AAG Specialty Group Chairs’ Response Letter to AAG Diversity Initiatives

September 14, 2020 

Dear AAG Council, Executive Committee, and the broader AAG Membership, 

We are writing to express our concerns about the AAG’s Internship Assistance Program, Diversity Task Force, and their engagement with/treatment of the chairs of ‘diversity’ specialty groups. We are writing this open letter with the aim of increasing the AAG’s transparency and accountability around their initiatives to promote ‘diversity’ and support students who are unevenly impacted by the impacts of COVID-19 budget cuts and, more broadly, bias and discrimination in the discipline. We encourage other specialty groups and all AAG members to honour their anti-racism statements and stand in solidarity with our call by signing in support of this statement. 

Background and Context 

On Monday, August 17th, the Government Relations Manager for the AAG, Michelle Kinzer, sent an email invitation to the Chairs of the Black Geographies Specialty Group, the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group, the Latinx Geographies Specialty Group, the Disability Specialty group, and the Queer and Trans Geographies Specialty Group. We were asked to provide our availability between Wednesday, August 19th to Tuesday, August 25th to meet with Michelle Kinzer and Gary Langham, the Executive Director of the AAG, about the internship program that stemmed from the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force effort, and a new Diversity Task Force the Council is keen to set up. The meeting took place on Monday, August 24th and lasted for over an hour, rather than the 30 minutes for which it had been scheduled. On Tuesday, August 25th we were asked to put names forward to guide the AAG COVID-19 Rapid Relief Internship Program by the end of that week. 

Internship Program 

The internship program was described to us as being faculty-driven and would be tied to student interests in connection to our speciality groups. The AAG would announce the internship program in early September (they did on September 3rd) and the specialty groups were asked to help publicize the announcement and encourage applications. Faculty would be asked to identify internship opportunities and connect them to a specialty group. We were under the impression that volunteers from each specialty group would rank the applications to help determine which faculty were chosen. The faculty who were selected would then decide which student(s) could fulfil each internship position. Therefore, students would not be directly involved in shaping the internship, nor would the internship organization or specialty group chairs be involved in selecting the student. 

The chairs left this meeting unclear about the implementation, logistics, and efficacy of the internship program. For example, when asked how the AAG would assess if an internship organization was unable to pay an intern because of a lack of funding resources due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the internship program would ensure that it benefits organizations that need this sort of assistance, it seemed that the AAG had not taken this into account, nor had they prioritized these factors. Additionally, we did not understand why the internships needed to be sought out by faculty, rather than have the program be student-driven. To have the internship program be student-driven would enable students who already hold existing relationships with organizations to apply for funds, rather than have faculty cast a wide net to identify organizations for potential students. 

Finally, we later learned that the stipend for students is only $3,000, well below the national average for internship pay. In addition, students are expected to attend the annual AAG conference, but will only receive funding to cover virtual registration costs. If the goal of this program is to assist students who are financially struggling and typically do not have access to these sorts of opportunities, we believe they should be fairly paid and compensated fully for conference registration if attendance is expected. Additionally, if the objective of this program is to alleviate immediate needs during a pandemic, we wonder whether a mutual-aid fund would better serve student needs. 

Diversity Task Force 

For the Diversity Task Force, we were asked to consider our involvement as “volunteers,” which, like the internship program, was presented to us as an “opportunity.” The task force’s directive acknowledges “that as an organization we must do better in how we include diverse voices in our leadership and planning” and states that members “will be charged with setting Equity & Inclusion goals for the AAG over the next several years” (as per Michelle Kinzer’s invitation email on August 17th). This is despite the existence of an already active ‘Diversity and Inclusion Committee’, which was not mentioned during or after this meeting. Gary Langham also added that the AAG had hired a diversity consultant (whose name, identity, or experience has not been made public), but that as specialty group Chairs our cooperation would be paramount to ensure a mandate for the changes the AAG Council would approve. 

We were not offered information about how the AAG’s diversity consultant was hired, or how they are situated within networks of power and privilege. Nor were we given the opportunity to meet with this consultant. As such, we have no sense of their expertise, the institutional influence they will have, their budget, or the extent to which they will work with us. This lack of transparency further opens up the possibility for ‘diverse’ specialty group Chairs to be asked to provide additional consultant work that would remain unaccounted, unpaid, and underappreciated with respect to the official ‘diversity’ consultant the AAG has hired. 

In response to the request for our voluntary participation on the Diversity Task Force, we asked if the AAG could instead provide us with stipends for our involvement. As the work being requested of us does not fall under prescribed Chair duties, we felt that this labor could be compensated like any other task. A stipend would also recognize the additional time, energy, and labor that is being requested of marginalized scholars in early-career positions, during a pandemic, and at the start of online or hybrid academic terms. Requesting that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx geographers, geographers who live with disabilities, and LGBT2QIA+ geographers provide free labor to enhance the ‘diversity’ of the AAG only reinforces the notion that improving inclusion and representation in academic institutions is not ‘real’ or valuable work. Ultimately, the AAG’s lack of transparency and requests for unpaid labor leave unrecognized the ways in which our Black colleagues have been impacted by the current events taking place in the United States, and–more generally–they demonstrate inconsistent engagement with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and disabled geographers within the AAG. The asymmetries in labor and compensation are starkly contrasted, as someone saw fit to hire a diversity consultant rather than compensate experts from within our ranks. 

Demands 

Following the Black Geographies Specialty Group’s Statement from June 2020, as well as the many additional statements of support circulated by other specialty groups, we question if the AAG’s process for addressing inequities in the discipline have considered the multiple layers of undue burden on marginalized scholars. How do these initiatives address the institutional racism and anti-Blackness that intersect with other systems of oppression? How does the AAG’s treatment of us, as ‘diverse’ specialty group Chairs, reflect whether or not they are listening to the systemic issues we have already identified that so urgently need to be addressed? 

We are asking for transparency and accountability about how these programs were developed, and we refuse to participate in these programs until they align with the BGSG’s statement. As specialty group Chairs, we have not been provided with a clear indication as to whether our past suggestions have been taken up by the AAG; as such, we do not know if the contributions being requested of us now will be made into policy or have any traction on the future conduct of the AAG. 

Therefore, as the ‘diverse’ Specialty Group Chairs identified by the AAG, we are calling for the AAG to respond with: 

– A clear breakdown of the AAG’s process in developing the Diversity Task Force and ‘diversity’ initiatives, including minutes from relevant meetings; 


– Clarity around who the ‘diversity consultant’ is and who populate the ‘Enhancing Diversity Committee’, and what recommendations or reports they have provided to the AAG; 

– A follow-up on how the AAG is responding to the BGSG statement and other statements from June 2020 that interrogate the institutional culture of the AAG; 

– A clear breakdown of the AAG’s process in developing the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force programs, including minutes from these meetings, to address the following questions: 

– Why were the timelines to develop the COVID-19 Rapid Response subcommittee proposals and contact ‘diverse’ specialty groups so short?  

– How and why were specific subcommittee proposals adapted, combined, or dismissed? Proposals were initially 34 and ended with 9 funded. 

– How and why was the internship program decided upon and formulated? 

– What are the final budget estimates per program? 

– Who are the members of the Blue Ribbon Committee? 

– Clarification on why the budget for the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force effort was initially stated as $8 million, and is now is $1 million; 

– Clarification on why money is not being disbursed to undergraduate students in more direct ways, for example microgrants for those already working in their communities or aid without a work requirement; 

– An explanation as to why AAG cannot directly fund NGOs to support student internships and other related programs; 

– A more robust response from the AAG regarding recent changes that the NSF has made to the HEGS program. The announcement from NSF that “post-modern, post-structural, humanistic etc. [research], is not a good fit ” disproportionately impacts critical human 1 geographers from our speciality groups, as well as others across the discipline. 

The AAG Executive Office recognizes that “it must do more to ensure that geography as a discipline becomes inclusive and equitable.” We ask that the AAG live up to its statements2  and begin by combating the power imbalances that are at work in the AAG at large. We understand that the current AAG leadership has inherited the institutional structure of the AAG, and that structural problems are difficult to solve in months or even within the term of office of the current leadership. We raise these concerns and questions to help the current AAG leadership align with the BGSG’s extremely pressing recommendations for progressive change in the AAG to mitigate the perpetuation and exacerbation of ongoing discrimination, bias, invisibilization, and exhaustion experienced by Black, Indigenous, and Latinx geographers, as well as disabled and LGBT2QIA+ geographers. We hope our letter is received in the spirit of improving networks of support for marginalized geographers and building structures of solidarity between the AAG Council, the AAG Executive Committee, and its ‘diverse’ specialty groups. 

We look forward to hearing back from the AAG Council and Executive Committee regarding our statement by September 30, 2020. 

We encourage other specialty groups to honor their anti-racism statements and stand in solidarity with our call. All AAG members are also welcomed to sign in support of this statement. 

Sincerely, 

Julian Barr, Co-Chair, Queer and Trans Geographies Specialty Group 

Diana Beljaars, Chair, Disability Specialty Group 

Madelaine Cahuas, Co-Chair, Latinx Geographies Specialty Group

Camilla Hawthorne, Chair, Black Geographies Specialty Group 

Magie Ramírez, Co-Chair, Latinx Geographies Specialty Group

Rae Rosenberg, Co-Chair, Queer and Trans Geographies Specialty Group 

Deondre Smiles, Chair, Indigenous Peoples’ Specialty Group  

Published by blackgeographies

Website for the Black Geographies Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers.

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