Cyclist Comes Through Midwest On Cross-Country Ride To Raise Awareness About BLM, Minorities In STEM
Sitting on a deck at the home of a colleague in Ames, Harvard University biology professor Scott Edwards identifies robins by their call and says the particular tone suggests something is amiss—perhaps a mother bird protecting her little ones.
Edwards, who studies birds and evolution, is bicycling across the country from east to west and marking his passage between regions by the birds he encounters.
“I remember when I finally figured out that I was hearing this bird called a dickcissel. It’s very common in the prairie states,” he said. “And it’s great because we don’t get them in Massachusetts. And it was fun to say, hey, I’ve actually moved—I’ve gone to a new place, because this is a species that I wouldn’t normally encounter.”
Edwards says he’s dreamed for a long time of biking across the country and this spring he finally decided to do it. Originally, he hoped to raise awareness about the low numbers of minorities in science, technology, engineering and math. But then the country emerged from the coronavirus lockdown into widespread demands to address systemic racism and injustice. So Edwards added Black Lives Matters signs to his bike.
“In some ways it’s a great time to be biking across country,” he said, “and other times, it’s the worst.”
He tries to plan ahead so he knows where he’ll spend the night. Often that’s putting up his tent in a campground or staying in an occasional hotel. Homestays like the one in Ames are a highlight, he says. But there have been a few nights when he didn’t have anything lined up.
“I’ve had some rough edges trying to find tent sites on the fly, for example. Not everyone says yes. And I don’t know if that’s because I’m Black. I suspect not,” he says, with a shrug. “I can’t really know.”
People who pass him on the road often wave or honk or offer other signs of support. He has also had some people question him about Black Lives Matter.
“Most of my encounters have been heartwarming and encouraging,” he says. “It’s not like I’m going into towns and organizing workshops, it’s very informal. I will engage folks, especially if they say something awry. For example, a guy in Illinois suggested that this Black Lives Matter movement was funded by the Democrats. And you know, I tried to say, no, that’s actually not true. It doesn’t have any party affiliation.”
In some rural communities, people associate the movement with riots and violence and tell him they don’t want those things in their rural communities they view as peaceful.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s just a basic misunderstanding about what the movement is.”
By interacting with some people who see the world that way, Edwards says he’s gaining a better understanding of what drives their believes.
“You learn a lot of nuance and you learn a little bit about why people do and say the things they do,” he said. “But I do want to emphasize that 99 percent of my interactions have been very, very positive, even in parts of the state or the country where you might not expect so much alignment of views.”
Edwards grew up mainly in New York City and says the regular arrival of National Geographic helped inspire him to pursue science. During his career, he says he has seen gains for minorities in the STEM fields. More students get graduate degrees and even take on postdoctoral research positions. But he says the faculty ranks are still not reflecting those gains.
“It takes pro-action and I can point to several universities that are unusually good at this in terms of identifying talent from people of color and acting on it and giving them jobs, essentially.” He names the University of Michigan and the Ohio State University and adds that the southwest, especially Texas and California, have more faculty diversity than New England, where he has spent much of his career.
“It would take a lot of time to unpack that. There’s a lot of tradition that goes on and frankly there’s just a lot of dragging of feet. And, you know, every societal change requires essentially a certain generation to essentially die off and be replaced,” he said. “I’m heartened by younger folks in leadership positions who sort of get it and are really pushing for this actively. It’s improved, I would say, in my career, but there’s still a lot more work to do.”
Edwards said he hasn’t had a Black Lives Matter sign in his yard at home in Concord, Massachusetts, but he intends to put one up when he gets back. That won’t be until sometime after he dips his tires in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon coast next month.
After his bike got a tune-up in Ames, Edwards planned to continue across Iowa toward the Missouri River and points west.
“I’m just so excited,” he said, “Iowa is a bit west, but I think South Dakota and Wyoming sound even more west.”
You can follow his progress on Twitter: @ScottVEdwards1.