Building Structural Equity: What do our organizations need?

By Nita Kedharnath and Rachel Renbarger

Background and Context

ASCN and SEISMIC began collaborating in spring 2021 to understand how both organizations could synergistically support STEM education transformation. These collaborative meetings included the project coordinators of both organizations and the authors of this piece, Nita Kedharnath (project manager of SEISMIC) and Rachel Renbarger (research director of ASCN). We started meeting monthly to discuss equity challenges within our organizations, to problem-solve together, and to share resources to ensure equity progress continues for both our groups even while we target different priorities.

ASCN: The Accelerating Systemic Change Network (ASCN) is a community of change agents who create events, community, and resources to improve instruction in higher education. The network, sponsored by grant funders, is free for anyone to join.

In March, the murder of Asian American women working at spas in Atlanta amplified calls for anti-racist actions from institutions in the United States, including institutions of higher education. During one of our collaborative meetings, we asked each other what steps our respective organizations have taken toward racial justice. While both ASCN and SEISMIC had been working on diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice in STEM education since the organizations’ inceptions, this work was outward-facing and dedicated to helping university faculty members change their institutional settings. What were our organizations’ roles in tackling racial justice? What should we be doing as leaders? This lack of a clear path forward led us to ask these questions to experts who have been doing this reflective work within STEM higher education.

Panel Event

We first began to answer this question through examining the latest report by the American Council on Education (ACE) and talking to experts who were openly leading events centered around racial equity. The ACE report, titled Shared Equity Leadership: Making Equity Everyone’s Work, documented how multiple campus leaders promoted equity by convincing more campus stakeholders to be involved in making change on campus. This report encouraged us to examine our own personal reasons for doing this work, but we felt a disconnect since we were part of organizations rather than campuses. This led us to ask organizational leaders to speak on a panel and describe how they helped their organization do this reflective, internal work as well as the outward, external work.

This panel was titled, “Building Structural Equity: National Networks’ Role in Promoting Justice,” and included one of the writers of the ACE report, Dr. Elizabeth Holcombe, as well as Dr. Shirley Malcom, Director of the STEM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change initiative at the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Dr. Tabbye Chavous, Director for the National Center for Institutional Diversity; and Dr. Stanley Lo, President-Elect for the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER). From the panel event, we learned there were consistent challenges to doing this equity work within organizations such as limited mental and emotional bandwidth, difficulty convincing colleagues to join in the work, frustration with changes that are band-aids rather than systemic changes, and limited resources or support for doing justice-oriented work. However, we also learned what we could do to improve equity within organizations: collect data to understand challenges and successes, listen to those impacted by racial injustice, write grants to fund these initiatives, recognize the work already being done, and create groups of dedicated people to do the work together. These challenges and actions led us to work with our members to look internally to see what each organization should focus on for the next year.

After the Panel

Following the panel event, ASCN and SEISMIC co-hosted a working session for ASCN and SEISMIC members to gather and discuss how the lessons from the panel could be applied to our organizations. We asked members to consider what barriers stood in the way of our organizations’ promotion of justice and what actions they’d like us to take to address those barriers. Some barriers that were shared related to interactions between members – questions of power structures, institutional roles, and whether the ideas of STEM scholars or social science scholars were more valued in the organizations. Another key barrier was the lack of a clear vision for the organizations that centered equity and justice. The fact that most of our members are not paid to do the work of our organizations presented another challenge for our organizations’ ability to act. For actions we could take, several members suggested we hold town hall meetings or other open forums for members to develop shared goals and values for our organizations. Members were also interested in offering invitations to self-work, organizing seminar series, applying for external funding, and creating space for members to get what they need from the organizations, instead of assuming all members need the same thing. ASCN and SEISMIC then conducted individual meetings to create organization-specific equity plans.

During the SEISMIC Summer Meeting, SEISMIC leaders took initial steps towards these actions by hosting a discussion on the vision and goals of SEISMIC. The conversation quickly turned inward, with members asking how SEISMIC can achieve its outward-facing goals while internal structures hinder full participation of members. SEISMIC created an anonymous space for members to highlight structural issues with the collaboration, and then facilitated a discussion to hear from members on specific actions SEISMIC needs to stop and specific ones to start to make the collaboration more inclusive. In response to these difficult conversations, SEISMIC leadership sent out a message articulating how SEISMIC would examine its own structures and make changes, set up a facilitated open forum to hear feedback on the plan, and is now in the process of creating a SEISMIC Task Force to examine existing collaboration structures and recommend new ones. In addition, SEISMIC has created spaces for members to come together around shared experiences, including a Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) group, a Graduate Students group, and a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) group.

Since the working session, ASCN has been in discussions with many leadership groups to understand how we can best implement the action items. Leaders included the PIs and the working group leaders along with specific working groups implementing summer programming. Each group discussed how they would want to move equity forward as each working group functions differently. For example, our working group 6 that focuses on aligning incentives with systemic change decided to update the purpose of their working group to weave inclusivity and equity within all of their activities. This differed from our working group focused on change leaders that decided to partner with equity scholars to collaborate on events. The ASCN leadership also created an equity meeting open to all members to receive feedback on the plan and received comments that have thus been incorporated into the fall plan. We created communication and leadership expectation guidelines, reviewed and edited by leadership, to ensure our norms are clearly stated. Lastly, we asked for collaborators in racial equity and wrote a grant this summer regarding a research project to create an institute for institutional teams to create change on their campus using systemic change and racial equity principles. This project will also provide an open access, racial equity framework for systemic change that will be available on ASCN’s website if funded.

Together, ASCN and SEISMIC have proposed strategies for organizational equity within the broader STEM education community and committed to regular accountability meetings. We proposed this conversation as a session at the AAC&U Transforming STEM conference to bring together other networks and share how we can build authentic communities and bridges between communities to focus on common challenges to equity within our organizations. We also plan to continue to meet monthly to keep both organizations accountable toward our racial equity plans.


Following summer activities, the SEISMIC Task Force will begin meeting this fall over the course of 12 weeks to examine existing collaboration structures and propose new ones to make SEISMIC more inclusive. SEISMIC will also be co-sponsoring the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) “Striving towards inclusion in academic biology” seminar series for the second year. SEISMIC leadership will be working to publicize the original vision and goals for SEISMIC and outline paths for members to continue pushing forward its mission. At the same time, leadership has recognized that some members, in part due to the shifting focus brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed calls for racial justice, are looking for SEISMIC to have broader impacts in higher education beyond the original vision and goals. This fall will be important for the collaboration to reestablish its scope and priorities while maintaining a community where members can get what they need.

ASCN This Fall

For ASCN, our priorities are to collect data to understand gaps to address, clarify our commitment to equity, increase leadership representation, and commit to recognizing the work of internal and external leaders. This fall we will be collecting data in a member survey, adding questions to previous member surveys to understand demographics (i.e., race, gender, role) of our membership and leadership as well as members’ experiences within ASCN. In clarifying our commitment to equity, our working group leaders suggested equity be a part of ASCN’s values so that equity is part of everything ASCN does, not just as a separate working group. To do this, we will create an ad-hoc committee to draft ASCN values to be ratified at our annual meeting in January. As we continue to make ASCN leadership more representative of our membership, we are seeking nominations for PIs of color to provide a much-need perspective as ASCN moves forward. Finally, we will commit to recognize the leaders of equity. We will highlight the work of ASCN leaders within regular meetings and also continue to advocate for equity work as important within the broader higher education community.



This is the first in a series of posts called Doing Organizational Equity Work in STEM meant to increase transparency and accountability regarding our organizations’ diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice goals. The next update will be posted in January 2022 to discuss progress towards the goals mentioned in this post and new directions in our organizations’ internal work to promote equity.



Nita Kedharnath

Nita Kedharnath is the Project Manager of the SEISMIC Collaboration. She coordinates the implementation and evaluation of SEISMIC activities and co-leads the Student Perspectives project in the Constructs Working Group.


Rachel Renbarger, Ph.D.

Dr. Rachel Renbarger is the Research Director of ASCN where she helps support the inclusion and dissemination of research-based educational strategies. With her PhD in Educational Psychology, her research works to address issues of access and equity in postsecondary education. This includes undergraduate as well as graduate education. Follow her on Twitter: @Dr_Rachel_Ren