Toolik Community Joins Together in Unlearning Racism in the Geosciences

March 31, 2022

Haley Dunleavy

Last year, Toolik Field Station joined thousands of scientists across the United States in the journey towards being anti-racist. As part of the Unlearning Racism in the Geoscience program, or URGE, members of the Toolik community teamed up to discuss ways to make science and our field station more equitable and welcoming to historically marginalized groups. Now, as the community continues to learn together, Toolik looks to cultivate sustainable action to ensure these efforts result in long-term change.

Amanda Young, manager of the Spatial and Environmental Data Center, spearheaded the Toolik URGE pod, inviting field station staff and community members to sign up for the eight-session course in January 2021. For many at Toolik, the URGE program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, was a welcome opportunity. “It was exciting to try to take some actions in a community that I really care about,” said Sarah Messenger, a research assistant for the Arctic Long Term Ecological Research site and URGE pod member. Messenger, noting how supportive she’s found the Toolik community, added, “My hope is that everyone regardless of their background or identity can experience that kind of community at Toolik.”

In total, 28 people signed up, including Kelly Elder, a research hydrologist with the Forest Service. Elder said he appreciated the open, positive, and receptive atmosphere of the discussions. “It was real conversations with real people,” he said. “From support staff to scientists to administration, I felt like there was a great representation on those calls.”

Screenshot of a Zoom call in gallery mode, featuring the faces of some members of the Toolik Field Station Unlearning Racism in the Geosciences pod.
Amanda Young
Members of the Toolik Field Station Unlearning Racism in the Geosciences pod met over Zoom every other week from January to May.

Young echoed Elder’s appreciation for those who participated and welcomed even more to join future conversations. “If we're going to make change,” Young said, “it has to come from within the community.”

Sparking change is exactly what creators of the URGE program hoped the discussions would do. To facilitate this, pods were assigned deliverable items, like policy statements or resource lists, that were informed by each week’s readings and seminars from experts. Between January and May, members of the Toolik pod reviewed Toolik’s Code of Conduct and reporting pathways, wrote field safety guides for scientists of color, and brainstormed strategies for working with nearby Arctic communities—all through an anti-racist lens. In total, seven different policies were proposed. The process of drafting deliverables opened the door to have more specific conversations about what Toolik could do to foster inclusion, though it was still one first step of many to come. “The deliverables were a very useful guide to assess where Toolik and the institutions that work at Toolik are in these efforts,” Messenger said. “What was harder to do was to address how we move forward.”

Enacting Change

Messenger’s question of how Toolik moves forward—shared by many in the URGE group—was taken up by the camp community last summer. Posters went up celebrating diversity, and Pride flags flown outside camp buildings. Field station residents started a Spanish speaking dinner club, and Mayra Melendez Gonzalez, Dani Aguirre, and Kela Vicich, SEDC technicians, published the Naturalist Journal in both English and Spanish, allowing community members to share their remote field experiences with a wider range of friends and family. Toolik also appointed a second science community liaison, a duty shared by researchers Ariel Shogren and Lexy Salinas, to aid in communicating residents’ concerns and complaints to Toolik management. The second liaison was added to ensure liaisons represented a greater range of the identities at Toolik, like gender. 

Toolik Field Station staff and management members in winter gear hold a Pride flag on the TFS dining hall deck during Pride in Polar Research Day.
Manny Centeno
Toolik Field Station staff and management celebrated Pride in Polar Research Day in on a cold winter day in November 2021.

In addition, Toolik hosted two in-camp discussions to gather ideas from those who weren’t able to participate in URGE. Notes from these discussions were reviewed by Toolik’s new communication and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) manager over the winter, with the goal of translating feedback into larger change. As a result, several policies, including the Code of Conduct and Sexual Misconduct & Title IX policy, were revised to incorporate lessons from URGE and other discussions. For example, the Code of Conduct now describes expected behaviors of Toolik residents and explicitly prohibits microaggressions, which are subtler comments or actions that have detrimental impacts when left unchecked within a community.

Other efforts are still in progress, such as rebuilding Toolik’s relationship with neighboring Arctic communities. In the past, Toolik researchers have visited the nearby Nunamiut community of Anaktuvuk Pass, at times working with local residents for ecological research. That connection has since been lost. Currently, Young gives Alaska Native land acknowledgments before weekly Talking Shop seminars, personalizing acknowledgments with passages from the late Anaktuvuk Pass elder Simon Paneak’s accounts of Nunamiut heritage. Often the readings related to the research being presented, pinpointing specific study sites. But, for Young and others in the community, much more is needed to bring equity to the work the Toolik community conducts. Young hopes to forge new connections in Anaktuvuk Pass in the coming years and is collaborating with professors at University of Alaska Fairbanks to do so. 

Continuing the Momentum

As Toolik turns its focus towards creating lasting change, the group will continue to host conversations on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion at the station, both in-camp and virtually. As one URGE participant, Ruby An, a PhD student from Princeton University, noted, discussions alone can go a long way in building stronger support systems in camp. “Being able to connect on these topics or show up for one another—I think that's actually something really invaluable,” she said. But An cautioned the importance of not losing momentum. She added, In my head, it's not over yet.”

Elder agreed. “These things are dangerous when you complete them. It’s really easy to pat yourself on the back and say, you know, we did the course, we got our act together,” he said. “That's really just the start.”

To maintain accountability, the Toolik URGE pod will meet this spring as the Toolik DEI discussion and action group, with a heightened focus on putting to action the ideas shared during previous discussions. The URGE creators also announced plans for a peer review network that will connect pods from across the US to share ideas on improving and implementing policies.

Young emphasized that the Toolik pod is always open for new members to join. “I hope more faculty will participate in future discussions. They're the ones that hire grad students. They're the ones that hire postdocs and undergrads,” Young said. “They’re the ones that can make a big change, at least initially.”

Toolik invites members of its broad community to take part in this work during the upcoming field season, whether you’re a long-time Toolik community member or have yet to visit camp. If interested, please email communication and DEI manager Haley Dunleavy or SEDC manager Amanda Young.