Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Papi

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Yesterday we inaugurated our first African-American president. I wanted to use those events to talk about diversity (or the lack thereof) among scientists and astronomers. But I quickly realized that the last thing the blogosphere needs is another white male droning on about diversity.

So, I asked my friend and colleague, Marcel Ag├╝eros, to be a guest author. Marcel, in addition to astronomy research, works on diversity-related issues. Reading his post, I am all the happier that I didn't try and write anything myself. Here is Marcel's piece:

When I hear the word diversity...

When Kurtis asked me to blog about diversity, I'm guessing he thought I would write about how un-diverse our field is and go on to describe some of the programs I'm involved in that try to address this situation. When I agreed, I thought that's what I'd do too. But somewhere between thinking about MLK, Jr over the weekend and being swept up by inauguration energy my thoughts got more personal.

So, very briefly: Minority astronomers are a factor of 10 rarer in our profession than they are in society at large; every year, one African American receives a PhD in astronomy--nation-wide--and that number hasn't changed in 20 years. With a number of like-minded astronomers, some minority, many not, I've been working to change these facts. Programs I'm involved in or rooting for include: the Pre-Major in Astronomy Program at the University of Washington, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-PhD Bridge Program, and Columbia's new Bridge to Ph.D. Program in the Natural Sciences, of which I am the Associate Director.

Now, what I decided to talk about...

When I hear the word diversity, I think of my dad. Papi is 74 now, but he looks a decade younger--not that it matters; he doesn't know how old he is anymore. He's in what I routinely describe as the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease, as though that's a clearly defined place. In his case this means that his short-term memory is mostly gone, although occasionally he'll surprise us with a joke that shows he's remembering something recent. Sadly, his longer-term memory is also evaporating--at least that part not dedicated to music or poetry.

Papi grew up in East Harlem, the only child of two lightly educated Puerto Ricans who came to New York separately at the tail end of the (last?) Great Depression. There was nothing in our family history that suggested he'd ever become an intellectual; if anything, Abuelo worried that his son's interest in books was going to turn him into a sissy. How he went from there to Brooklyn College, the first cohort of National Urban Fellows, the directorship of El Museo del Barrio for much of my childhood, and eventually to being a full-time poet/writer is a long story and not one that readers of an astronomy blog may care for...

...but I swear it's relevant. It's Papi's story that keeps me focused on my own work as an astronomer--and specifically as an astronomer working to increase the diversity of the field.

As a high school student, Papi did particularly well in Biology, and commuted for a while to Brooklyn Tech, one of NYC's traditional powerhouses. He hated it there and came back to the Barrio... and gave up on science until he more-or-less accidentally enlisted in the early 1950s in the Air Force (the most progressive of the four branches of the military at the time, not that he knew that), where he turned into a guided-missile instructor. The apocryphal story my mom tells is that when he was asked to reenlist he was told that if he did he would go to Florida to work on big rockets.

Instead, because he'd had enough of taking orders, he decided he wanted an engineering degree, and enrolled at Brooklyn College via the GI Bill and a graveyard shift at the General Post Office... In an English class taught by Prof. Bernard Grebanier--whose name he most certainly has not forgotten, forty years on--he fell in love with Shakespeare, and there went engineering.

So, the relevance?

One possible way of looking at Papi's life is that talent comes from unlikely places, may struggle to find its way, and will eventually end far from where anyone would have expected. There's nothing original about this narrative, of course; in one form or another it is the heart of the classic American tales we are familiar with... and which yesterday's inauguration only reinforces.

There is a less charitable view, of course, that points a finger at the systemic discrimination that has poisoned our society seemingly forever, and against which Papi and his generation fought tooth and nail--sometimes winning, often losing. I'm sure my father's regrets are not those that I have for him, but it seems to me that better opportunities and less time spent fighting would have made it easier for him to find his place, perhaps even in science.

Regardless, I was freer than he ever was to imagine a world beyond the confines of my own barrio--and even to come around (slowly) to the idea of being a professional astronomer, an improbable career for a kid born and raised in Manhattan. And, in gratitude, I try to make the improbable less so for others.

The very least I owe Papi is not to forget his history, even as he does.

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