It is routinely said that the head wearing the crown is uneasy, heavy. While I do not think Shakespeare had my curly Afro in mind, I know its meaning well. The weight of this crown regularly threatens to drown me. My trajectory to becoming an emergent leader in STEM fighting for change has been nothing short of amazing. My timing may be one of the luckier ones because I have come of age in the height of wanting more diversity – #RepresentationMatters. Whether it is aiming for gender or racial diversity, or sitting at intersections of so many identities, representation is seemingly vied for. Representation in leadership has been deemed even more important. However, representation is not enough for me. Not only do I need shared ideologies, but shared responsibility for reimagining STEMM fields to function in ways that have never existed. This responsibility, at times, has been hard to bear but one that is fundamental to my personal definition of leadership.
Leadership is often beholden to seniority. Advancement to leadership is routinely coupled with years of educational training and experiences within a field. It is easy to see why this is the case. It is less easy to note the harm of this progression. Having spent years in systems that are inherently and willingly elitist, oppressive, and detrimental, it is impossible to not buy into these standards. Buying in is a requirement. To some degree, we are required to assimilate and in assimilating, perpetuation follows shortly after. We walk the same paths as those before us and it is no wonder why the overhaul in systematic changes we hope to see have never come to fruition.
I recognize the urgency to give credence to new and emerging leaders within STEM. An urgency that should be palatable. New voices; loud voices; voices in their native tongues who are ready to do things radically different. I am in the process of still unlearning many conditionings such as code-switching; adhering to oppressive definitions of “professionalism” in my appearance; feeling the need to hold my tongue at “well-intended” diversity measures. It is an act of defiance to show up as my authentic self and in doing so, I hope it normalizes the act of others doing the same. It is but the function of a leader to then lead by example.
And in full transparency, I carry the burden of wondering if any of my efforts will ever truly make a tangible impact. Just a few weeks ago, I cried in anxiousness wondering if the cruel experiences of my doctoral training would be inescapable in my upcoming medical training. The fear that I have reminds me what is at stake. A day does not go by where I am not thinking about an injustice and pondering the ways in which I can be of service to change it. At this very moment, developing strategy to make STEMM more equitable and just is literally my job as the Executive Director of 500 Women Scientists. But beyond my job position, this work is my life’s calling. I was not a neuroscientist without being an advocate. I will not become a physician scientist without being an activist. I am a Black woman first and am made of all the Black women who came before me. My leadership is tied into my humanity and this is why I fight.
In applying our work into and within the world, I feel a responsibility to advocate for disruption of all the things wrong in our current systems. I just so happen to be a scientist and therefore my emphasis is on STEMM. I fundamentally believe that advocacy and activism must be inherent to our responsibilities as STEMM professionals and as leaders, if we want to better the paths of those walking after us.
Lauren Edwards (she/her) is the Executive Director of 500 Women Scientists. She is a neuroscientist who will be beginning medical school at Howard University in Fall 2021.