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All in a day's work

EEB doctoral candidate Daniel Nidzgorski recognized for advancing social justice and diversity at the U of M.

Photo of PhD candidate Daniel Nidzorski in front of brick wall.

Daniel Nidzgorski, a PhD candidate in the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program and a 2014 recipient of the Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award, has been part of many social justice and diversity efforts during his time at the U of M. The College of Biological Sciences Diversity Collaborative, MN Queer Science, the St. Paul GLBTA Advisory Group, the list goes on. But, ultimately, he’s most proud of doing his part to make equity and diversity everybody’s everyday work. He took time away from wrapping up his dissertation to reflect on his efforts and offer advice to students who want to effect change.

What does it mean to you to win the Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award?

It's pretty amazing to be named as part of a social-justice legacy that includes people like Dr. Johnson. As one of the first faculty in the newly-formed Afro-American Studies department, she played an important part in paving the way for a wide breadth of diversity and inclusion issues to be represented and respected at the University of Minnesota. And later, as associate vice-president for academic affairs, she brought together a number of different diversity efforts -- focusing on women, GLBT people, people with disabilities -- into the coalition we know today. Those are some incredible footsteps to follow in. This award names me as part of her legacy, and it's powerful to know that the work I've been doing has helped keep that moving forward.

You've been involved in a number of social justice efforts during your time at the U of M. What are you most proud of?

Dr. Johnson talked about the importance of integrating diversity work into the very fabric of the University. She stressed that it's important that we don't make diversity work a separate thing that can be treated differently or ignored, but rather that we make it a component of all our important activities, right down to the mundane things like budgets. She said, "What you do is try to figure out how to make it last beyond your years, beyond you, so that it's not tied to a person, an event, a time. It becomes a part of the system." And what I'm most proud of is the ways I've helped make diversity and inclusion parts of the system. I've taken them a few steps further towards being a normal, everyday part of everyone's work -- especially here in the sciences, where that's decidedly a change from the way we did things when I started grad school.

As a graduate student who studies ecology, how has your social justice work intersected with your science?

I've had a number of people ask me that question, and when they say "my science" they're really asking about "my research." My research is only one component of my science, though -- it's all done in a community, whether that's direct research collaborators or other people in my department, college, or professional societies. Helping to strengthen and sustain the scientific community is part of doing science, and we all pitch in in different ways on various committees and such. Diversity and inclusion work gets a bit more notice, since I've been working to reshape my communities, but it's an integral piece of doing really good science.

My research focus on urban ecology is also part of my social justice work. Like many scientists, my research is fueled by a mix of different things: enjoying the day-to-day work itself, solving intellectual puzzles and trying to figure out how our complex world works, and also striving to make our world work a little bit better. For me, my passions are most fired up when I'm doing research where I can see clear and immediate applications to benefit the community around me. As much as I've enjoyed past research projects that took me to some spectacular, remote field sites, that desire to have my work be of direct service has drawn me to urban ecology, working in the city parks and neighborhoods right around me.

Whether I'm trying to understand an ecosystem or a scientific community, I come at it from a systems-thinking perspective, trying to figure out how all the parts fit together and interact. Nitrogen cycling and faculty hiring processes don't look anything like each other, but I find myself using a lot of the same intellectual toolkit on both.

What advice would you give students who want to advocate for culture change within academia?

You are not as alone as you might think. I found a lot of amazing, supportive allies in my department and college, but they were all quiet and invisible. I had to take the risk to start speaking up and working for change before I knew whether the silence around diversity issues was a friendly silence or a hostile silence, and that was scary. Yes, I did get some negative responses and push-back, but overwhelmingly I got support from my classmates, professors and administrators. I'd encourage other students that the risks are worth taking.

I'd also point out the personal benefits of getting involved in diversity work or any other part of improving our scientific communities. Graduate school can seem like a really bad time to start speaking up and rocking the boat since we're dependent on a lot of people's good will in order to finish our research, build our professional networks, and launch our careers. But through my diversity work, I've gotten to know a number of people that I wouldn't normally interact with through my research. And at this stage of building a professional network and career, it can be extremely helpful to have that wider network of colleagues and collaborators.

You’re wrapping up your PhD in ecology here at the U of M. What’s next for you?

I wish I knew the answer to that one! But you can be sure that I'm looking for career options that will actively support and value the sorts of diversity and inclusion work that I do.