Meet Shawntel Okonkwo – Science Communicator & TEDx Speaker

Thank you Miss Shawntel Okonkwo for joining us today. Before we get all the way into the interview, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I like to describe myself as a critical ideator and truth teller, pushing the envelope on conventional thinking in STEM.  I do this through my privilege of being a scientist, a science communicator, a person who cares about reforming systems and somebody who’s also in the spaces of art and creativity. I try to use my access in these spaces to push social change for all marginalized people in STEM, through the enterprises, ventures and spaces I find myself in, from education to museums to business & policy and even entertainment.  

You mentioned equity and access, which seems that you advocate for culturally responsive science and science education. Would you say this is so?

Certainly! Science is something that affects all of us, and it wouldn’t be fair if everyone is not represented. A lot of the times, the way the science is presented to people is through one lens; the narrative of a dominant and privileged community, and most times, it doesn’t really align with everybody. I strongly believe in diverse perspectives being represented in how we present science, how we talk about science and how we do science in order for it to be fair and equitable across the board so that we can all engage with it. I recently won a federal grant to fund a research and development STEM project at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) where I focused on this very concept. My visual storytelling, video and digital community work through wokeSTEM aims to do the same as well.

I think that might be one of the reasons why sometimes we [black people] as a society draw back for the most part from engaging in science, because it’s being fed to us through a lens that may not be the lens that we actually see out of. Could you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to get into science?

This is a very important question. I don’t want to lull all Nigerians in one group because we are incredibly diverse, but there are some things that unite us, and I could definitely say that the transgenerational narrative of pressure to become a doctor, lawyer and engineer would be one of them. Being a scientist was not a very direct choice for me–I was told I was going to become a doctor before I knew what that was! However, I found myself having more of an affinity for the science of medicine as opposed to the clinical practice of medicine. So I leaned into that a little bit more and pursued scientific research during the summer before my junior year in college. I found myself doing cardiovascular research with Dr. Daniel Hart, who is a Nigerian pursuing cutting edge science at UCSF. Seeing a Nigerian who actually cares about the science was one thing that led me down that path, but it was also my own experience of falling in love with scientific inquiry, with asking a question and making observations and trying to find the truth. I guess that philosophical connection to truth, is what connected me really strongly with the scientific enterprise in regards to research. 

You did a TEDX talk recently, tell us a little bit about how that experience was for you?

It was a great privilege and super fun! I was invited to give a talk on the strength of my idea, which is the need to centre ‘intersectionality’ in STEM, a term coined by Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw through her critical race theory research. Intersectionality puts into account the fact that we all have different identities, and we’re marginalized very differently on the basis of the discrimination of these identities. For example, I am Black, and I’m also a woman. My experience is that I’m more likely to experience racism, because I’m Black and I’m likely to experience sexism because I’m a woman. When you put those two things together, they’re heavily compounded, as opposed to individual identities, and can create life-threatening obstacles. If you apply that thinking to society and problem solving, you’ll see that it really opens up a full can of worms in that we’re not really moving forward in a way that is including everybody and their experiences. Instead of just laying out the definition, and then laying that out as a problem, I offered some ways that we can start thinking about that in terms of science and technology, and not just how we teach science, but also how we do science, how we think about science, how we apply science and how we fund science. I also discussed my organisation, WokeSTEM which is an entity created as a response to the lack of diversity, social equity and inclusive cultures of people in colour in STEM. We create fun, original and afro-futurist science communication videos on YouTube, run skills-development workshops and trainings and deliver high-impact speaking engagements around the country.

What type of advice would you give young Nigerians thinking about getting into science research and/or science education? 

I’m going to make a soft assumption that there may be some barriers getting into STEM on the basis of your cultural or ethnic identity, where you come from and your access to resources. I say that, because those are some of the drivers for deciding who gets to participate in science or not. I would say that you use that actually as a strength. Think about your personal contribution, I think we all have something really unique to contribute. We bring so much creativity and colour, in a literal and non- literal way, and just a different flavor of intellectualism to the table, which at the end of the day, makes science stronger, better and more beneficial for all. Bring your unique self to the table, don’t make yourself small and, please do not conform no matter what the status quo may be. If that’s not working, create your own table. You don’t have to follow a linear path. You can truly follow who you are, become more creative with that authenticity and use this to drive change by making your own contributions to science.

In the spirit of what you just said about creating your own lane, I saw that you were a vital person in bringing back the African Student Association at your College, why that was important to you?

I’ve been fortunate to go to K-12 schools that were gifted and talented but unfortunately ended up being predominantly white. Nevertheless, there was always a tiny community of Black people in these spaces for which I always gravitated towards. At my college there was a Black Student Union (BSU), and while to me, Black is all encompassing, a lot of the programming and what was being presented in this BSU at the time was reflective of more of a black American experience. Although I could relate, there was still a whole community of international and diasporic black people on campus who were not being accommodated for. To me, that was a huge disservice to: (1) the legacy of this university that created the first BSU in history out of student protests during the Civil Rights Movement and (2) the fact that it was not really amplifying the full beauty and diversity of Blackness, I just thought it was really problematic. I was driven off of that need to celebrate who we are fully as opposed to one dimension or lens. We were really interested in amplifying our culture and where we come from in a way that celebrates everyone and sustains Black genius over time.

There’s definitely a rise in young Nigerians and African’s in diaspora who have started to become more connected with the continent and with their individual countries. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s a beautiful thing! ICYMI, we are undergoing a new-age global Black renaissance. Just like we’re seeing in music and popular culture in general, there is a resurgence of Nigerian pride and excellence. It’s such a beautiful thing that our generation is spearheading this transformation despite all of the political turmoil of our background and how easy it is to fall into the settler colonial mentality of rejecting who you are for proximity and palatability under the Western gaze. We’re in a moment where, beyond aesthetics, being black is cool, being African is cool and being Nigerian is cool. I hope that even if it is just a trend, people can find a deeper connection of who they are, our past and present contribution to the world and why it’s just so dope to be Nigerian.

What do you think about the idea of all [Nigerians] those that are abroad connecting with each other? 

I think that it is critically important that wherever we are, we have established communities, whether it be through cities, states, countries, regions, continents or even the digital realm. Being displaced from a country or leaving a country,  one of the effects is isolation, particularly if you’re from a community that thrives on collectivism like Nigeria, thus being connected is more powerful. A bundle of sticks is harder to break than just one. We are stronger together than apart.

Interview conducted by NNC US Team Leader – Tobi Thomas

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