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A response to challenging the call to activism in academia: Crossing the "Imaginary Line"

Yesterday in class, a classmate mentioned an editorial that was recently published in Environmental Science and Technology, one of the more popular journals for people in my field of Environmental Engineering.

To summarize, this editorial is a critique challenging some of the work that has been done by several academicians (such as the work done by Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech to assist residents of Flint during their ongoing water crisis), crossing what the author designates as the "imaginary line," an arbitrary boundary that separates academic work from that of the outside community.

"If we move from being educators and researchers to allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research. At a time when environmental research is highlighting an urgent need to implement policies that are costly or unpopular, this contract is too precious to lose. "

There is a culture in academia to cling to the "ivory tower" model that has plagued this sector for too long. It's this same ivory tower that has historically, and still continues to be lacking in diversity, across a variety of disciplines. As researchers, as academicians, we are tasked with the goal of solving problems. Tasked with not only solving problems, but having a voice, one that is held with much credibility because of the letters that come after the name. Many of us, especially those from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, enter into this space with the hopeful idealism, the same idealism that is being criticized, of using our platform to conduct meaningful research that will benefit the broader society. This notion that work done outside the realm of "traditional," closed door settings is problematic for a number of reasons, one being the perpetuation of limited access to academe, typically rooted in the idea that certain types of work are less significant, or quite frankly may not be able to bring in the necessary bucks to keep programs running. While I reject this idea that community based work cannot be funded (and more recently, government and private sectors have increased funding support for such projects), I think this highlights a broader issue of the culture in higher education and the implications in the lack of diversity among faculty. This statement alone could manifest into its own separate post, so I won't take too much time to address that here.

Getting back to this article though, I have listed a few of the major critiques I have and really the danger in this viewpoint as it pertains to research and community work:

1. This argument seems based in a deeper concern of threatening research funding rather than the integrity of the work being assessed. If academicians are more concerned with where the funding for the next project is coming from rather than the 'broader impact' of our work (since that is a buzz-phrase NSF likes to use), aren't we already compromising the integrity of the work being done? Our focus has simply shifted from being all about the community to all about the money. The only difference is that the latter benefits a few while the former has the potential to benefit larger groups of people.

Within the context of environmental engineering, the basis of the work that we do is rooted in social impact as a subset of the traditional triple-bottom line view of sustainability (i.e. environmental, economic and social impacts). Many of us who enter into this discipline, even from a technical mindset, do so because of the clear implications of our work as it pertains to healing and helping protect communities and ecosystems. See the irony in the article's critique? You're criticizing work being done in a field that is based upon, and has been called (per the UN's Sustainable Development Goals) to consider the broader aspects of our work. It's like taking a child to a pool who knows how to swim, who you taught to swim, but telling them they can only swim in the shallow end because the depth of the other side is too scary, or dangerous to venture into. If you're too concerned with protecting these systems because of funding, rather than using your position to address and combat these systems, you are a part of the problem.

2. He argues the point that crossing this "imaginary line" should be used as a "last resort" mechanism. Have you not considered the underpinnings as to why the named researchers took the approach they did? In many of these cases, and with this type of research, we are already at the bottom line. The issues being tackled are at the effect level, rather than causation because they are not being addressed at higher levels necessary before they even reach the bottom line. More irony- as environmental engineers the majority of the work we do is bottom line (hence the triple-bottom line model). We deal with end of process mitigation in most "practical" applications, such as industry production. In the case of Flint, it wasn't until Marc Edwards got involved that the government was even willing to pay attention to the concerns that the public had been voicing for several months. Do you think that if Dr. Edwards was not a Doctor, that the city would have paid him any attention? Do you think the crisis would have gotten the national coverage that it received? The critical voice that comes from academe puts pressure where some of these other individuals and/or agencies cannot and do not have the same leverage. Having an expert in the field (outside of the EPA) sign off and say "yes, this is in fact a serious problem" added more "credibility" to the crisis that was being addressed. And even then, the response was not immediate however, having the data helped make a stronger case for the residents, one that prior to could only be made through their shared experiences, which is never held with enough regard. For many of these communities, turning to academia to aid in these types of efforts is a last resort- it may not be ours, but it is theirs. It is that very level of expertise that they are seeking to provide additional justification to what they are experiencing. At what point do we say it's okay to acknowledge their last resort above our own and move forward to assist in matters where research and data can make all the difference?

3. We are in an age where diversity, as broadly as it can be defined, is causing a shift in almost every aspect of life. This very shift in diversity, and strategic efforts to increase representation in spaces you haven't seen it before, is where holding onto this imaginary line becomes dangerous. Going back to what I mentioned previously, you have a new generation of young people, with new motivation and a different drive than previous generations. We are no longer the generation of trying to just have a steady life. We are a generation driven by a desire to see the world a better place than the one we walked into. Granted this means different things to different people, but millenials are driven by the desire to make an impact; we are driven by the longing to realize the idealistic future that seems out of reach, but we dare to dream anyway. Above all else, we are awakening into a new civil rights movement and have now become the generation where it is imperative to use every platform available to have a voice, or to give voice to those who the world has silenced.

In the context of diversity, diversity of background brings diversity of thought- thought to research topics that haven't been explored before. Why is it that despite the increasing number of students of color pursuing PhDs, do you still see little increase in diverse representation among faculty? I think it's more problematic than some university departments simply not hiring, but one that stems from students of color being turned off from the culture of academia, rooted more deeply in this notion that certain types of work, work that students of color tend to be more attracted to, are viewed as insignificant. We claim to want diversity and yet fail to acknowledge (or maybe even want to change) the very structure that has prevented diversity from existing in the first place. If you keep telling a child not to swim in the deep end, eventually they'll stop trying.

The danger therein lies not in just telling people that they can't explore different territory, but in not having this example present for a generation of young people more interested in non-traditional work than ever before, to follow.The danger is in this stronghold over academia that is kept to preserve the tradition, a tradition rooted in marginalization and a limited perspective of empathy for the broader context of work done in certain settings. The danger is in the lack of trust, the very trust we think we're preserving, that is created by boxing out those who don't have access. The danger is in being motivated by research dollars, more than we are motivated by the impact of the work we're doing. The danger is in saying that we are going to encourage another generation to do the tough work, without actually providing them with the resources and training of how it can and needs to be done. The danger is in saying because we've always done it this way, this is the best way to do it. The danger is in saying we're going to leave it up to everyone else to do this work because it's not our job, or outside of the realm of the work we "should be" doing.

This paradigm HAS to shift. Now more than ever, we need to answer the call to ensure that our work can be relevant for those outside of the academic community as well as inside. No, I am not saying that there is a one-size fits all model to this either. Traditional work and the strides that have been made through such work is equally as important. But that's just it, it is EQUALLY as important as work that extends beyond that imaginary line. You cannot say that you are going to take the charge of encouraging your students to push back in the face of obstacle, or say that we are going to provide active support to rebuild federal and state agencies, if you are unwilling to challenge these same systems when and where it is needed most. The longer we continue to create these imaginary silos between different sectors, the longer systemic devices will continue to train police officers to feel implicit bias towards Black men, or will continue to have governmental agencies neglecting the adverse health impacts of deteriorating pipe systems in communities of color, or will continue to have school systems that are more segregated now than they were 60+ years ago.

We can no longer turn a blind eye, nor can we continue to perpetuate the divide that this imaginary line creates between academia and the rest of society. We can no longer develop band-aid solutions and continue to call it engineering. For this next generation, it is almost obligatory for us to break down those barriers, that threshold that prevents research from expanding into the realm of activism. That threshold that limits the scope for young scholars, especially those of color, from daring to bring more meaning into the next generation of academia. Our generation needs more than the imaginary line for protection. It is this line that is the source of why protection is needed in the first place. Our generation needs to shatter the line in order to bring in a new era of justice and peace, intersecting across disciplines to truly create the world that academia and research have always set out to realize.

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