Celebrating Black History Month
Why Black History Month
The SKA Organisation is taking the opportunity of Black History Month (BHM) which takes place every October in the UK to highlight Black voices in radio astronomy, focus on the important and too often overlooked contributions of Black professionals as well as discuss issues of race and discrimination. With its global partnership and sites in South Africa and outback Western Australia, the SKA is in a unique position to focus on these stories that have traditionally been under-represented in our field.
On this page we speak to members of Team SKA about their own experiences of being Black in Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM), what Black History Month and the global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 have meant to them, and what they feel international projects like the SKA can do to fight racism and discrimination, as well as resources they would recommend on the subject. Hear from them below!
Marking BHM is part of a broader effort by the SKA Organisation’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Working Group to ensure that our values of equality and diversity are promoted, respected, and backed by meaningful action at every opportunity, as SKA Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond stated in his statement on racism and discrimination.
This page is meant as a living feature so come back to check as we gradually build on these contributions!
Betty Kioko - Legal Advisor for Transition and Change (SKAO)
Betty initially joined the SKA Organisation as a graduate legal intern and is now a legal advisor for the SKAO’s transition to an intergovernmental organisation. Originally from Kenya, where she gained experience in corporate law at a Nairobi law firm, Betty graduated with a Master’s degree in International Law from the University of Manchester in 2018. Since joining the SKAO she has been closely involved in the complex processes surrounding the SKA Observatory Convention.
“Some people say “science is not political” but that’s just not true. Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it exists as part of society. A good example is a conversation that people had on twitter earlier this year under the #blackintheivory on their experiences with racism while working in STEM.
The first step for projects such as SKA is to acknowledge that systemic racism exists and then put in place strategic and intentional measures to counter them. For example, the communities we are going to build our facility in are mostly Black and historically disadvantaged, there is a responsibility on us to be intentional in providing opportunities and empowering those of us who work there to be respectful and honour the communities. We’re building a new facility in the 21st century, it’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something truly diverse and inclusive, that takes deliberate measures to address systemic problems. Our Convention says our goal is to promote a “global collaboration in radio astronomy”, we can’t be truly global if we don’t address discrimination and racism.
Of course, we can’t change the world alone. The first step is to acknowledge there are systemic problems, and then ask ourselves, what can we do at our level to address those? What are the barriers preventing more Black people from working for us, from using the facility we’re building, etc. Playing our part can be through providing internships, PhD supervisions, partnering with universities in our developing countries, investing in the communities we work in, etc.
it’s important to identify and talk about systemic racism and how that manifests in the spaces we inhabit because it is only by talking about it, do we start to implement ways to rectify it. When people don’t want to have these conversations, when they say it’s uncomfortable or it’s too political or it’s not our place, I hear it’s ok for Black people to keep being disadvantaged by the existing systems in silence so their comfort is not interfered with.
I’m inspired by Dr Chao Mbogho, a Kenyan computer scientist who got her Masters at Oxford University and PHD at University of Cape Town. She is excelling in her career and taking her community with her through structured mentorship.
A resource I recommend is the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.”
Dr Job Obiebi – System Verification Engineer (SKAO)
Job is originally from Nigeria, where he studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the University of Benin. After winning a scholarship to study in the UK, he earned a master’s degree in Communications Engineering & Signal Processing from the University of Plymouth; and courtesy of a PhD studentship, a PhD in Communications Engineering from Edinburgh Napier University. Before joining the SKAO, he worked in the rail and defence sectors. Job is a Chartered Engineer, Certified Systems Engineering Professional, Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and a Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). He also sits on SKAO’s EDI Committee.
“In the UK, Black and other minorities are still disproportionately represented at all levels in all the organisations I have worked for to date. According to the IET in its 2019 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy document, the current UK engineering workforce is just under 90% male and 94% white. So, it is obvious that we still have a long way to go in bridging the gender and ethnic diversity gaps in engineering.
Since arriving in the UK in 2001, I have been a victim of discrimination and racial profiling at universities where I studied, at work and outside work, and even at the hands of the police – that one hurt me most. During my PhD study in Edinburgh in 2005, one of our neighbours had been intimidating us with his racist behaviour, and I saw him throw a brick through our living room window, bringing down all the double glazing. I called the police and when a police officer arrived, he immediately asked where my girlfriend and I came from, and to see proof of my right to live in the UK. I was the victim of a hate crime, but he said he would arrest me if I didn’t provide this proof. When I did so, he told me I should get the landlord to repair the window and left without arresting the perpetrator. It dawned on me for the first time how racism makes victims powerless; the policeman was not there to serve and protect me, because of the colour of my skin. By contrast, my landlord spoke directly to the culprit and later told me that this individual would not bother us anymore. That proved to be true. The landlord demonstrated that if we do not stay silent in the face of racism, we can be more effective in eradicating it.
From a moral standpoint, every person (whether at work or outside work) has a voice and we can speak up when we witnessany racist behaviours or incidents. If you witness racist incidents or harassment of a colleague, or any individual, please speak up. Silence is complicit. Last year, a security guard at a supermarket was fired for racially profiling me after a young female shop assistant who’d witnessed the incident spoke up. Without her support, nothing would have happened. If we do not stay silent in the face of racism, we can be more effective in eradicating it.
Sitting on SKAO’s EDI Committee is another opportunity for me to work with colleagues to raise awareness and recommendations on EDI related matters to ensure we continue to diversify our workforce, reaping the benefits of an inclusive organisation.
In terms of resources, I recommend the two-part BBC documentary, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (viewers in the UK can watch it here: part one and part two). This highlights the origin of slavery, but it details the human cost of slavery and the compensation for slave owners during the abolition of slavery. History is important, we should all know about the history of slavery and how it contributes to the racism that we are fighting today.”
Emmanuel Bempong-Manful – Ghana (DARA PhD Student, University of Bristol)
Emmanuel is from Ghana, and a final year PhD student at the University of Bristol in the UK, supported by the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project* which works with students from the SKA’s African partner countries. He holds a BSc in Physics and two master’s degrees in Astronomy and Applied Nuclear Physics.
“I took this career path because I have long been fascinated by the mysteries of the cosmos, and I strongly feel that through astronomy and astrophysics we can understand and answer several fundamental questions like how our Universe formed and the origin of life, and appreciate our place in the cosmos. I do not feel the field is diverse, although the narrative seems to be changing gradually with the development of the SKA project especially among Black Africans.
It’s important to highlight and celebrate the cutting-edge research or work undertaken by Black scientists and engineers both past and present to showcase their contribution to science, development and humanity. This will inspire the younger generation of Black men and women in STEM and give them the confidence that their hard work and commitment to excellence will be duly rewarded or recognised by the global community when they so deserve. There is also the need to declare and implement a zero tolerance for racial injustice, abuse and/or discrimination of any kind.
I find the teachings of Anti-Racism Educator Jane Elliot very compelling, and therefore recommend her teachings, books and talks. Most of her videos are available as open source/free on YouTube.”