Community: if you can’t find one, make one

Based on an interview with Kasey Davis, President of the Stanford Black Postdoc Association at Stanford University

When Kasey Davis arrived at Stanford in October 2013, she anticipated being the only black person in lab.   After all, she had been the only black graduate student while completing her dissertation at the National Institute of Mental Health, yet she had managed to find black community outside of the Institute. But at Stanford, the lack of diversity stretched far beyond the confines of the lab. Black postdocs at Stanford hardly knew one another, and would have to go as far as San Francisco or Oakland to find the community they sought. One black postdoc that Kasey met said it was the first time in his 6 months on campus that he had met another black postdoc. He left within the year, at least partly due to the isolation he felt. Previous black postdocs would occasionally join in with Black Graduate Student Association events on campus, but felt a bit out of touch with younger people who were in a different stage of life. Kasey sought to remedy that isolation.

By chance, Kasey attended a meeting sponsored by the Graduate Diversity Staff Council, focused on diversity in the School of Medicine at Stanford. There were a number of black students in attendance, and up to 15 postdocs, many who were meeting each other for the first time. While at the event, she met Anika Green, one of the council members. Kasey told her that the only other black postdoc she knew at the event happened to have the same fellowship. Otherwise, there was no way to know or get in touch other black postdocs. Anika Green agreed that the postdocs should have a way to stay in touch with each other, and introduced Kasey to fellow council member Terrance Mayes, the Associate Dean for Graduate Education, and Sofie Kleppner, the Assistant Dean for Postdoctoral Affairs.  

Later, Kasey and Sofie discussed the feelings of isolation that black postdocs in particular keenly feel. The conversation then turned to how to take action: Could there be a Black Postdoc organization? How would it take shape?     

Like any good researcher, Kasey looked for examples of other black postdoc associations at other institutions. She reasoned that another association could set a good template. However, although she found a few examples of under-represented minority postdoc groups, she did not find examples of the type of community organization she wanted to create. She and other black postdocs on campus would have make their own way. She was able to reach out to other black postdocs on campus through writing a draft email for Sofie to send out. Fortunately, between the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, which appoints all Stanford postdocs, and the Office of the Vice-Provost for Graduate Education, there was a decent list of the black postdocs on campus, a valuable resource. Interested postdocs were then able to opt-in for further communications. Together with a group of 6 postdocs who showed up to the first meeting, she established the Stanford Black Postdoc Association (BPA).

Since its founding two years ago, the BPA has organized social happy hours, academic and industry career panels, as well as a “Pass on the Knowledge” event meant to provide information and mentorship to undergraduates and graduates. All of these events provide the unique perspective of Black students and employees as they progress through their careers.

The BPA, like any organization, faces challenges with attracting and maintaining membership and transitioning to new leadership. Yet these challenges are magnified due to the limited pool of available members. Postdocs are notoriously difficult to engage outside of their research. Strapped for time, sometimes with young families, they don’t have the energy or enthusiasm for organizational activity. Additionally, for attracting new membership, race is especially challenging as a category; international students who would otherwise self-identify as black may get categorized simply as “international student/postdoctoral scholar,” and miss being added to a mailing list or invited to relevant events. Maintaining membership and transitioning leadership also proves difficult, with the turnover of postdocs leading to a mixed bag of active members and substantially less active members.  

Still, the current focus of the organization is to solidify the community that the BPA mission statement outlines: 

The Black Postdoc Association seeks to build a community among the black postdocs here at Stanford, that will lead to a valuable professional network to support and promote diversity. It is our goal to provide information about opportunities such as conferences, workshops, seminars, grants/fellowships, travel awards and volunteer opportunities related to issues of diversity. 

Moving forward, Kasey hopes that once the BPA community is cemented, they will be able to turn to stronger advocacy efforts to improve the Black Postdoc experience. With any luck, these efforts can be expanded to surrounding communities, and show under-represented minorities that they have representation in higher education.