ESAL is proud to share our first annual report celebrating the team, programming, content, and communications we have developed from June 2022 to July 2023. We have been enhancing our internal tracking, which will allow us to continue to share more annual progress from this year forward. In this report, you will be able to meet the passionate and talented people behind the work of the organization; walk through the year's programmatic highlights; learn about ESAL's Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion commitments and progress; see the reach of ESAL's work; and learn about some of our plans for the future.
We are grateful to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for financially supporting ESAL's work and to the many partner organizations and allied individuals who enhance and help realize ESAL's mission to increase civic engagement by people with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds. We do this work for you and with you and are excited for a transformative year ahead.
ESAL’s Annual Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Assessment
In 2021, ESAL looked inward to assess how our organization was addressing matters of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). The assessment was informed by perspectives from active ESAL volunteers and provided the foundation for an organizational JEDI statement and JEDI commitments that ESAL evaluates annually. In 2022, ESAL reported on progress to center JEDI in how we form partnerships, programs, create content, assess organizational diversity, and foreground intersections between Indigenous peoples and U.S. STEM networks. This year’s update shows an increase in programming that incorporates or centers JEDI, especially in regard to Indigenous peoples, within the work of people with STEM backgrounds and an increase in ESAL issue-focused content that uses a JEDI lens.
Proactively conduct outreach and seek partnership opportunities with scientific societies and organizations for groups that have been historically marginalized in STEM.
Over the past year, ESAL has participated in five sessions at conferences and annual meetings held by societies and organizations for groups that have been historically marginalized in STEM:
ESAL partnered with Until Justice Data Partners to host a panel about community science efforts entitled, “Science for the People: Empowering Communities to Leverage Science and Engineers to Address Local Issues.”
In 2023, ESAL continues to seek opportunities to participate in events and work with organizations that serve and represent groups that have been historically marginalized in STEM.
Incorporate discussion of JEDI issues in STEM into all of ESAL’s programming.
ESAL ensured all events included a diverse group of speakers and panelists with a broad spectrum of perspectives and experiences in STEM and related issues. In addition, most of our events in 2022 included a discussion of JEDI in STEM:
In 2023, we are planning several events and developing content that frame topics in JEDI .
Conduct a quantitative internal review of ESAL’s organizational diversity.
In 2021, ESAL completed an internal review of the organizational diversity, and ESAL’s Steering Committee has engaged in discussions about how the results should inform our volunteer recruiting efforts. Due to the size of our organization, we have not released the results publicly to protect our volunteers’ privacy.
In 2023, ESAL will continue to track and adjust our internal practices to increase our organizational diversity.
Through our programming and content, highlight the historical and current intersections between Indigenous people and the mainstream U.S. STEM community, without shying away from controversy, particularly with respect to local ecosystem and land rights issues.
In 2023, ESAL will continue to track and improve how we foreground Indigenous people in our programming and content.
ESAL’s pursuit of these commitments requires intentionality and focus, as well as feedback, reflection, partnerships, and outreach. We want to hear from you if you want to partner, have conference or workshop opportunities, know people who should be featured in ESAL publications, and have topics you want ESAL to highlight. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to grow in this work together.
Electrical engineer cultivates resilience, adaptability, and balance within teams and individuals
Molita Sloan is an impassioned leader with a background in electrical engineering who champions organizational efficacy by eliminating obstacles to customer satisfaction and employee happiness. As a project leader and coach, she cultivates resilience, adaptability, and balance within teams and individuals by developing strategies that advance their progress. Sloan has devoted a considerable part of her career to the engineering and technology sectors, concentrating on project management, product supervision, and team effectiveness. She possesses an enthusiasm for assisting others in discovering their authentic selves in both career and life.
JL: How did your upbringing and early education influence your professional endeavors?
Sloan: I was raised in a small, predominantly segregated town under the guidance of my grandmother. From an early age, I recognized my affinity for science and math, which aligned well with my family's professional history, including several uncles who were engineers. I enjoyed fixing things and observed that engineering and science fields were largely dominated by men. In fact, I was the only girl in myHigh School electronics class, which further fueled my motivation.
As I pursued my professional education, I soon discovered that the computer-heavy electrical engineering field did not play to my strengths. While I loved math and science, I also enjoyed interacting with people and inspiring them to reach their full potential. Consequently, I returned to college two years into my electrical engineering career to obtain an MBA, aiming for a more people-centered profession. This shift significantly influenced my trajectory and played a crucial role in shaping my aspirations for life, leadership, and coaching.
JL: How have you combined your affinity for STEM and desire to uplift others outside of your professional career?
Sloan: As a Black leader in a role typically occupied by people who don’t look like me, and with family members who influenced my career pursuits, I quickly grasped the importance of networking in developing a professional career. I had to learn to communicate effectively with diverse audiences who might not yet comprehend the challenges Black women in STEM face. I started by connecting students still in education to female role models and leaders at my workplace, Schneider Electric. Several of my female engineer co-workers coached these young students, equipping them with networking and STEM skills for a guided path toward a successful career. The objective was for businesses at the forefront of sustainability to advise students on ways they could make future workplaces more sustainable and understand the critical role sustainability plays in supporting a bright future for all.
I also hold a seat on the Nashville Mayor’s Sustainability Action Sub-Committee in Nashville. As a leader at Schneider Electric, I possess expertise on practical sustainability efforts that could be implemented by businesses and governments.
Moreover, I assisted in coordinating the Adventure Science Center's annual conference Twister, an acronym for Tennessee Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research. I facilitated Schneider's sponsorship of the event, selected the keynote speaker, and supported women engineering workshops.
JL: How do you utilize your extensive experience uplifting voices in STEM to assist those who may not know how to begin or where to go in their professional endeavors?
Sloan: Representation matters, but only if it is visible. That was my objective when I entered the life coaching space. In addition to my leadership role at Schneider Electric, I am a certified life coach, working one on one with clients and leading a 12-group coaching program for Women in STEM. The significance of this is multifaceted, as it aims to hold young professionals accountable, support their career goals and, most importantly, provide guidance for women who may lack role models. Currently, apart from these ventures, I serve as a role model to my twin daughters. I could not accomplish this without the support of my incredible husband, who has contributed significantly to many of my advisory and volunteer roles. He keeps me motivated, as does traveling!
Molita Sloan's story exemplifies the power of perseverance and the importance of promoting diversity within STEM fields. Through her professional accomplishments, community engagement, and mentoring, Molita has shown that elevating underrepresented voices is not only crucial for a more inclusive and sustainable future but also beneficial for inspiring the next generation of innovators.
Meet Our New Managing Director
ESAL is excited to welcome Taylor Spicer on board as our first managing director. We sat down with her to learn a bit about her background and new role.
CS: How did you first get involved in issues that relate to science and technology?
Spicer: My mother, who is an avid and gifted gardener, raised me in Memphis, Tennessee and cultivated in me an early appreciation for the natural sciences and human-nonhuman species relationships. After high school, I left Memphis to pursue a social sciences degree in cultural anthropology and international relations at the University of Arkansas. My thesis research focused on the political culture of Brazil and its impact on social movements in the state of Bahia. This work led me to pursue an international development master’s degree, through which I continued to explore the interplay of social, political, and environmental forces within local communities.
While studying, I interned with an administrative office working across Emory University and Emory Healthcare – the Office of Sustainability Initiatives. After graduation, I accepted a full-time offer with this team and spent the next seven and a half years learning to craft institutional strategies, policies, processes, and programs that aimed to make the sustainable and just choices the default choices by employing best practices in buildings sciences, land management, energy, local food procurement, climate solutions, water reclamation technology, waste management, and more.
CS: People often think of many of the challenges we face - such as climate change - as national issues. What is the importance of local engagement?
Spicer: Many challenges we face are national and global in scale but are experienced in localities. Resiliency, preparedness, mutual aid, infrastructure, social services, protections for civil and human rights, and much more are determined by local governments, organizations, and networks of engaged community members. Local action is required to provide people and nonhuman species the capacity to thrive in all localities despite pervasive collective challenges, such as climate change. In the U.S., our opportunities and wellbeing are affected by the places we live because communities reflect historical and current disparities and differing governmental values, budgeting, regulations, and support services.
CS: What role do you see for ESAL in supporting engagement at the local and state level?
Spicer: ESAL is building the collective will and capacity of STEM professionals across the country to find the most effective ways of positively influencing their local communities. ESAL is showcasing locally-engaged professionals, hosting conversations to raise awareness about opportunities for local engagement, and providing professionals with the tools to become active residents through tailored workshops and events. ESAL is uniquely filling these civic engagement gaps.
ESAL is also part of a larger evolution of the roles STEM professionals play in society. Typically, civic engagement training is not integrated into academic and professional credentialing in STEM fields; however, the specialized experiences and knowledge STEM professionals embody sets them up to be assets to their communities when they are engaging in civic processes and organizations. One of ESAL’s strengths is showing the myriad ways STEM professionals do and can contribute to local communities.
CS: What will you be doing in your new position at ESAL?
Spicer: As the managing director, I will focus mostly on strengthening ESAL’s internal capacity to allow ESAL volunteers to have a meaningful and productive experience in the network. I’ll provide organizational management to streamline processes and to better connect work done across the organization, as well as operational support for keeping records, managing finances, and coordinating logistics. I’ll implement enhancements to the volunteer recruitment, onboarding, management, and engagement strategies utilized to set all ESAL volunteers up for success. Throughout all of this work, I’ll ensure ESAL’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion commitments are central, employed, evaluated, and adapted as needed.
CS: What ideas do you have to strengthen or grow ESAL's programs?
Spicer: I see opportunities to formalize some of the internal processes to bring more ease to the ESAL volunteer experience, which I think will translate to more consistent and quality content and programming shared with the ESAL network. I am exploring ideas for growing the network overall and expanding opportunities for engagement with ESAL. I am especially energized to connect my sustainability and Southeastern networks to ESAL’s work. I am also exploring ways ESAL can help STEM professionals fill research and knowledge needs defined by local governments and community-based groups.
CS: What advice do you have for someone who has a STEM background for getting engaged at the local level?
Spicer: For anyone looking to get involved locally for the first time, I suggest three main approaches. First, I suggest getting plugged into conversations that are already happening in your community. You can do this by following communications from your local governments, issue-based and advocacy nonprofits, community-based organizations, neighborhood associations, and your local representatives. You are joining a group of already activated residents who have been a part of shaping the work to-date and who most likely understand the history behind and nuances of a topical issue or proposed legislation. You can learn much about local engagement by following calls to action from others. Second, I suggest trying to narrow your focus to an issue or level of governance that is most closely aligned with your work or interest. The opportunities for engagement can feel endless, so narrowing your focus can make the first step into engagement more manageable. Third, I suggest being realistic about the time you have to share. You gain credibility and experience by showing up consistently. If you dive into too many opportunities too quickly or overcommit, you risk burnout, which is detrimental to your ability to engage locally for the long-term. One-off engagements can change an outcome, but developing a lifestyle of community engagement can lead to more connectivity to people and place, mutual understanding, personal agency, and hopefully healthier and happier communities overall.
Rebuilding Communities Devastated by Fire
Our “Stories from the Field” series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are making a difference in their communities
Tyler Pew puts his design and build skills to use rebuilding his hometown. The experienced designer, advocate, and civic enthusiast currently leads LMNOP Design, which specializes in commercial and retail branded environments. He is also the founder of KIDmob, a mobile kid-integrated design firm that seeks to utilize architectural problem solving in the classroom to improve collaboration and lesson retention. Pew has recently gained attention for his assistance and leadership in the rebuilding of rural Greenville, CA, following the devastation caused by the Dixie Fire in 2021. Originally, he traveled to Greenville to help protect his family's property, but upon observing the devastation firsthand and the challenges of reconstruction, he has taken an active role in the design, logistics, and recovery of lost land and property from natural disasters as the “[Re]Build Chair” for the Dixie Fire Collaborative.
JL: Before your rebuilding effort in local communities, you had experience at the K-12 education level supporting students with novel learning methods. How did you get involved there?
Pew: This began with a visit in 2011 to my hometown middle school to talk to students about architecture and design. When I was beginning my educational journey, I often felt like the teaching methods in schools didn’t integrate well into my learning process. I had the benefit of meeting an influential mentor that steered my professional and educational goals in the right direction, but a majority of students don’t receive the same wisdom.
I felt basic design concepts – teamwork, self-direction, collaboration, social emotional skills that are an integral part of architecture education – could improve student’s learning abilities and capacity to meet goals collectively. KIDmob was started, which visits K-12 institutions to present and provide new design-based learning pedigrees to students over a 3-day period. The course centers around skill building – from project inception to goal realization. Our objective is to push educational pedagogy toward a more hands-on and self-directed experience for the student. Since its creation in 2011, we have had several students, many of whom have gone on to pursue their own architectural or design-oriented career field, come back to lead workshops citing their own positive experience with the program.
JL: How did you get started with the rebuilding effort following the Dixie Fire?
Pew: My family and hometown was threatened. I initially traveled to Greenville to help protect their property and put out spot fires. Unfortunately, we lost the town of Greenville and three other communities. However, the people were resilient, and I wanted to support them with the skills I had in leadership, logistics, construction, design, and community engagement. These skills augmented the existing resources and resilience held by the community.
JL: To efficiently rebuild a community, a myriad of infrastructural, economic, and philanthropic design principles need to work in tandem with local citizen needs. How did you research what goes into this Herculean task, and what did you learn?
Pew: There are a few examples of rural towns being destroyed by natural disasters, and then reconstructed to a post-disaster state, that helped guide the Dixie Fire rebuild. One such town we looked at was Greensburg, KS, which was severely damaged by a tornado in 2007. Rebuilding took 5-7 years just for basic infrastructure, and economic recovery is still finding its foothold. However, this story is largely a positive one; we saw that rebuilding isn’t simply restoring the town to the way it was, but an opportunity to build a more efficient, secure, and longer-lasting township. After the tornado, the city council passed a resolution stating that all city buildings would be built to LEED platinum standards, making it the first city in the nation to do so. Furthermore, we looked into Joplin, MO, which was devastated by a tornado in 2011. Since the disaster, this city has attracted more visitors, and now stands at a population greater than before the disaster. What these unfortunate accidents taught us was the resiliency of rural populations, and their ability to rebound if rebuilt correctly.
JL: What are the components needed to help rebuild?
Pew: We need experts alongside the local community. One thing that became obvious as we researched was that rebuilding is too big a task for those within the community. A multitude of firms and leaders are required. The Dixie Fire Collaborative has employed a variety of experts to help post-Dixie Fire recovery efforts. A few of their specialties included workforce housing and zoning policy, community experts and philanthropists, firms experienced in long term recovery, and leadership from government officials focused on rewiring old systems to a novel and secure state protected from future fallout.
JL: What are a few problems you encountered during the rebuilding effort?
Pew: Problems largely stemmed from the unfortunate trade-offs that occur during recovery. How do you prioritize getting a store up and running versus providing more housing? These issues are not simple, and require a view focused on the future success of the community. Another problem that came to light was basic infrastructure. While these systems may have been repaired over the years, installing brand new pipes or electrical wiring to fulfill basic needs is arduous. Several businesses were required to complete these tasks and get these communities back to a livable state. At the core we are always balancing process (thoughtful, planned, vision-oriented) with urgency (the current needs).
JL: What are you doing currently to help those impacted by the Dixie Fire?
Pew: I operate as the (Re)Build Chair for the Dixie Fire Collaborative. The Dixie Fire Collaborative is made up of individuals and groups who have made the commitment to work together to rebuild our communities and help them thrive after disaster. The collaborative includes consultants at the local, state, and federal level, community members, partner organizations and businesses all working together to make our communities whole again. We post updates on our rebuild progress, like county-approved housing plans.
Many residents are still hanging on without basic services or adequate shelter. The physical, mental and emotional toll of the Dixie Fire will continue to impact the people of the region for years and perhaps generations to come. Our organization accepts donations to support this work, and the vision-oriented work that seeks to be a leader in disaster recovery. We hope that we can support other survivor communities.
Tips for Scientists to Work Effectively with Communities
Scientists are expressing a growing interest in working with local communities. Effective engagement at this level can present a number of challenges. In support of these endeavors, I am sharing observations and lessons learned through the initiative I lead called Science for New York (Sci4NY). It brings scientists and policymakers together to work on issues that can benefit from problem-solving expertise.
Some of our community-focused work includes mapping key science policy topics facing each of NYC’s 59 community board districts; presenting on climate impacts at community-level meetings; collaborating with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice to allow local groups to have a larger say in setting climate research priorities; and engaging in conversations on climate justice projects in neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Getting up to Speed: I find this kind of task is best learned as a real-life experiment where one ventures out as a “student of the community.” Taking a proverbial random walk, as well as a physical stroll from time to time, can provide a sense of the issue’s landscape. In this process:
Talk to people that live or work in the community, play a role on local boards, are engaged with nonprofits, etc.
Pay attention to how the community is organized. This includes where and when public meetings take place. Attend as many as possible.
Community bulletins, newsletters, social media and local newspapers can all produce valuable insights – giving topics to discuss with people. Furthermore, determine the key players, and, perhaps most importantly, who has power! Know the existing and proposed initiatives, projects and legislation that can impact the community. Seek out historical insights and other contextual information on how issues came to be, and have changed over time. Lastly, don’t just try to understand their issues, but also their collective resources.
Finding Your Role: After you know more about a community, it is important to carefully consider what you can contribute. These offerings will likely evolve over time, so revisit them periodically.
Factors to consider may include some overlap of: what topics are highest priority/most timely; what interests you; where your skills are most valuable; how you might offer your assistance; and who is the intended recipient of your efforts.
Be honest with yourself and others about your availability.
Be forthright about what you do and don’t know, both to yourself and others. A good rule of thumb is to not interject on topics until you learn something meaningful about them.
Remember to be dependable and consistent to the maximum extent possible.
Think about your personal desired outcomes for these efforts, including what you hope to gain from the experience.
It is worth keeping in mind that communities are probably not expecting or waiting for you to show up. In addition, while people may see value in the idea of incorporating scientific input, they may not know how to engage with you either. Furthermore, a lack of interest in your contributions doesn’t necessarily translate to a disregard for science. Many people are simply too busy (many community roles are unpaid) to substantively consider these topics. Keep looking for the right opportunities and moments to demonstrate your skills and establish yourself as a trusted resource.
Other Items to Consider:
Patience: Community engagement can often be a slow, arduous, iterative, and nonlinear process. People need to feel as if they are heard and conversations generally take place over longer periods of time.
Consider Your Approach. It can often be better to ask insightful questions or add small points to enhance a conversation than provide information in long-form responses. Listening and learning will likely help the most overall, particularly at the beginning.
Communicate Your Skills: Be able to clearly and succinctly relay what you might offer. Be open to feedback and suggestions.
Listen for Community-Based Knowledge: People generally know a lot about the places where they live, classifying them as experts in their own right. This information is often relevant and can be very difficult to access as an outsider.
Adding Value is Different Than Having Expertise: Being the “scientist in the room” can be a difficult role to fill. What you know often isn’t directly applicable to local issues. Try to “meet in the middle” to the extent possible.
Put Viewpoints in Context: Communities/individuals sometimes take paradoxical positions, either intentionally or unintentionally. Even in instances where people are well informed about their neighborhood, they may struggle to see the bigger picture around an issue. Try to understand their perspectives, as well as their motivations.
Be Diplomatic: Instead of “doubling down” on the science, consider potential win-win outcomes. This may include merging various inputs instead of trying to get people to understand and apply research findings to address local issues. Where possible, try to develop joint ideas.
Think Hyperlocal: While generalized guidance about how to work with communities can be helpful, matters can sometimes vary a lot over short distances, physical or otherwise. Furthermore, issues can get magnified in ways that may not seem to make sense without detailed situational insights.
Understand Who Is Represented: Meet as many people as possible in various settings to help build a more complete picture of the intra-community dynamics and which voices are being heard.
Know Who Isn’t Represented: Look for ways to acquire the perspectives of those not present. Keep in mind that outreach to these groups may be hampered by past negative experiences. Work to understand the challenges and carefully consider how to avoid repeating any adverse outcomes. Consider having something definable to offer in your outreach efforts, or not engaging until a point where you can maintain a sustainable relationship.
Case Study: Catalyzing Outreach Efforts
During the 2021 NYC elections, Sci4NY offered a series of talks to candidates on timely science policy issues. A few approached us afterward to help them understand how climate change will impact their districts. This led us to develop “climate snapshots” where we collected, analyzed and summarized public data on the various aspects of this topic. The materials generated a variety of community engagement opportunities, some of which are ongoing. They included speaking at town halls, community board meetings, and in support of a community’s participatory budgeting efforts. With some modification, we were able to make the content useful for social media. We also wrote an op-ed on our experiences that garnered the attention of additional local communities.
One takeaway from these efforts was that synthesizing public information can be a useful starting point for outreach. It can build engagement on both sides – helping scientists to hone their skills, while promoting constructive ways to center conversations in communities. From there, new relationships can form, additional opportunities to collaborate arise, and important community insights can come to light.
Working with communities is generally a complex task. While there are no shortcuts, there is rhyme and reason. The more you learn and participate, the better. At least in a town as highly opinionated as NYC – where interactions can range from highly frustrating to rewarding, sometimes in the same discussion – seeing the humor in the process is sometimes the most important strategy of them all.
The guest author Nancy Holt holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and was an American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellow at the U.S. Department of State. She currently leads Science for New York.
COVES: Supporting People With Disabilities
Tell us about yourself.
I am a Ph.D. student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I study biomedical engineering, specifically pulmonary mechanobiology and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
What is important to you about engaging with your local government?
I think it is important for scientists to educate non-scientists on the topics that affect the daily lives of citizens. Smaller state and local governments have a much greater and more direct impact on their citizens than the federal government does. Despite this, engaging with and making changes in local government is often overlooked.
What did you do?
I’ve always been interested in both science and politics. My undergraduate education was full of benchtop research, lab coats, and experiments; but also Model UN conferences, international affairs op-eds, and visits to the Tennessee State Capitol. When I went to graduate school for biomedical engineering, I thought my policy days were sadly over. When I learned about the Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science (COVES) Fellowship, I was very excited to jump back into policy and even more excited to learn about Virginia’s state government.
What happened then?
I combined my interest in science policy with one of my personal passions when I was placed with the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities (VBPD) for my summer. Growing up as the daughter of a special education teacher, working with people with disabilities has always been second nature to me. I was excited to spend my summer learning about Virginia’s policies supporting people with disabilities and how those policies directly affect people I care about.
What did you get out of this experience?
Mental health, substance abuse, developmental disability, and aging services – I learned about the regulations and requirements surrounding these services and created a database listing information about each office and their services. I also looked into Virginia’s plan for broadband expansion and analyzed how the proposed project might better serve Virginians with disabilities. In addition to my work with VBPD, I was connected with many Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine members and had the opportunity to explore numerous career types within science policy, which was invaluable. Through the COVES Fellowship, I was able to hone my science communication skills and also learn about the daily workings of state government. I am greatly looking forward to continuing my education and training in science policy!