A problem that is systemic to our robotics team is that it is very bad at identifying and addressing the unique struggles of people with marginalized identities, and helping tackle those problems to help marginalized students stay on the robotics team. When I was at a diversity conference, I met an Alumni and former member of my FIRST team who was only on the team for two weeks. As a person of color in the foster care system, she found it difficult to learn about robotics in an environment that to her, seemed built for the education of mathematically intelligent and culturally aware white men. Due to her social anxiety and her minimal education from her years spent switching schools, she found it very difficult to keep up with the fast-paced learning environment and the team culture, a difficulty that I became intimate with as the business and outreach captain. I’d like to say that I knew how to deal with members of my business and outreach sub-team being forced to quit one by one due to their marginalization by society, but as a middle-class white woman, I was completely unprepared for the collapse of my sub-team, and had I been as well educated in diversity as I am today, I could have prevented its collapse.
Another problem that we have, although not unique to our FIRST robotics team, and, in fact, a struggle of probably every FIRST robotics team everywhere is grappling with the systemic biases against marginalized groups in STEM. On our team, women, people of color, and other minorities concentrate in the business and outreach sub-team due to systemic biases against these people in STEM which present themselves as microaggressions on other sub-teams. Due to its non-STEM nature, and its reputation as a sub-team of marginalized identities, the business and outreach sub-team on our team receives sub-par treatment as a sub-team, microaggressions from team members, limited budget, and micromanagement from non-sub-team members. At the beginning of the year, our sub-team consisted of me and 6 other people. One by one each member of the sub-team quit the team until I was the last one standing. The business and outreach captain, and the whole team.
The first to quit was a man of color. He struggled with school work, and couldn’t deal with the outside labor required to run the sub-team. We weren’t lost without him, partially because we didn’t have much actual sub-team autonomy in the first place, but also because our former sub-team captain was still on the team as Deputy Captain. The second to quit was one of my best friends. As a senior she was having anxiety about her ability to fund her college education and dropped out of robotics to work a part-time job. The third to quit was my other best friend. As a person with social anxiety she found it hard to cope with the demands of team participation without my other friend there to assist her, and because the team meets after the last activity bus leaves, she has to walk to robotics from her house three miles from the school. As the cold winter came, she left.
Our previous year’s team captain did a lot of work for the business and outreach team although technically not a part of the sub-team, however, she too quit the sub-team and the team in general. As deputy captain, she was not taken seriously. The sexist microaggressions and ableism got to a point where it triggered a violent outburst. She then left the team.
Our team fills out the chairman’s award application every year, partially because it helps us qualify for state, but also because our team’s head mentor genuinely believes that we have a chance of winning it if only our application and business and outreach team were good enough. As business and outreach captain, I might not have known much about diversity, but after that year, I came to the realization that our team would never have a hope to win chairman unless the business and outreach sub-team was dissolved and the business and outreach responsibilities were distributed equally among the sub-teams, by making chairman’s a full team priority instead of “women’s work” we could easily become a team worthy of the chairman’s award.
I didn’t get the opportunity to dissolve the business and outreach sub-team however. I was elected business and outreach captain as the only person on business and outreach. After years without a business and outreach mentor, we finally got one, and a few students.
The mentorship model of FIRST robotics combined with our attendance culture is very vulnerable to pervasive systemic bias. If you don’t show up to enough meetings, no matter what reason, you aren’t trusted with the robot, and therefore, don’t learn. If you aren’t confident with your abilities enough to ask for help from a mentor, or volunteer to work on the robot, you don’t learn. Team captaincy on our team is done via elections, but as long as I have been on the team, they have been spectacles of sexism, and if you don’t get along with the team captain, you don’t learn.
After the senior class of our team graduates, there will be four non-freshman women and two non-freshman people of color remaining on the team. The business and outreach mentor will be the only female mentor. 2/3rds of the women will be on business and outreach. In the history of our team there has never been a woman as team captain. As a team, I know that we are better than this. Historically, our team used to be one of the feminist teams. We were founded by one of the all-woman teams in our state, and at the beginning of our team’s life, we had one of the best gender ratios among mixed FIRST robotics teams. We have done better and we need to do better. For our sake, hold us to it.
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