Matimba Swana, Kumeri Bandara and Harleen Kaur Johal reflect on postgraduate activism and advocacy in UK bioethics
The Black and Brown in Bioethics (BBB) Network hosted a panel discussion on ‘Activism and Advocacy in Bioethics as a Postgraduate’ at the 2023 Postgraduate Bioethics Conference held 12-13 June 2023 at the University of Edinburgh. The discussion was also recorded as an episode of BBB’s Power and Privilege in Academia podcast series, which has a planned release date of mid-December 2023. This article contains reflections on the panel discussion, which was hosted by Kumeri Bandara, and featured Patricia Kingori, Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra and Ayesha Ahmad.
What is it like to engage in advocacy and activism as a postgraduate in academia? Advocates and activists are dedicated to overcoming inequalities and creating positive change in the world. In the world of academia, power, the ability to influence and make decisions that impact others, is an important cause of inequalities. Social justice driven advocacy and activism in academia gives us the opportunity to surpass these barriers and celebrate and learn from each other’s perspectives and experiences. Social justice refers to the fair division of economic, social, and political rights as well as fair distribution of resources, opportunities, and privileges in society. While postgraduates have a lot to gain and offer by engaging in activism and advocacy, they do not have power and privilege to do so. In this instance privilege is defined as the benefits from social groups individuals are perceived to be part of. We wanted to empower postgraduates to identify and remove barriers that prevent them from accessing power, and by extension, academic resources, and opportunities.
The panel started with definitions of activism and advocacy—which included efforts to promote political or social change that can take different forms and even operate in the shadows—and then moved on to panellists’ personal journeys. In general, the panellists did not start their careers thinking about activism. However, they started to experience microaggressions early on, which in turn led to academic citizenship, growing awareness of one’s actions, and a want to create spaces for others. There was a unanimous recognition and gratitude towards people in the past who have paved the way for people like the panellists to be in the positions they are currently in. In fact, the panellists felt responsible to pay this support forward by nurturing and caring for the next generation of black and brown researchers. Developing support and having mentors allowed the panellists to dissect, evaluate, and analyse their own research frameworks and methodologies, in ways that prioritised research participants and allowed for activism within research. Panellists emphasised the importance of practicing advocacy and activism through research practices, since the impact of research and resulting findings could extend beyond academia and therefore have unintended consequences on participants and wider society.
Panellists shared a range of institutional and structural challenges postgraduates may face while trying to engage in activism and advocacy while developing a career. They argued that the myth of meritocracy plays an important part in developing a false narrative by disregarding structural, political, and societal level inequalities. For instance, access to the ladder is not as easy as people say—one must publish, get grants, and attend conferences. These opportunities are very rarely handed out and are especially harder to access by minority academics who may have to contend with a minority tax, which is defined as the burden of time and resources placed on minority persons to represent and advocate for the communities.
Panellists also revealed difficulties navigating institutional politics and structures in speaking truth to power while making career progress. Academic institutions gain from junior researchers’ work, and junior researchers can lose from this additional work they do as activism and advocacy can take one away from the work one is employed to do. Panellists also mentioned the false sense of security in the ideology that everyone is working in the interest of academic researchers. People can have grant ideas taken from them or have ideas actively blocked by institutions that disagree politically. Speakers acknowledged that when engaging in activism and advocacy, early career researchers can have less security due to short-term contracts. The action of trying to create job security in academia was identified as a form of activism in itself.
As a minority, one does not have the privilege of ignoring politics in an institution. So, panellists cautioned one to be strategic in their approach. For instance, one can join an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion committee to gain recognition for additional work. When guest lecturing, one can exercise one’s authority to edit the reading list to include diverse perspectives. If one is ever seen as an expert in an area that they are not familiar with simply because they are a minority, it is important to push back.
Early career researchers could benefit from taking the time to understand and evaluate the institutions, systems, infrastructure, and dynamics they are embroiled in before undertaking any advocacy or activism. Since there is a burden on academics from marginalised backgrounds to engage in activism or advocacy, it is essential to find allies and have a community one can work with. The community is vital as one needs somewhere to reflect and share the burden. The path forward may look lonely, but things are improving, networks are being developed, and people are more prepared.
Appreciate those who came before us
There are factors in society that disproportionately affect minority communities and place unique burdens on people of colour. We can learn and develop meaningful practices for ourselves and for others by learning from experiences of senior leaders in academia who have already navigated challenging terrain. We started BBB to achieve racial equity within the UK bioethics community. We would like to consider future generations and build on the hope that came before us.
Recognise the importance of identity in research
The identity of the researcher and related experiences and perspectives inform every aspect of the research process, from forming research questions to collecting and analysing data. For instance, the term “hard-to-reach” is often used by researchers to justify continued underrepresentation of some demographics in research, when in fact the fault might be with oversight of the research design and exclusionary research methods. As people of colour, we have found traditional recruitment methods do not work for other people of colour. We have been able to use our identity and experiences to connect with different communities and conduct research in ways that build trust and respect participants and their knowledge and needs.
Understand the landscape
Academic culture varies across countries, disciplines, institutions, departments, and line managers. It takes time to understand the values and culture which create different challenges and opportunities in one’s work environment. A paradigm shift in culture and climate normally takes time, resources, and energy, so understanding the context in which we operate is crucial in working out how to create a shift effectively. We have been fortunate to have a good community and allies in working with BBB, but we know other postgraduates may not have the same access and privileges we have had. We hope our podcast series and other activities will help fellow early career researchers realise they are not alone, and they could collectively develop tools to overcome some of the barriers they are facing.
Strong communities are critical because they can be an important source of social connection and belonging. Communities can also help handle distress unique to racial and ethnic minorities such as discrimination. The panellists mentioned the importance of self-care through intentional community especially when doing activism and advocacy. We feel grateful to be on this journey together through BBB and to have others around us that support our academic careers and collaborations. We hope to expand opportunities for community growth and engagement so that many others can benefit similarly.
Appreciate the power of storytelling
Storytelling can have appeal to our senses and emotions as well as have an impact that lasts a lifetime. Storytelling can encourage participation, communicate thoughts and feelings, enhance listening skills, and use imagination and creativity. Marginalised communities have often told stories to pass on messages, warnings, or lessons. We are grateful to Agomoni, Patricia and Ayesha for telling us their stories and experiences. The discussion with them has proven to be valuable tool for learning, reflection, empowerment, and healing for us, and we hope it will be the same for many others.
Diversify futures of bioethics
Bioethics tends to struggle with cultural diversity and continues to have an approach that imports and imposes moral notions from a certain viewpoint that ignores multiculturalism and diversity. We can use storytelling of lived experience of diverse communities to explore what matters in people’s world and what life looks like from their perspective. We should reimagine the future of bioethics to include diverse experiences, perspectives, and voices. For bioethics and academia to innovate and work towards inclusivity, there is a need for reducing inequalities, empowering communities, and inspiring people of colour in the field and supporting their wellbeing. All the above help us to have an understanding of overcoming challenges, evaluating tools and developing values to build a more equitable future.
BBB is excited to announce the call for abstracts for the first Black and Brown in Bioethics Conference, with the theme “Engaging Diversity in Bioethics Theory and Practice”. The conference will take place on Tuesday 9 April 2024 at the University of Bristol.
About the Guests
Patricia Kingori is a Professor of Global Health Ethics and Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator at University of Oxford. Her research interests intersect the sociology of science and medicine, and she has extensive experience of undertaking critical examinations of ethics in practice in different countries in Africa and South East Asia.
Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra is a Lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow in Bioethics and Global Health Ethics, and Deputy-Director of the JK Mason Institute for Medicine at University of Edinburgh. She has written on ethical issues related to global health emergencies, public health, global surrogacy, sex-selection, biomedical research, racism in health and the concepts of exploitation, vulnerability and power in bioethics.
Ayesha Ahmad is a Lecturer in Global Health at St. George’s, University of London. She specialises in mental health and gender-based violence during conflict. She develops trauma therapeutic interventions using traditional storytelling and has an ongoing research project in Kashmir (India) and Turkey, in collaboration with Afghanistan, Tunisia, and South Africa.
About the Network
The Black and Brown in Bioethics (BBB) Network was launched following the realisation that there are no regular events in UK bioethics, which are led by people of colour or focus on issues affecting ethnic minorities. BBB was founded by Matimba Swana, Kumeri Bandara and Harleen Kaur Johal.
Harleen Johal (she/her) is a NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in Anaesthetics with interests in critical care, clinical ethics, and healthcare disparities. She is currently in the final year of her PhD at the Centre of Ethics in Medicine at the University of Bristol. You can follow her on Twitter/X @harleen_johal.
Kumeri Bandara (she/her) is a PhD candidate at the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford. She is trained as an anthropologist and her interests span feminist and decolonial approaches to bioethics, migration, and care. She is also passionate about exploring inclusive approaches to bioethics and addressing health disparities. You can follow her on Twitter/X @KumeriBandara.
Matimba Swana (she/her) previously worked in clinical trials and her interests are in public and global health, bioethics and digital health inequalities. She is currently doing her PhD at the Centre of Ethics in Medicine, Department of Engineering Mathematics and Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Node in Functionality at the University of Bristol. You can follow her on Twitter/X @matimbaswana.