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The Grad Activist: Lessons From the March for Science

The Grad Activist: Lessons From the March for Science
22 Apr
10:54

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

On April 22, 2017, scientists and supporters marched in cities around the world to call for robust, well-funded science research and evidence-based policies. Reported as the largest political action by the scientific community in history, the March for Science and its satellites had over one million people in attendance. Since that day, the March for Science has evolved into an ongoing movement to bridge the gap between scientists and the public.

This year, I had the opportunity to help organize the March for Science New York City satellite with local academic, political, and STEM outreach groups. While I attended the 2017 march in Washington, D.C., I had no experience organizing a march, or any large-scale event, and I was generally quiet when it came to my political views. When our group decided to plan the march at the beginning of February, all of a sudden I had to learn how to be a grad activist and organizer in nine weeks.

While I’m still a novice, here are a few of the lessons I have learned about organizing so far:

Begin by establishing a mission for your activism with concrete goals. For a movement to succeed, it must have a strong message that resonates with and motivates a large audience. Before planning an event, ask yourself: What do you want to accomplish? Who is your audience? Creating a list of measurable outcomes will guide event planning at every step of the way, whether it is picking speakers to invite or creating advertising. For example, aside from the national March for Science mission, Edin Thornton, a co-organizer for the NYC satellite, proposed that the NYC satellite theme be “Educate to Empower.” This was fitting for us because wanted to use the day to provide a platform that would elevate the voices of the local diverse scientific community. This helped guide our decision to ask local outreach groups to participate in our teach-in, which allowed the public to learn about science and science advocacy at a rally prior to the march.

Once you have established a mission, create a structure for your organizing group. Our group’s decision to organize the NYC satellite came unexpectedly and very close to the march date. Because of that, we began organizing very organically. In a matter of weeks, however, our group quickly grew to an unmanageable size that demanded structure in the form of committees based on responsibilities, including finances, communications, and outreach. Having this structure made our work easier to handle, as everyone chose committees they felt most comfortable in—just as you would do in any organization. This also creates an easy entry point for newcomers or volunteers, who may not want to be a part of the main organizing committee, but want to assist in organizing in some way. Having bylaws will also help ensure that the structure of the organization remains rigid.

Now that your committee is organized, reach out to as many people as possible! Everyone has something to bring to the table, so be inclusive. This year, a big theme of the march was that science affects everyone, and so everyone should show support for science. We had speakers from various backgrounds, STEM disciplines, and even performances from local actors. We used social media to reach out to local outreach organizations, activist groups, and students. Accessibility was also a priority for us, and it should be at all events. If you are unsure of how to go about this, a good place to start is your university’s office for disabilities or accessibility.

Even when things are set in place, know that things can and will go astray. Create a Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D, but realize that speakers might cancel, the weather forecast might change…anything can happen. Sometimes, you will just have to accept it and continue. Keep things in perspective. Like any other responsibility, organizing can be frustrating, especially on top of grad school work. It’s important to take a moment to yourself and take your mind off of it. A single event won’t change the world. Just like we’ve learned as grad students, the change that happens is incremental. What matters is that you keep trying.

What lessons have you learned from organizing? Let us know about them in the comments!

[Photo provided by the author.]

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