Three’s a crowd: A challenging blend of workspaces, social media, and personal identity during COVID-19.
University of Ottawa
PhD Candidate, Experimental Psychology
Canadian Science Policy Center
Program Committee Volunteer
It is quiet. As a PhD student in cognitive psychology, my mornings consist of answering emails and starting work at a medium pace. As I answer work related messages on social media, the quiet continues. Until suddenly, another act of violent racism, murder, and tragedy is filmed, forwarded, and plastered onto my social feed. My reactions are sometimes public comments or expressions, but more often than not, they are taking place internally. As a painful storyline is reactivated, it is accompanied by physical sensations like increased heartbeat with a mixture of sadness, anger, and guilt; sometimes it is also impossible to label those feelings. Usually, avoiding the apathetic comment sections helps get rid of the physical reactions quicker. Once I regain my physical composure, I return to the social media networks, complete my work-related tasks, and then log off. As I return to my inbox, the quiet returns.
This routine is familiar to many graduate students, as COVID-19 prompted swift university closures and the removal of physical gatherings in public spaces. Life saving measures were taken and people were told to remain indoors for months on end, and this process is starting once more. Consequently, universities began relying on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social platforms, to ensure that contact with students would not completely disintegrate. Alongside the increased reliance on social platforms was the unintended consequence of work interactions on social platforms. Previously, students could manage their exposure to verbal and visual violence against visible minorities (e.g.., Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC)) by not opening these platforms. In fact, it is a well-known recommendation in the BIPOC community to conserve one’s mental health by reducing the amount of trauma exposure via social media. Now, in order to complete work tasks and maintain communication, students must utilize these platforms to avoid falling behind. Exposure to online trauma has already been linked to negative mental health outcomes such as increased fatigue and anxiety. With visible minorities already at a higher risk of experiencing discrimination and violence, these risks are inherently transferred to social platforms via visual and verbal materials students unequivocally encounter. Unfortunately, there was no time during the pandemic to develop safe communication strategies or design alternative platforms.
Managing the intersections of virtual spaces as permanent work spaces is particularly challenging in a post-COVID-19 world. It is worth mentioning that some social platforms have created accessible and transformative spaces that are catalyzing action plans against systemic oppression within work spaces as well. One of those spaces is the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC). When I started volunteering for the 2019 CSPC conference, I was prepared to help contribute to a scientific policy conference, without any expectations as to what science policy work involved. What I was not prepared for was the feeling of surprise experienced by partaking in multiple meeting spaces with numerous visible minorities. This feeling of apparent shock allowed me to reflect upon my own expectations of what diversity in the work space was, as I had become accustomed to expecting to be the only visible minority in a room. However, as a member of the program committee, it was CSPC’s evaluation criteria of the panels that I did not expect. CSPC’s evaluation criteria rewards the diversity of panel participants, to ensure that gender, sector, discipline, geography, ethnicity, and age are carefully considered. By doing so, the program committee helps create a conference where the leading science and policy voices reflect the society they service. The value that CSPC places on individuals as a whole is exponentially more rewarding and valuable than the formulaic reduction of a person to just their scientific knowledge. By drawing upon a variety of perspectives, the CSPC conference panels have a higher chance of creating innovative solutions that are applicable to a diversity of challenges. By publicizing the evaluation criteria and incentives for diversity, CSPC’s stance on inclusion and equity within their scientific platform is made transparent, and helps alleviate systemic barriers within scientific spaces. During my research career, I have participated in numerous conferences as both an organizer and presenter. CSPC is a unique conference with a system that is actively creating solutions for visible minorities and marginalized groups, on every platform. From this experience, I have a new intrinsic motivation to ensure that all my future research endeavours are embedded with inclusive policies.
To effectively manage systemic barriers within research and work spaces, I believe that one crucial step is to increase the opportunities for collaborations between graduate researchers and policy makers. This strategy is clearly modeled by the CSPC conference. Early career opportunities for collaboration capitalize on the strengths of graduate researchers, such as program development and strategic analysis. The current experiences of graduate students can foster policies that tackle relevant challenges, such as the negative impacts of repeated exposure to systemic violence online to visible minority students during COVID-19. These unprecedented challenges demand policies that protect the welfare of students; for example, specialized and active mental health systems in all graduate studies (to name a few).
Policies can provide visible declarations against racism and encourage better practices to support vulnerable students by acknowledging the importance of their personal identities within the workplace, both in the creation and production of new knowledge. In this vein, policy work is essential for guaranteeing the success of all graduate students within higher education. For example, granting agencies have begun to create policies that enforce equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) requirements on review boards. Through policy work, granting agencies can reduce the systemic oppression present during grant application reviews while holding institutions accountable. There are many opportunities to ensure that EDI plans are upheld by institutions, but EDI centered policies are critical to the success of EDI endeavours at every level of the higher education system.
Following my first year with CSPC, the inclination I had towards science policy has now solidified into my personal goal of creating a future career in science policy. Currently, I am working towards my career goals by contributing my research skills to the development of new EDI policies at the University of Ottawa. For example, a small group of students, including myself, are preparing to present an EDI recommendations report to our Faculty. This report focuses on the systemic barriers within the psychology program and solutions, such as admissions policy recommendations. As a returning CSPC volunteer, my experiences with CSPC have solidified the belief that scientific communities cannot grow in isolation. Universities and their linked systems and organizations should not be viewed as separate agents whose role is to only synthesize knowledge and completely abstain from social commentary. Indeed, the higher education system is entirely enmeshed in current events and their success is made relevant by how it “maximizes the greatest amount of good for the greatest number”*. The above-mentioned examples of proactive policies would ensure that students already burdened with systemic racism and oppression are properly supported, while simultaneously creating a more inclusive majority student population. With EDI policy work, higher education systems can start to address and manage the current mental and physical needs of visible minority and marginalized students, so that their identities are no longer separate from their educational success.
*- Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher (1748–1832)