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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass ADVANCE Annual Distinguished Lecture: Working in Black and White in the Knowledge Economy by Dr. Enobong (Anna) Branch

“It can be different and we have to make it so”
Dylan Nguyen/Daily Collegian (2023)

Hosted by UMass ADVANCE, a National Science Foundation-funded program “advancing women faculty, including women faculty of color, in science and engineering,” the Annual Distinguished Lecture brought Dr. Enobong (Anna) Branch to the University of Massachusetts to discuss the role of race in the knowledge economy.

Branch, the senior vice president for equity at Rutgers University and the founding principal investigator for UMass ADVANCE, previously served as associate chancellor for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at UMass, where she led “the integration of diversity throughout the campus strategic plan, executing the university’s campus climate survey, creating diversity infrastructure through climate advisors in executive areas and diversity officers in schools and colleges,” according to the event page. A sociologist, Branch’s research “explores the historical roots and contemporary underpinnings of racial and gender inequality.”

Her lecture grappled with the notion of meritocratic ideals alongside a just racial future. For Branch, her interest in the push for diversity in science came from the pipeline metaphor that dominates academia.

“The idea is individuals are flowing from some wider opening at the beginning to a narrower opening at the end, and that flow ends up in a combination of a scientific career,” she explained. “But this assumes an equally hospitable pool at the end of the pipe.”

Branch pointed to the way men and women are perceived differently in the science field. “The battle seems to be over who can do science,” Branch said. “In subtle and overt ways, the message that women are outsiders in science is continually communicated.”

She argued that focusing on the pipeline without acknowledging the “battle that women face to succeed and persist in science” results in a revolving door of women in science. The pipeline subsequently has leakages around gender and minority groups.

Presenting an alternative model, Branch argued that the sciences are more like a road with exits, pathways and potholes. “Some people leave, some journey on, some get stuck,” she said. Using this metaphor, Branch explored the pathways that have both facilitated and impeded women’s progress in science.

“First needed to navigate the road is a car,” she said. “Even if the road were perfectly flat with no imperfections, the difference between a new car with all the bells and whistles and an old jalopy would be appreciable.”

“As road conditions deteriorate, however, the conditions of the car become all the more important,” she continued. “It directly impacts how or whether the driver can navigate the road ahead, and more certainly their comfort on the way there.”

“Finally, the road and the car draw attention to the driver,” she added. “Although the challenges of pursuing science appear universal such as the presence of the pothole on the road, it is experienced individually.”

The metaphor of women navigating science like a driver navigates a road provides us an opportunity to consider the role that backgrounds and other characteristics play in this success.

Branch proceeded to discuss the labor market, its evolution and exclusions. Focusing on the story of Black and white participants in American labor, Branch first painted a picture of the pre-Civil Rights economy of intense racial and ethnic division for labor privilege. Following World War II in a period of low inequality and high average wages, there were “clear industrial and occupational divisions” separating workers by race and gender.

“In short, white men were concentrated in core industries and primary occupations that promised economic security in the form of high wages, benefits, job security and opportunities for advancement,” Branch said.

Citing sociologist Charles Tilly, she drew attention to the binary view of social relations and interactions between white and Black workers. These “bounded categories” such as Black and white, or male and female were “imbued with power and were enforced by social stratification systems such as slavery and patriarchy that lead to economic inequality,” she said.

Pointing to the argument that the economic conditions of Black communities would improve if they just took personal responsibility, Branch argued that this story ignores the fact that “opportunities for white workers were historically defined by the exclusion of Black workers.”

Branch drew on 79 interviews that she conducted between Black and white men and women. Presenting the data she gathered, Branch found that many Black men and women “recognize the persistence of economic insecurity but they don’t necessarily convey a sense of resignation.”

By contrast, Branch found that white men and women “conveyed the newness of the economic vulnerability they were confronting.”

“For them, the realization that things were now uncertain wasn’t settled,” Branch explained. “They expressed a clear nostalgia for a more secure time when employees were taken care of by employers and their well-being was factored into business decisions.”

Comparing participants across race and gender, Branch found that “as insecurity spreads in the knowledge economy, people are finding that the rewards of hard work and higher levels of education are less than they were in the past.” This anxiety and frustration toward the results of work and education cuts across racial groups, displaying a perspective that education is not the great equalizer.

As a result, an individualist narrative has arisen for both Black and white communities that “locate responsibility for success or failure in their own efforts,” Branch said.

“Greater representation of underrepresented minorities and women in science, technology and mathematics is heralded as a solution to persistent inequality, and education is championed as a key to an economically stable future,” she noted. “Yet increasingly Americans are disillusioned as the gap between their aspirations for economic security that their education will provide and their actual reality grow.”

For Branch, this discomfort relies on the Black-and-white economic dynamics that continue to exist. Increasing access cannot generate systematic change if “we still have the same filtering happening that we are having now.”

Branch, however, pointed to the optimism and hope in Black narratives. “We can’t just think about the future in a narrow way,” she said. “We don’t just have to say it is what it is.”

“It can be different and we have to make it so.”

The event also served as an award ceremony for the ADVANCE Faculty Peer Mentor Awards “to honor the critically important work faculty perform in mentoring and supporting their colleagues’ professional development and success.”

Presented by Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Tricia Serio, awards were given to one faculty from each of the nine colleges: Theresa Austin from the College of Education, Don DeGroot from the College of Engineering, Miliann Kang from the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Hava Siegelmann from the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences, Lara Al-Hariri from the College of Natural Sciences, Gabrielle Abelard from the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing, Aline Gubrium from the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Chris Agoglia from the Isenberg School of Management and Amanda Walker Johnson from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Serio also announced the four winning groups of the inaugural Equitable Practices in Collaboration award from spring 2022: the CNS lecturer’s council, the MSP bargaining team, the library research services department and the Holyoke public school’s ethnic studies program research-practice partnership.

Alex Genovese can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @alex_genovese1.

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