A conference and society’s anti-racist journey

Abdi Warfa and Beverly Smith-Keiling are active members of the Society for the Advancement in Biology Education Research and participate in discussions about how to ensure that the society and its meetings are inclusive.
March 09, 2022

The Society for the Advancement in Biology Education Research (SABER) is a scientific community whose members are focused on improving post-secondary biology education. It should come as no surprise that several faculty with ties to the Department of Biology Teaching and Learning (BTL) are active members of the community. 

A recent publication in Frontiers in Education details an effort to take an anti-racist approach to inclusion at the SABER national conference and its membership. The piece contains some kernels of advice for other conference organizers committed to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Abdi Warfa, an assistant professor in BTL, and Beverly Smith-Keiling, an assistant teaching professor in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics, contributed to the publication.

We caught up with the two of them to learn more about their involvement in SABER and the anti-racist efforts the conference conveners are working towards.


Their answers have been edited for clarity. 

Can both of you speak a little bit about your involvement with SABER?

Abdi: I have been an active member of SABER for some time now and contribute to various committees within the organization, particularly the mentoring committee and a committee that discussed the sense of place following the murder of George Floyd. I also participated in activities involving creating surveys sent to the society membership. While a science society, SABER also has a role to play in the larger conversations happening in our society, especially since the annual meetings of the society are held in Minneapolis.

Beverly: I’ve informally been doing biology education research and diversity work for three decades through other societies, but I first joined SABER in its second year just after its beginning in 2011, and I really began to learn a lot more about the construction of a study, frameworks, and data analysis. I identify as white but recognize one challenge is addressing demographics and systemic barriers in our classrooms and our ability to accurately report data that represents everyone’s diverse experience. SABER opened up conversations early on about the noticeable lack of diversity at SABER meetings and leadership but also how to move away from deficit thinking and use anti-deficit language talking about gaps to focus more on inclusivity. 

The real drive was initiated after May 2020 and the killing of George Floyd. Even as the protests were in their second day, helicopters were flying above, some fires were smoldering and new ones being ignited, some members of the SABER community were questioning if meetings should continue to be held in Minneapolis. My initial response was feeling “wait! We are in trauma here!.” But by acknowledging that people of color experience this trauma daily in so many ways, it was really important that we not postpone the conversation further but time to take action, so I become more involved in the anti-racism conversations documented in this paper. Several SABER members are from the Twin Cities and became involved in different ways to recognize that systemic racism does exist in the SABER host-city of Minneapolis, but that it is everywhere and manifests differently in different settings.


Are there certain anti-racist initiatives outlined that you are especially involved in? 

Abdi: The killing of George Floyd prompted members of the SABER community to engage in deep conversations about issues of race and to self-reflect on societal practices and inclusiveness. As an organization that held its annual meetings in Minneapolis, a subcommittee called “Sense of Place” was tasked with the question of “Should SABER continue to hold its meetings in Minneapolis?” This led to a much needed discussion of is it the place that matters or the practices folks engage in? For example, would moving annual meetings to another location solve the reckoning the society itself will need to undertake to address DEI issues. I was very much involved in these conversations which were open and respectful, but grounded on reality.

Beverly: As a young society, [SABER] was in the process of developing new structures for leadership and committees. In 2018, I joined both the abstract committee and the DEI committee with the intention of making sure we determined ways to address inclusion at the initial onset of recruitment, acceptance, and presentation. Once our 2020 efforts raised the consciousness of the society as a whole, the acknowledgement and self-education process through several resources. Reading and discussing Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist helped us begin. Over 30 small groups of 5-6 members met over a month to address each chapter of definitions, viewpoints and strategies of anti-racism. We use this collective language to continue to remind us how to take an anti-racist approach at each step and apply action in our personal, professional and societal roles. 


In what ways has your involvement with this effort informed DEI initiatives in the departments?

Abdi: This is a work in progress, but [BTL] has been helpful in establishing committees that address these critical issues. Our DEI subcommittee now holds conversations during our departmental meetings in which we discuss different issues at every meeting. Carving time out of department meetings sends a strong signal that these issues matter and we ought to be thinking about how to address them. Talking about it is also a good way to keep the conversation going and think about what needs to be done.

Beverly: I’m still working on this. As part of the DEI committee for BMBB, which is affiliated with both CBS and the Medical School, I try to take some of the lessons learned through both my participation in the SABER anti-racist initiatives as well as the social justice lessons through my recent experience in the School of Public Health MPH program. Some of the first lessons are to listen to those who have experienced injustices due to systemic racism and ask what they need for equity. Sometimes we are too busy with good intentions and programs from the dominant structure rather than hearing and taking action on what would be most beneficial. A good reminder is that it’s not about what we want to do, but about what is needed.


How do these conversations ultimately impact CBS students in your classrooms?

Abdi: This is the gist of it, isn’t it. Our society is mainly concerned with how to improve the learning and the teaching of biology but often when professional science societies think about teaching and learning, the focus tends to be on the science content. But all classrooms, science or not, are very dynamic and complex. What we do and how we behave directly impacts the learning that happens. So, it is important that we strive to be inclusive and equitable. These conversations clearly impact how we think about our students in CBS and the thousands who go through the Foundations of Biology courses I teach. They ground me and make me question everything I do in the classroom. Am I being inclusive? Am I meeting student needs? This does not involve compromising or watering down the content, but teaching in a way that is inclusive and equitable for all. When that happens, we all succeed.

Beverly: This point is often overlooked at first glance in reading the article. SABER is about biology education research and data analysis to improve learning outcomes for students, but it is ultimately about learning from our students, our departments, and our members about what works. This is why including diverse voices and perspectives is so important, but it is also about recognizing an unjust system and taking action toward justice.