Illustration of groups of people at a park talking and enjoying the sun

Empowering Ourselves

Each of us has a responsibility to help create safer environments for the people around us.

Imagine you’re on public transportation attempting to unwind when you overhear a conversation by fellow passengers. A middle-aged man is addressing a younger woman, his face red and his volume rising with each sentence. What should you do?

It’s easy to identify reasons not to react: No one else is. You could make things worse. It’s not your problem. Resist these impulses—don’t allow the “bystander effect” to take over. We are all responsible for ensuring public spaces remain safer for everyone.

Though in a situation like this your heart rate may skyrocket, now is a good time to intervene and there are many approaches you can take. If you feel comfortable, interject to ask the woman if she knows what the next stop is—or any other innocuous question that makes sense to ask to interrupt their exchange.

Or, look around to make eye contact with other passengers and nonverbally or verbally invite them to join you in diffusing the situation. If you see a staff member, ask them to help. If the situation ends quickly, address the person who was confronted to ask if they are okay.

Although there’s no perfect response to any type of harassment, it is important to acknowledge the person being targeted and offer support. Each effort helps make public places safer for everyone. 

Shawna Potter, the author of Making Spaces Safer (AK Press, 2019), uses methods and examples like these when leading bystander intervention workshops at the institute’s offices through the Hollaback! Baltimore chapter. In the book, she cites a 2012 Cornell University study that found that when bystanders took action, harassment was more likely to stop, and that effective interventions could be as simple as a knowing look or a supportive statement. “All those ‘minor’ instances of harassment can feel pretty major until they are over,” she shares.

This also illustrates why the institute provides comprehensive training to employees and extends opportunities to the astronomical community. In October, the institute held the Inclusive Astronomy 2 conference, welcoming approximately 150 attendees invested in diversity and equity efforts from around the world to discuss how to help institutions improve inclusion within the field. Talks focused on actionable strategies that can be used to create inclusive environments, remove obstacles, increase equitable involvement in astronomy, and set the stage for the Astro2020 recommendations on the state of the profession.

The institute also has active, employee-led diversity initiatives. Our staff members are empowered to act as advocates for diversity, inclusion, and equity.

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