Q&A with Alexandra Levine and Blake Butler: Proud to support Pride in research communities

June 29, 2020  -  BrainsCAN Communications

Pride Flag

BrainsCAN has emphasized equity and inclusion as a core objective to building a thriving and successful research enterprise. In the midst of a global pandemic, we are made even more aware of the continued inequities that exist, and how the Canadian academy and research spaces need to intentionally ensure that we are providing inclusive spaces for faculty, staff and trainees through a tangible culture of inclusion.

The LGBTQ2S+ community have fought for decades for equality within society that enables freedom of identity and basic human rights, from the Stonewall uprising to equal marriage, yet issues of prejudice and discrimination continue. We are aware of the ways in which microaggressions and exclusive practices perpetuate marginalization of LGBTQ2S+ peoples in research environments. BrainsCAN supports Pride Month and acknowledges the long road ahead we all have in remembering to listen, learn, and act through meaningful allyship with our LGBTQ2S+ community and celebrate in the diversity of our program.

As a research leader who understands the importance of providing an inclusive environment for their trainees and staff, Blake Butler, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, Brain and Mind Institute member, and ally, has built a research program that embraces these important values. It has provided his postdoctoral trainee Alexandra Levine, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community, and their colleagues with the support to become leaders within their research field and at Western. Alexandra is a member of the BrainsCAN Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee and contributes significantly in supporting underrepresented groups through this work. We wanted to find out from them how they support an inclusive research environment.

Blake Butler and Alexandra Levine

Blake Butler and Alexandra Levine

What does Pride Month mean to you? 

AL: Pride Month is a celebration of how far our society has come in being open and accepting of LGBTQ2S+ people, advocating for equity and diversity in sexuality and gender identity. There was a time when pride parades were not possible. This is still the case in many countries, and where parades do take place, they are often met with hostility. This month is a time to be grateful for how far the community has come, but also a reminder that there is still work to be done. Pride Month provides a space for people to be visible and show pride in who they are, giving many young people the courage and strength to be themselves. When I was a teenager, still struggling with my identity, it meant a lot for me to see so many people who are proud to celebrate their identities, and so many allies supporting them. Diversity is a strength of a community.

BB: Pride Month is an opportunity for the LGBTQ2S+ community to come together and celebrate the gains for which the community has fought, and to acknowledge and support local organizers fighting for continued progress. I think it also serves a critical role in increasing visibility, providing role models for those who may be struggling with questions pertaining to sexuality and gender, and reminding everyone that the communities we value include LGBTQ2S+ people and allies.

Are there unique challenges LGBTQ2S+ people face in research and science environments?

AL: Discrimination is still common, as well as some ignorance which can stem from lack of education and training on LGBTQ2S+ matters. As our science community is still predominantly populated by straight cisgender men, it is important for them to understand how crucial it is for someone who identifies as part of the LGBTQ2S+ community to be seen, and spoken to with the pronoun they are comfortable with, for example. I think that BrainsCAN and the EDI Committee are aware of these issues, and are taking initiatives to educate the community and balance the representation by increasing diversity in our research community. On a broader and more ingrained level, I think the challenges that LGBTQ2S+ people face stem from not feeling represented in various research settings, where they could apply for opportunities. This is why it is important to encourage and empower them to apply for such opportunities and create a community that is welcoming of diversity. 

BB: I am certain there are, but I don’t believe it is my place to speculate on the nature of these challenges. I come from a place of considerable privilege and do my best to acknowledge the struggles faced by others. There is a growing awareness of the systemic obstacles faced by groups that have been targets of discrimination, and this emphasizes the need to ensure that opportunities appeal to, and are provided to, a diverse range of trainees. 

How do you support an inclusive and supportive research environment? 

AL: As a postdoctoral associate, I do my best to create an inclusive and understanding environment within the lab, making sure students know that I am always happy to help them in any way possible, or find someone who can. It is important to understand that everyone is unique and has a different style of working and navigating the research environment. Therefore, it is important to ask and check in with students, making it known that you are looking out for them and they have someone to talk to, be it about research or personal matters. As a research community, it is important to be an active ally, calling out comments which are insensitive and hurtful, as well as challenge micro-aggressions or aggressions. We have a culture within the lab where we are respectful of one another, all questions are important, mistakes are part of research and how we learn and move forward. Blake has been able to create a lab atmosphere that is accepting and hard working, providing everyone with positive and constructive feedback, and most of all is friendly and free of any shaming, belittling, or similar behaviors.

BB: The first step toward an inclusive and supportive research environment is acknowledging that personal and institutional barriers to success are highly individual. Thus, providing equity of research experience, somewhat counterintuitively, demands that we attempt to address these issues on an individual level. In our group, we maintain individual development plans for trainees that identify areas where support is most needed and develop programming toward these needs. We provide opportunities to discuss potential barriers in a group format to raise awareness of potentially unseen challenges and invite trainees to discuss more sensitive issues privately.

How can research supervisors and faculty members become effective allies, even if they are not LGBTQ2S+ themselves?

AL: Supervisors and faculty members can take it upon themselves to educate themselves, read, and ask people who identify as LGBTQ2S+ about their experiences to better understand their perspective. This can only be done when a friendly and accepting atmosphere is established. They can also invite various researchers who self identify as LGBTQ2S+ from Western or other institutions, to visit the lab. It is important for them to also engage in recruitment initiatives that encourage underrepresented groups to engage in neuroscience, such as summer research programs, etc.

BB: For me, this means working to establish an environment in which all team members are comfortable discussing their individual challenges openly – and then listening. Acknowledging the existence of systemic challenges to this community is easy; understanding how to turn this acknowledgment to action with respect to addressing issues with recruitment, hiring, evaluation, etc., requires a deeper understanding of the obstacles.