Steps we can take to translate EDI concepts to our work as academic professionals

Akay Akohwarien • Posted: February 23, 2021

In day-to-day conversations with peers in-person or over social media, 75% of the time, I have not been able to keep up with the acronyms and language surrounding social justice movements: BIPOC, NIMBYism, LGBTQ2S+, NMS, woke, etc. I remember first hearing the acronym EDI; I brushed it off because it seemed trendy, and I did not understand what the term meant. Only in the last four years have I started to learn about the concept of EDI and the value of creating spaces and policies that reflect EDI. There are many definitions of EDI and sometimes misconceptions around its meaning. The terminologies are interconnected, but there are subtle nuances and differences between them. Here is my understanding of these terms:

Equity:literature review by Fund the People did an excellent job in defining equity. In summary, equity is the external outcome that occurs when a group embodies diversity and inclusive principles. Equity is measurable, it requires systemic change, and it dismantles the barriers and injustice that minority groups or communities face.

Diversity: Diversity refers to the differences among individuals. These differences are not limited to race and gender; they include physical and mental abilities, socio-economic, political, religion, personalities, academic achievement, marital status, age, culture, etc.

Inclusion: I love thinking about inclusion as when everyone belongs at the table. Every individual knows that their voice matters, especially in decision making. Inclusion is more than representation; it requires creating an environment where people feel safe, seen, empowered, and valued.

As a Black woman in Canada, the conversation about EDI is personal and very important to me because I have been a victim of poor EDI policies; I had an experience at a grocery store where a security guard questioned me simply because I had a backpack. Seventy percent of customers had bags with them, but hey, the black girl with an Afro must seem suspicious! I no longer carry a backpack to the grocery store, and I always ask for my receipt because of the fear of being perceived as a thief. I share this story because some people who have more privilege than me might never experience something like I did. However, my experience is the reality for many folks in the BIPOC community. I empathize with anyone who struggles to feel safe in our society because of their difference.

I have had other experiences at university where someone has commented on my accent, ignored my ideas during decision making, was surprised by how well my English sounded, made incorrect assumptions about my knowledge in a particular subject, etc. My experiences have challenged me to do my part in advocating for EDI values in my social and work circles.

As I talked with other graduate students about EDI, I understood that a challenge for many people is knowing how to incorporate EDI practices into their work routine, especially my chemist friends working with carbohydrate-like molecules. I have not figured out exactly how to address this challenge because it is broad, and a one-size-fits-all solution is not useful for a topic this complex, but I have thought of some starting points for people who want to live out these EDI values. Here is a short list of some things we can try:

  • Trust that every individual can create an inclusive environment: Maybe start by asking someone in your research lab or committee who is not part of your in-group about what they think about a problem you are trying to solve.
  • Diversify your knowledge: Different campuses have a course like a journal club or literature review to help the graduate student grow in their research skills. My experience with reviewing literature solely focused on my research field. It was good to keep up to date with published work, but it reinforced that I can only learn from familiar resources. Choosing diverse knowledge could look like becoming a more curious Glycomics scientist. What if we occasionally did a literature review on a topic in a field like agriculture or psychology? Maybe we can seek to understand the connections between different fields and find solutions that might apply to our work? This practice may be uncomfortable for some, but I believe it is a great way to learn how to appreciate differences and find common grounds.
  • Advocate for systemic change: As of 2019, CIC newsreported that Canada had about 642,000 international students, ranking third globally. International students make up a high percentage of Canada’s revenue through immigration fees and high tuition costs. These students are separated from family and required to take English proficiency tests before studying in Canada. After doing their part and arriving in Canada, their professors, teaching assistants and staff are not required to take any training on cross-cultural competency – at least in the universities I have attended. This training could help guide professors’ style of teaching and improve one-on-one communication with students. This example is about how we can create a system (through mandatory training) where every student thrives regardless of their culture or language proficiency. Striving to create equity as academic professionals could look like advocating that anyone in a leadership role on your campus must take a cultural-competence training. It could also involve lobbying for accessible laboratories to assist students with physical disabilities. The examples are numerous!

The work of EDI may be uncomfortable and challenging but the result of a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive environment is beneficial for every person. Research shows that having a diverse workforce increased creativity and innovation. It is for this reason that I am very excited about the work GlycoNet is doing to provide training for its network members. In the words of Marco Bizzarri, “Diversity and inclusion, which are the real grounds for creativity, must remain at the center of what we do.”

About Akay Akohwarien

Akay obtained her B.Sc in Chemistry (major) and Environmental Studies (minor) from Queen’s University in 2016. She completed my M.Sc degree in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan under the supervision of Professor David R.J. Palmer in 2019. She currently work as a Research Technician for Dr. Christopher Phenix. Her research involves developing non-radioactive and radioactive inhibitors of GCase for labeling and imaging the enzyme both in vivo et in vitro.

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