Sustainability and Equity: A Conversation with Alex Ip

March 15, 2021

SLS strives to support students in connecting sustainability and equity, and seeing them as inextricable in the partnerships we forge, research we conduct, and learning we embark on together. In the interview below (condensed and edited for length and clarity) SLS Service Learning and Partnerships Specialist Ruthie Yow discusses these themes with Alex Ip, a third-year environmental engineering major from Hong Kong.  Alex is the founder and managing editor of The Xylom, home to dynamic journalism focused on “personal stories of science and humanity.” Its stories achieve a balance of accessibility and scientific rigor and reflect the founder’s mission to embrace three key questions: “What do STEM professionals look like? How are STEM professionals shaped by events outside of the lab? And how do people respond to the changing world through science?” Currently, The Xylom attracts about 1,000 unique users per month to enjoy more than 60 stories from 40 contributors; those contributors come from 20 countries and regions and hail from diverse disciplines.  Alex’s own contributions are gems among The Xylom’s offerings; you can read two recent compelling pieces by Alex here and here—the first about Hong Kong’s celebrity science communicator, Karen Mak, and the second about race, equity, and science through the lens of the 2020 Atlanta Science Festival. Finally, make sure to check out The Xylom’s series Brackish, a growing collection of personal stories of black and indigenous scientists.

Tell us about how your thinking on equity and sustainability has evolved since you’ve been at Georgia Tech.

What I care about – because of what is happening in Hong Kong and in the US- is institutions. For me, sustainability enables everyone to develop socially, economically, and environmentally and enables future generations to do so as well.  You have to have institutions to do that. There has to be a way for people from different backgrounds to come together and decide on things that affect each other- having healthy and strong institutions can help ensure sustainability.

What Greta Thunberg says—she’s very supportive of democracy in Hong Kong—she believes that in order to take climate action you have to have democracy.  At West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA) where I interned last summer, we worked on the fact that a lot of decisions were made without input from black residents and the city was built in a way that disadvantaged black people—there was no drainage—it ended up in black neighborhoods. There were things in the past that were plain wrong, but there’s a process where people must first accept that it was wrong (which we aren’t even close to in some ways in America and in Georgia) and reverse that, and find ways to promote growth and opportunity for everyone: affordable housing, clean water, green spaces. And I learned that good intentions don’t equate with good results. Whether it is in community building or in journalism, or in education, the best intentions have unintended consequences, and we don’t have the capacity to know everything. People get consumed by what they think is good, and we have to talk, listen, and work to restore justice.

That applies to science as well. We know that science isn’t apolitical.  When I learned more about the history of science [I saw] that politics is people making decisions, and some benefit more than others. You have to have a system of checks and balances and accountability or else you have the opioid crisis or Tuskegee where no one knows there’s a problem until, in that case, there was a black doctor whistle-blower.

How do your personal background and your experiences working with community-based organizations influence the way you think and write about sustainability and equity?

I didn’t grow up in an environment with black people, LatinX people or LGBTQIA people. When I interned at WAWA there was a need for me to understand what is going on, because if I don’t understand then I can’t work with communities that have suffered misunderstanding, neglect, and racism.  My supervisors gave me resources, and I paid attention to the news; this was at the time of George Floyd’s murder, and there was lots of discussion about race relations in the past and present.  That is when I learned that even though Atlanta is majority black, a lot of decisions were made without the input of black people even under black mayoral administrations—representation like that doesn’t necessarily mean that voices are heard; that’s why grassroots movements are important, and I got that education when I was at WAWA.

 If I can, I like to cover the intersection of science and society. It’s understanding the history part, the development of science affecting some more than others, the power dynamics, [the question of] who gets to make decisions about how science is applied.  Also, equity [at this intersection] means equity of access and making sure that people who are minorities or historically neglected have access to all the things that science supposedly brings us. History doesn’t revolve in cycles, but understanding how one thing links to another, that helps up make decisions. Journalism can help us understand context, because anything done without context is pretty dangerous. A lot of people consider whether we can do something versus whether we should do it; that’s where the intersection of science and society comes in.  We can come closer to equity that way.

Could you share more about what is currently happening in Hong Kong and how you feel it connects to sustainability and equity here in the U.S?  

I’ve lived in both places, and for me what is most dangerous is not the battle between socialism and capitalism but rather authoritarian and democracy. Capitalistic authoritarian society or Communist authoritarian society end up the same way: people do not have the ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. What I saw in Hong Kong is that a free press is important. That’s why the democracy movement hasn’t been crushed in Hong Kong.  That’s why a robust news ecosphere is so important. Sustainability is built upon facts. Without facts, nothing is sustainable, and when it comes to climate change, more lies equal more damage, unnecessary injury, and theft. That is something I don’t want to see. 

Hong Kong is a place where it is both legal and illegal to wear a mask.  It’s like 1984. There’s no logic, no established facts. The only thing you can do to survive is to be obedient to what the regime says. That’s why alternative facts are so dangerous. The only compass people seek is power. But the endless pursuit of power is the opposite of equity, because equity means everybody has some power—it might be unequal, but they use the power to elevate one another.

Journalism gives back the power of free speech and gives the power to hold those in power accountable. Even though I am trained as an engineer, which is to see problems and solve them, I use this framework in journalism by asking: What went wrong? Who is trying to solve it? How do they measure it? And is it successful or not? This framework is called solutions journalism. How can we solve problems and bring people together? [Solutions journalism] lets readers see that [context and process] and make decisions that are beneficial to the people around them.  Those principles of equity come up: Who is at the table and who is missing? Are they trying to solve the right problem? What I learned at WAWA is that people in their own communities know most acutely what the problem is because they live it every single day. Questions lead to solutions and solutions create new questions.

What do you want The Xylom to achieve? What will mark success?

There are a few ways it can achieve success: first, when you tell personal stories of science and community that means lifting up voices who were not heard in the past and telling their stories—gender, race, disability, location.  [The last] is really important because a lot of science institutions are “liberal coastal elites,” and so we try to work with rural communities where it isn’t known that they are doing great science. Storytelling is entertainment but also a great way of building trust and empathy. We do our best to do fact-checking; we want stories to be real and provoke emotion. One thing I’ve learned in educating myself about science communication is that a lot of people subscribe to the theory that if people have a false belief, with the right data they will change their minds. But we know that isn’t true. The most effective way of changing the minds of skeptics is through stories. It’s hard for me to measure progress, but the goal is to plant seeds to change people’s minds or make people feel they are part of science and that it is for them—[then] they are more likely to trust it and pursue a career in it. We have a diversity and inclusion problem [in science], and the only solution is to make more people feel they are invested in science. 

I also try to measure progress also by the diversity of the people who tell our stories, and by reader contributions, which are growing; we are financially self-sustaining now.  And finally, [I measure success by the number of] people who read and share and react to the stories, and by asking, how often do random people pitch us? The more people I don’t know who pitch us [their stories] shows me that more people feel that we are addressing their needs, or [that] they read a story and felt changed by it and wanted to tell their story as well.  It’s not a science, it’s an art, when it comes to storytelling and changing minds. That’s what we try to do—if no one is doing that, we can’t ever measure how effective that is. But [there is] research on this: storytelling works! So we come in there, we try to cover unbroken land that others haven’t discovered yet. We try to reach out to those spaces.