Written By Emily Liptow, CSU STEM VISTA Member 2015-17 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
This past year as a CSU STEM VISTA member has provided me with so many learning opportunities around social justice, diversity, and critical theories. One of my favorite experiences has been participating in book circles at Cal Poly through the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT). The CTLT hosts many book circles for staff and faculty throughout the school year on a variety of topics including higher education, personal growth, and diversity.
I love book circles for a variety of reasons: #1 you get a free book, #2 it forces encourages you to actually read the book in a timely manner, and #3 you get to participate in rich, lively discussions about the books. Honestly, #3 has been the most valuable aspect of the book circles. Processing a book’s content in a group helps me to more fully understand the themes and lessons, making it easier to apply to my own life. This year I read Brene Brown’s Rising Strong and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom through CTLT book circles, both of which were powerful to me in many ways.
Considering my love of book circles, I was very excited to be asked to help lead one this past spring quarter. Noya (my fellow VISTA buddy) and I hosted a book circle for Tim Wise’s Colorblind that was especially geared towards faculty, staff, and students in STEM departments at Cal Poly. This book circle was one of three Tim Wise-focused book circles offered by the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at Cal Poly during spring quarter. Wise, a well-known, anti-racist activist and educator, came to Cal Poly this past May as the keynote speaker for Inclusive Excellence week. As a white man doing this sort of work, Wise provides an example for what white-allyship can look like in the fight for racial equality.
Leading up to Wise’s presence on our campus, we hosted two discussions on Colorblind. In Colorblind, Wise provides extensive examples and research that demonstrate the significance of race in politics, education, and other aspects of our society today. The book is a protest against colorblind attitudes and policies, arguing that by ignoring the significance of race or by trying to explain inequality only from an economic standpoint, we actually reinforce racism. In our discussions, we focused on how Wise’s work is most relevant in education and at Cal Poly in particular. Since many of our participants were in STEM fields, we included topics around the underrepresentation of people of color in these fields.
Many participants shared stories from their experiences as underrepresented minorities on Cal Poly’s campus and from their personal lives. Some of our participants brought up the topics of meritocracy and the perceived objectivity of STEM fields, and we discussed how these ideologies can exclude certain individuals from these fields. One of our faculty participants brought up the importance of recognizing who is represented in our textbooks and who is not. We discussed how ignoring a student’s race or other personal identities can lead to a lack of belonging or can otherwise devalue their identities and background. While difficult to determine a simple solution to these problems, our group shared ideas on how inclusive environments can be developed to truly acknowledge and value a diversity of identities.
Hearing people’s stories brought to life many of the issues that Wise talks about in Colorblind. It was great to see our discussions grow from sharing personal experiences to dissecting institutional and systemic issues that lead to racial equality. It was inspiring to see our participants passionately discussion these topics, even those for whom this may be one of their first times talking about race so openly. I learned from everyone, and this is exactly why I love book circles.
Our book circle discussions around Wise’s work and racial inequality in general take on particular significance in the wake of recent police brutality and the #blacklivesmatter movement. The loss of innocent black lives is a tragic reminder that race continues to matter in our country. One of my biggest takeaways from Tim Wise’s writing and talk is that we must be critically aware of the racial discrimination we may observe or experience, and that we must see it as functioning within historical, social, and political contexts. Whether it’s the disproportionately low representation of people of color in STEM fields or the mass incarceration and killing of black men, these issues have been caused and continue to be fed from institutionalized racism that pervades our society.