do we get there? What does “safety” even look and feel like for each of us?
Last summer, I joined the Accelerate Her Future (AHF) team through Riipen’s LevelUp program as a Research Analyst. I conducted a literature review that examined the experiences of Black, Indigenous and women of colour in STEM postsecondary programs. As a researcher and woman in a STEM postsecondary program myself, this project was particularly meaningful and relevant. Hence, a crucial project that provides the opportunity for me to amplify the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and women of colour. Using the research findings from this project has helped the AHF team better understand the barriers faced by women in STEM, gaps in research that they will address through their own research initiatives, and how the impacts of barriers carry over to job search and in the workplace.
A central theme I derived while conducting the literature review was a weak sense of belonging within postsecondary STEM programs where BIWOC students were underrepresented. And it doesn’t stop there. According to a number of studies, a weak sense of belonging in STEM programs was correlated with lower retention rates, decreased academic success, and low self-efficacy in both undergraduate and graduate programs. This finding dispels the common and typical deficit-based “myth” that students of colour are underrepresented in STEM as a result of the rigorous academic curriculum. The issue tends to lie in the system, not the students and their capabilities.
While there has been a concerted effort focused on the recruitment and retention of Black, Indigenous, and women of colour in STEM programs, less focus has been placed on creating an inclusive and bias-free environment. A focus on representation alone without inclusion and belonging fails to address systemic barriers. Furthermore, most women in STEM initiatives focus solely on ‘fixing’ women, prescribing to a deficit lens, and consequently missing out on the opportunity to address the social and interpersonal factors that require change within classrooms, departments, and campuses.
For far too long, women have had to assimilate and fit in, often code switching in the process. Many studies and reports have highlighted the issues women of colour navigate in STEM and on campuses including isolation, microaggressions, discrimination, gender-based violence, and harassment. Creating environments and cultures that signal a welcoming, safe, caring and inclusive space for belonging sends an important message to students from systemically excluded communities that they belong.
But how can AHF centre and amplify the voices and lived experiences of Black, Indigenous and women of colour, enhance their sense of belonging on campuses and thus increase retention and success in STEM? This is a large and complex question. AHF recognizes that as a small grassroots organization, they can’t do this alone and hence continue to evolve an ecosystem view that engages stakeholders in the process. But what stood out to me as a researcher and STEM student, was the concept of counterspaces.
What are Counterspaces?
Think of counterspaces as critical safe spaces for Black, Indigenous and women of colour in programs, especially in STEM, where there is a lack of meaningful representation. A counterspace is a psychologically safe community on the edge of dominant culture (such as an academic program), designed with and for Black, Indigenous and/or women of colour. This type of space allows us to push beyond the confines of stereotypical narratives and resist the deficit-oriented lens through which Black, Indigenous and women of colour are often perceived. According to Ong et al. (2018), counterspaces are defined as:
“‘Safe spaces’ at the margins for groups outside the mainstream of STEM education”
Ong et al. (2018) goes on to define these spaces as where there are opportunities for peer-to-peer and mentorship connections and authentic conversations about real issues that we may not always be comfortable sharing in dominant spaces. A space where multiple lived experiences are valued and viewed as critical knowledge, where deficit notions and stereotypes are challenged, and where a positive and supportive community is co-created.
Counterspaces can range from clubs and mentoring programs, to conferences and summits, and/or peer-to-peer relationships and even include informal networks. These networks may involve book clubs or health and wellness groups. But what distinguishes counterspaces is that they are spaces made by and for Black, Indigenous and women of colour.
Counterspaces are also on the edges of dominant spaces and hence located outside of central academic spaces such as classrooms, laboratories, hallways, and study groups. They can either be outside of academic spaces, for example, a school’s Women in STEM club, or entirely excluded from an academic environment, like Accelerate Her Future’s Fellowship Circle program.
What makes a counterspace unique, and one that ensures a safe space for women to engage vulnerably, is that it provides a sense of cultural connection, a space to express and develop racial/ethnic and gender identities, a supportive space, and one that caters to specific systemically excluded communities (i.e. women’s spaces, Black or Indigenous student spaces, etc.)
How AHF Embeds Elements of Counterspace
AHF strives to co-create programs and spaces with, for, and by Black, Indigenous and women of colour so we can express our experiences in different ways in positive and solutions based environments. AHF strives to work with our community so that we all behave in ways where each other is seen, heard, and appreciated, and that our experiences are treated as important, viewed as critical knowledge and honoured. Here are some examples:
Foster reciprocal mentoring relationships within a safe space.
AHF’s Fellowship Circle (FC) connects Black, Indigenous and women of colour students and those new to their careers with peers and professionals from industry across the country. The program encompasses a reciprocal mentorship model where both the perspectives and contributions of Fellows and Mentors are recognized. The community strives to create a safe space where a breadth of experiences are shared. This intentionally designed program focuses on peer-to-peer and mentoring connections, career advocacy skills development, and community development, given research has shown that these elements can enhance persistence and success. By disrupting the power hierarchy of a traditional mentorship relationship, the reciprocal relationship provides social and emotional support that recognizes shared experiences through an intersectional lens and the value of supporting goals and successes of each other.
Recognize and amplify the experiences of Black, Indigenous and women of colour in our community through a strength-based lens.
AHF ensures authentic and appropriate representation of women in our community through a strength-based lens that attempts to negate stereotypes. Through AHF’s blogs, social media channels, and annual Summit, AHF centers the voices of women in our community. Our goal is to amplify their leadership, wisdom, innovations, and advocacy. AHF provides space for women in our community to share their stories from their perspectives and to break biases and assumptions. It is also a space to have vulnerable and candid conversations about our experiences, as well as hear from and connect with other Black, Indigenous and women of colour in the industry.
Provide research environments that reinforce the identities of women of colour and respect their ideas and opinions.
In the summer of 2021, AHF provided students with the opportunity to apply to various positions through the Riipen internship program and the Canada Summer Jobs Program. As one of the Research Analysts, I found that our ideas and research findings were acknowledged and validated by the team. We weren’t limited to the confines of rigid tasks but rather prompted to apply our research findings to AHF’s day-to-day work and strategic priorities. It was rewarding seeing the impact of our work in AHF’s offerings. AHF has also used research findings from past literature reviews to develop knowledge mobilization programs and services (e.g., panel talks, educational webinars, follow on research studies).
AHF invited me to disseminate my findings through speaking opportunities at the AHF Virtual Summit and the Future Workforce Summit along with other Black, Indigenous and racialized women in business and STEM. At the Future Workforce Summit, which caters to employers and postsecondary career centre professionals, I provided research themes and the detrimental consequences of a low sense of belonging in STEM programs and how they can carry over to the workplace for women. By supporting my own and other panelists’ lived experiences with credible research, our discussions offered tips from students and recent graduates on ways postsecondary institutions and employers can better create a sense of inclusion and belonging. There is work to be done, that’s for sure.
Calls to Action
As I reflect on my own lived experiences as a STEM student and my learning as a Research Analyst at AHF, I invite Black, Indigenous, and women of colour in STEM and business programs to engage with organizations like AHF while advocating for systemic change and programs within your academic programs, departments and campuses.
To those who work or teach in postsecondary, the research and the lived experiences of systemically excluded communities speak for themselves. It’s time that you listened meaningfully to our voices and for institutions to take more proactive steps to ensure safe, welcoming, inclusive and equitable campuses for all students. Don’t know where to start? I invite you to contact AHF to learn more about our work and educational partnerships.