Advocating for data, diversity and departmental change: meet the SFU Physics Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Alliance Team
Equity, diversity and inclusion work is happening every day, all across SFU’s campuses. This is the first story in a new series that will highlight some of the groups behind the work and their efforts to make SFU more diverse, equitable and inclusive for all.
By Natalie Lim
When lecturer Sarah Johnson approached the chair of SFU’s Department of Physics to propose the creation of a new departmental group to address issues of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), she found that she wasn’t the only one with EDI on her mind. Nancy Forde, a professor within the department, had also suggested the idea.
Both Johnson and Forde saw a callout from the American Physical Society (APS) to join a new initiative called the APS Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA), which aims to support physics departments and labs in enacting strategies for improving equity, diversity and inclusion within their units.
After realizing their shared goal, Johnson and Forde worked together to distribute a department-wide call for volunteers, establish a team, and put together an application, and in June of 2020, the SFU Physics IDEA Team was born.
Like many committees at SFU, the team meets monthly to discuss upcoming projects and initiatives. However, this team isn’t structured quite like a typical committee—it operates on a shared leadership model, which sees different members rotating through the roles of chair and notetaker, and providing a land acknowledgement at the beginning of each meeting. This more inclusive model gives each group member an opportunity to set agendas and lead meetings, as well as ensuring that the responsibility of notetaking is shared across the team.
“As an undergraduate student on a committee with my professors, it felt unnatural at first to chair a meeting,” says Antonia Kowalewski, a third-year student who has been on the team since its inception.
“But the experience has been empowering. Even during meetings when I’m not the chair, I feel more confident sharing my ideas because I know I’m valued at the same level as other members of the committee.”
Eric Jones, a postdoctoral fellow who joined the team last September, agrees that this aspect of the team is especially important due to the nature of their work.
“I would say it’s almost essential to have students on equal footing as everyone else, because the changes we want to push for impact students most of all,” says Jones.
“Our big question right now is—what are the pressure points, the issues that need to be addressed within the department? And while we have wonderful professors, they’re not generally the ones who can answer that question for us.”
That big question—what are the issues?—has motivated much of the team’s work so far, including a variety of data-gathering projects and the development of a climate assessment that will allow them to hear directly from students.
“Ultimately, we want to hear if students—particularly those who are members of underrepresented groups—are feeling supported by the department, or if they’re feeling excluded in any way,” says Forde. “And we want to make sure this climate assessment allows students to share their experiences in a way that is comfortable for them.”
The team has worked on several other projects, such as a screening of the movie Picture A Scientist in collaboration with the Faculty of Science; members also attend regular learning sessions hosted by the APS on EDI-related topics. But as the Physics IDEA Team approaches its one-year anniversary, everyone is focused firmly on the future.
“I’m excited to get data that will help pinpoint specific issues we might not be aware of yet,” says Forde. “Data is empowering; it helps create change and convince others of the need to create change.”
“And further down the line,” says Johnson, “I’m looking forward to making positive impacts on the undergraduate experience. Right now, our physics majors are about 25% women; we want to see more gender diversity, more Black and Indigenous students and more people of colour, both in our department and on the Physics IDEA Team.”
Overall, says the team, there is a lot of hard—but important—work to be done in the years ahead.
“And the best part,” says Forde, “is being part of a team that does it together.”