Complicating the “Deficit Model”

Recently at a science communication conference, I discussed the “deficit model” with peers. This model conceptualizes people as empty buckets ready to be filled with knowledge. However, people do not start with zero baseline knowledge about most topics of discussion. Even when they are completely unfamiliar with a topic, people will have their own life experiences to relate to the subject at hand. Anything you try and convince someone of will be compared to all of the prior knowledge they hold; this makes a steep threshold for new beliefs. All that to say, convincing someone of a belief contrary to their own is not typically a productive task. Operating contrary to the deficit model requires reflecting on where your audience is in life, what you want to share with them, and how your information fits with their world views.

Recently, we were asked to have a conversation with someone that has as different perspective on an important topic. I decided to speak with someone I’ve known for years but only recently started to spend more social time with. Despite holding many political beliefs contrary to my own, this person is a part of my social circle and an important friend.

I approached this conversation knowing that the goal was not to change anyone’s mind, but to better understand each other. The conversation started discussing COVID vaccination; my friend elects not to vaccinate for personal and political reasons, but I believe that electing not to vaccinate can cause harm to others. While we began talking about vaccination the conversation developed to talk more about who we are as people, what life looked like growing up, and how we connect with others.

I was somewhat apprehensive about having this conversation because I did not want this person to feel like I was trying to get a vaccination in their arm. I think this conversation likewise made them nervous for that reason. As we talked, I was surprised to learn that my friend thought I would resent or refuse to speak to them for decisions they’ve made. They were worried that if they made the “wrong” choice in situations going forward, I would become frustrated and stop welcoming them in my life. I expressed that since I am unlikely to change my opinions on COVID vaccination, it would be unreasonable for me to expect my friend to change position. I also found that this friend has undergone challenging personal barriers that have helped shape their opinions around pharmaceutical companies and medical care. I walked away from the conversation with a greater depth of understanding around my friend’s views.

Most often, people have reasons to believe the things they do. Their backgrounds can weigh heavily into those beliefs. By prioritizing curiosity over your own agenda, you can create a deeper connection during a conversation. This makes people more open to ideas, less defensive, and can foster a greater respect for both parties. Going forward, I will continue to see this friend in my life, and having this conversation creates a good foundation for deeper discussion in the future. Whether my friend changes their mind or not, we both walked away from the conversation feeling a greater openness to each other’s perspectives.

Combatting Assumptions in Rural Communities

Assumptions close us off to input from others; they can hinder our ability to consider alternatives or address all areas of need. In any community based project, it is critical to be adaptive to information you find along the way, and listen to the needs of the community you are helping. My project aims to help the queer community in North Carolina, specifically creating resources for queer young adults, and its success will depend on my ability to identify and respond to the needs of this community.

Much of my motivation for this project comes from my own experiences growing up queer in North Carolina and seeing a lack of representation amongst my teachers and professional mentors. Approaching this project from within the queer community I am serving, it is easier and harder in different respects to combat assumptions. It is easier in that I have more exposure to people within the queer community; I am more likely to draw from interactions I’ve had and the experiences of peers than media portrayal of queer culture. The investment I have in making this community project is driven by a desire to help this community and by a desire to provide better support than I had. However, when drawing from my own experiences, I must be careful not to project the needs I had onto the situations of others. To truly meet the needs of this community, it will be critical to draw more from the perspectives of my peers than my own.

Meeting the needs of different geographic regions in North Carolina is an area I anticipate needing the greatest insight from others. The dynamics of queer communities are vastly different in urban and rural towns. Larger cities like Raleigh and Durham may have their own dedicated LGBTQ center, while smaller towns may lack these physical spaces. For individuals in urban areas, a print pamphlet could be accessed through community centers like this. In rural areas, where in-person queer spaces are rarer, a physical pamphlet becomes difficult to distribute. While getting printed resources into queer community centers is the first step, it cannot create impactful differences if these community centers themselves are inaccessible to young North Carolinians. Additionally, North Carolinians in rural communities may have different needs for the material itself.

While I can draw upon my own experiences growing up in the triangle, and the experiences of community members near me, it will be critical to identify people in rural communities to share their perspectives and input. In order to avoid the pitfalls of assumptions, I will need to seek and respond to feedback from peers outside my circumstances. While I will be seeking feedback in every stage of this project, I am going to make an intentional effort to ensure that it does not all come from the same group I am working with on this project. I am greatly interested in speaking with rural queer community leaders to find out what they feel is appropriate material for their needs, and to connect with organizers already aware of the needs of youth in their location. Over the next few months, I will no doubt encounter more areas where my prior assumptions limit my ability to proceed. It will be my responsibility to check in with myself and others about where my biases lie and affect my work as I proceed.

Queering Stem: The Importance and Impact of Visibility Campaigns

“Visibility is important for mental health, for standing up to injustices, and for mentoring current colleagues and future scientists.” – Lauren Esposito

Why is queer visibility important? Why will it continue to be?

Esposito, founder of the visibility campaign 500 Queer Scientists, lists succinctly the concrete impacts of queer visibility. But before I talk about impact, I first want to address what I even mean by “queer”.

Queer is defined on Wikipedia as “an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities”. Originally used as a slur, the use of queer as an umbrella term is somewhat contentious, but it’s reclamation began as early as the 80s. Queer is a term with no defined bounds, it simply encompasses non-normative gender, sexuality, expression, affect… society defines “queer” by distancing and othering these groups. Concurrently, queer becomes a unifying label that seeds community and advocacy.

My initial involvement with queer community was to find social support and become more accepting of my own identity; over time it became a way to advocate for my peers and change the social climate around me. I wanted to create spaces where queer people could be accepting of their identities from the outset by making those identities broadly understood and unquestioned. At universities, queer advocacy can be effectively done from a top-down approach. Emailing an administrator or co-signing a letter with partner organizations is likely to yield results. This advocacy can bring about changes in university policy such as DEI training for faculty, giving students autonomy over their living assignments, or simply changing language usage in emails. Outside of academia, where institutions do not have the same social and financial incentives to promote inclusivity, this top-down advocacy can be much more challenging.

One powerful alternative is advocating laterally to gather support from peers. Sharing my experiences as a queer person has encouraged family, colleagues, and employers to learn more on their own time and begin supporting queer community. By being “out” about my identity in this way, I become visible. This visibility is vulnerable, but it provides personal insight into a community that could otherwise be difficult to empathize with. By creating acceptance amongst peers, I am slowly making space for myself and others in the future to exist genuinely.

In the upcoming months I will be working with STEM Pride of the Triangle, a local queer advocacy group, to produce a visibility publication highlighting the work of queer scientists across North Carolina. This publication will include information on the personal lives, career paths, and scientific achievements of highlighted individuals. Just as it harder to advocate outside academic institutions, it can also be harder to access queer resources; this publication will have the advantage of being distributable to community centers, museums, and other institutions beyond the campus bubble. Young queer people across North Carolina will be able to read about STEM professionals that share the same identities and face the same societal challenges that they do. These examples will demonstrate that there is a path forward in STEM, and that it is possible to hold a queer identity within these career fields.

Society’s opinion of what is acceptable, what is normative, is constantly changing. That change does not occur without the work and vulnerability of many advocates, and there will always be a need for greater acceptance. The ultimate goal of this visibility project is to encourage a future generation of queer scientists and innovators to pursue STEM careers without reservation. Their presence and visibility will in turn continue to create a more inclusive social climate across the state.