Flying with Sankofa: Moving forward by learning from the past

Ruthmae Sears
University of South Florida
Laura Frost
Florida Gulf Coast University
Alec Cattell
Texas Tech University
Alec Cattell, Texas Tech University; Laura Frost, Florida Gulf Coast University; and Ruthmae Sears, University of South Florida

*All authors contributed equally to the document.

published Aug 23, 2022 2:15pm

It is important to celebrate the heroes in our society who spoke up, and who took action to change systems and improve the lives of many. For instance, our nation celebrates heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy continues to inspire civil rights initiatives and advocacy for equitable opportunities. The living legend Shirley Malcom, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) SEA Change program, was recently celebrated when her name was recognized on a building at her alma mater, Penn State University. Over her career, Dr. Malcom has tirelessly advocated and brought attention to the challenges of intersectionality, specifically the challenges faced by women of color in the sciences.

Heroes such as these draft pathways for us today as we draw on our identities to work toward justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (J.E.D.I.) in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). As we go about this work, we must live out Sankofa: learning from the past in order to move forward. Sankofa is a principle that comes from the Akan people of Ghana to remind us of the importance of "constant retrospection for the sake of future development" (Osei, 2020, p. 381). Often depicted as a mythical bird whose head is turned backward to pick up an egg while its feet are firmly planted forward (Figure 1), Sankofa implies that intelligent, patient investigation, and critical examination are essential for building a strong future based on knowledge of the past. As we are challenged more than ever to reflect on justice and equity within our disciplines, let's use past lessons to identify and change the way we create learning environments for a diverse body of STEMM learners.

There are many other heroes (past and present) in our STEMM disciplines from whom we can learn, such as the late Bob Moses, who created the Algebra Project to improve minority achievement in mathematics. We also have many national organizations that have published statements of their commitment to equity and social justice. For instance, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and TODOS (2016) published a joint statement on social justice in mathematics education, while the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE) articulated a commitment to equitable and inclusive mathematics teaching and learning, given that "Mathematics has been historically used as a gatekeeper and a tool to maintain white supremacy and other current systemic hierarchies that promote inequitable and unjust practices" (AMTE, 2022, p. 1). Furthermore, specialized organizations have been created for people of color and individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community in a variety of STEMM fields. These include the Benjamin Banneker Association in Mathematics, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBECCHE), the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS), and Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (OSTEM). The heroes who founded these organizations saw the need for voices to be valued, respected, and heard, to create environments in which all scholars can share their scholarship and grow professionally while feeling a sense of belonging. Organizations such as these are leading the way in rethinking policies and practices around education, hiring, and sustaining diverse representation in STEMM.

In the context of J.E.D.I. work in STEMM, fear can be an immobilizing force. So, ask yourself: What are you afraid of? If you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, know that it is okay to make a mistake, and know that it is okay to say "I'm sorry" when you do. If you are afraid of resistance from your colleagues, consider seeking support from other like-minded colleagues across academic rank who will support you in strategizing and implementing positive cha nges that can be sustained over time. While you acknowledge your own fear, think of the fear and frustration of the students who are excluded. Also seek out additional learning in understanding and compensating for your own biases.

Sustainable changes that promote J.E.D.I. in STEMM must be intentional. To this end, it may be helpful to utilize a change dashboard to help monitor your initiatives (Henderson, Finkelstein, & Beach, 2012; Henderson, & White, 2019). According to Henderson and White (2019), "The Change Dashboard is a visual planning and communication tool for change agents working in higher education. The Dashboard articulates the key tactics of an action plan to get from the current state to the desired state" (p. 3). As it relates to curriculum development, Henderson, Finkelstein, and Beach's (2012) Four-Square Typology of Change Categories focuses on:

  • (I) Disseminating: curriculum and pedagogy, 
  • (II) Developing reflective teachers, 
  • (III) Developing policy, and 
  • (IV) Developing shared vision. 

By intentionally attending to various aspects of the system, we can increase the likelihood that change ideas are sustained over time. For instance, Sears and Kudaisi (2021) modified the Henderson et al. framework to focus on J.E.D.I. in mathematics (Figure 2).

Another resource that we highly recommend is the T.R.U.T.H. Framework (Davis-Cotton et al., 2022), which provides a roadmap for faculty to move through stages to teach, reach, unite, transform, and heal along the path to meaningful and sustainable systemic change. Thus, by learning from the past, we can move forward together. Heroes like Dr. Malcom provide a foundation for us to stand on. Let's make this the year that future generations look back on and say, "That was a turning point in the struggle to make STEMM fields more accessible, equitable, and inclusive."