By Gina C. Roesch (Garand) & Coty Weathersby (T. McMahon)
Tough times call for tough people. One of them is Olga Riusech (Garand). Balancing her first year of graduate school, the pandemic and racial unrest throughout the country, she still took action to make change happen.
After the death of George Floyd and resulting protests, Riusech saw an opportunity to facilitate change in her immediate community: the chemistry department. As a member of the Latinx Cultural Center on campus, she noticed the lack of such a community for Black scientists. With a few volunteers, she organized a Juneteenth event to acknowledge the holiday and celebrate the impact of Black chemists. The event featured a history of Juneteenth, a Black Chemist Spotlight, and a reading of a poem by Maya Angelou.
The event also served to promote the establishment of a new community center for Black chemists and engineers. The second half of the event featured the who, what, where, when and why of that community — a space where members and allies support racial justice in STEM disciplines. With more than Badger Chemists in attendance, this was the first successful event from the newly-reformed National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) chapter at UW–Madison.
The NOBCChE mission is, “to build an eminent cadre of successful diverse global leaders in STEM and advance their professional endeavors by adding value to their academic, development, leadership, and philanthropic endeavors throughout the life-cycle of their careers.” The UW chapter aims to embody every element of this mission through professional, social, and outreach-oriented programming – in part as a response to the events of the summer and in part because a NOBCChE chapter existed five years ago on campus but did not survive a lack of membership. With increasing awareness and activism around the country and world, NOBCChE is a step toward acknowledging the department’s need to recruit and support a more diverse student body.
Fortunately for Riusech, Coty Weathersby (T. McMahon), a member of the original UW–Madison chapter, studies on campus as an Engineering masters student. During her undergraduate career, Weathersby found a strong source of community with the former NOBCChE chapter.
“My NOBCChE family helped me to feel comfortable owning my space on this campus,” she said. “The community I built through NOBCChE has given me the confidence and support to earn my engineering degree.”
Moreover, Weathersby believes the reemergence of NOBCChE on campus is needed now more than ever.
“With the recent violence by law enforcement on unarmed Black people, many Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) are seeking a strong source of academic support and affirmation here at UW–Madison, a predominantly white institution,” she said.
Weathersby believes NOBCChE has the potential to advocate for and uplift the voices of BIPOC scientists and engineers. With more traction and student town halls, the chapter has more members than ever – 25 and counting – and is planning for the future. The Executive Board, led by chemistry graduate student Jamorious Smith (Buller), will lead informational and social events that promote racial justice and equality in academia and the community.