Dual pandemics — Covid-19 memorial flags as seen from the observation window of the African American History Museum in Washington, DC.

When we put out our action plan and commitment to anti-racism and Black lives in 2020, we weren’t sure how successful we would be. The plan, developed In consultation with the GOV/LAB team, included a list of activities and defined outcomes, which were important but  hard to measure concretely. In addition to a Phase 0 aimed at connecting the dots between various MIT initiatives, the three primary phases of the plan were: 1) Aligning values and action; 2) Putting engaged scholarship ethos into practice; and 3) Changing norms; building the pipeline. A year later, the pandemic and its impacts still ongoing, we wanted to provide some reflections on our progress (slow) and our thoughts on how to move forward (mixed). 

Phase 1. Aligning values and actions.

We made progress on education and training as well as communications. We didn’t get any feedback via the confidential feedback channels we set up, so we will plan to close those for the time being. Increasing educational efforts was low-hanging fruit that seemed to go well. One faculty member led on creating an informal reading list and some students formed mini reading groups to go through the materials. We also published a blog on what people in GOV/LAB  were reading related to our commitment. We also co-hosted the #BlackintheIvory: Academia’s Role in Institutional Racism panel discussion with the MIT Communications Forum and Radius at MIT in Fall 2020, which sparked an open and honest conversation and had a good turn out

Another positive step was the pilot mentorship program, which paired six MIT Political Science doctoral students with undergraduate researchers from local universities. Though a relatively small cohort, participants gained research experience and a better understanding of what a PhD program in political science might look like. The pilot was useful and had benefits for both graduate mentors and undergraduate researchers, and going forward we will plan to build on the lessons we learned and plug into other existing training efforts. 

Phase II. Put engaged scholarship ethos into practice.

We made slow progress on bigger institutional issues, but continued to practice co-design with partners.  This phase has perhaps the least-defined and measurable outcomes, and perhaps as a result we have limited outcomes to report. As research plans, travel, and major events remained on hold or delayed due to Covid, changing practices around allocating new research funding, and representation and participation at events was less of an immediate priority. We did undertake a number of Covid-19 related projects with partners, which were conducted remotely with an engaged scholarship approach.

Phase III: Changing norms; building the pipeline.

After some back and forth, we determined this system-scale effort to be beyond the scope of what we could realistically lead on, given the size and positionality of our lab. We were quick to prioritize the development of our lab’s action plan, but questions also arose about how to integrate our work into  efforts led by the Department of Political Science or the School of Humanities & Social Sciences (SHASS) where our lab sits.  We knew from conversations with students already engaged in graduate affairs advocacy that there were coordinated efforts already in place so we didn’t want to create double duty for people already doing the work. At the same time, we wanted to take responsibility within our lab so we moved forward with an internal plan because we thought the process would be valuable as a groundswell signal. Developing the plan was an important grassroots effort, but at the same time, power and bandwidth as a small lab is limited. We recognized that some of the actions with respect to diversifying the pipeline, such as recruitment and admissions, were beyond our scope and best supported at the departmental and school levels. 

Challenges and lessons learned 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a persistent source of uncertainty and stress for the community. As last year wound down, people seemed to have less time and energy to move forward on the bigger systematic aspects of our plan (Phase III). One critical lesson for us has been to think actively about balancing the ambition of the plan to address a major, systemic problem while also sustaining momentum during unprecedented times of social distance and disconnect. 

Another challenge has been that people at MIT often have a preference for quantitative empirics so when it comes to implementing a new policy, everyone wants to know the evidence on what works. Though there is a wealth of research on the problems of inequity and hidden agendas within political science as a discipline, it was difficult to find the kind of hard data people wanted to inform the best strategy. This is likely due to the nature of the problem, and in our experience stymied efforts to bring in more diversity of perspectives and scholars on this issue. 

Going forward, we developed an annotated version of the action plan with notes on each action item, which we will keep online as a record. Rather than continuing to report on these action items we plan to integrate our work with school and institutional efforts, for example, SHASS Diversity Predoctoral Fellowships, MIT’s Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and MIT’s Summer Research Program. By joining these efforts, we aim to have a bigger combined impact, while continuing to push for and practice the values laid out in our commitment.