Start Actually Practicing Engagement

Do you work in the public engagement with science field? It's time to step outside of your organization. For at least a decade, we’ve frequented rooms where everyone is nodding along. We all agree that racial equity is an important, necessary priority. We all earnestly agree that by virtue of our line of work in public science engagement we have an added responsibility to make sure that the products of that work are representative, inclusive, accessible, and elevate the voices of the diverse communities we hope to serve. Heads bob agreeably when phrases like “co-production,” “mutually informing,” and “community first” come up OK. So the air quotes in that last sentence are a little aggressive. Sorry about the tone, but… …I get frustrated when I don’t see us taking the real steps needed to move these principles forward in our own work. It’s not you, it’s me: I get especially frustrated because over time it makes me feel foolish. After all, as a conference organizer and project developer, I’ve set up my fair share of friendly rooms that have talked over and work-shopped these concepts. There have been some emotional and powerful personal realizations, there have been frameworks and incentives, there have been showcases and spotlights, but the tendency seems to be that the nodding heads return to business as usual. To be clear: this is one symptom of a larger existential crisis for our field, and this predates COVID-19 or even the Black Lives Matter movement. The root cause of the crisis? Public science engagement professionals don't need to practice authentic engagement to keep getting paid. This is a generalization, of course. But stop and think about your own work processes. As a professional, do you have relationships of trust with a diverse and ever-expanding group of people that live in the communities you claim to serve? Are you able to regularly join a space that allows you to genuinely listen to others' concerns without centering your needs? Do you keep asking who is missing, who you’re not hearing from? Do you involve those voices--or at least carry with them with you--in your decision making, in your creative processes? An honest, “No,” is such a better answer than nodding your head because these things sound good. The first step forward is dead simple: Take time out from talking to yourselves, so that you can start listening to others. I’m not here to cough up a multi-step program that ensures we all walk the talk. Because this is about about changing business as usual, your path will keep unfolding after that first step. The next step? Keep walking. Good news! Two months ago we recorded some community listening sessions so that you can get a sense of how it can feel. Better news! In two weeks we’ll be recording additional listening sessions…and you are invited to join us with a listening partner. This gives you a structure to finally dip a toe into engagement, to take a first small step at practicing that thing that we’ve been saying we built the field around. No time to lose: read up on the next sessions and get started.