Using Wikipedia to Accurately Reflect Black People’s Contributions to Knowledge

Since its inception in 2001, Wikipedia has grown from the seed of a near-utopian idea– that strangers could work together to create a collaborative, cooperative collection of knowledge– into a major information resource, relied upon by millions of people around the world. Free access to trustworthy information is essential, especially in an era where misinformation runs amok, and tech companies maintain that they are mere “platforms,” and resist abiding by anything close to journalistic standards. In the past year, YouTube came under fire for serving up conspiracy theory videos, and announced that they would start linking to Wikipedia to combat misinformation— however, they also didn’t inform Wikipedia, a largely volunteer-run enterprise whose operations are overseen by a nonprofit.

Beyond its treasure trove of accessible information, Wikipedia has also become a platform for a somewhat unexpected mission: creating a more accurate (and more inclusive) record of the creators of knowledge. Over the past several years, Wikipedia editathons have been used to improve documentation of people whose work has often been rendered invisible by mainstream history; for example, a recent workshop focused on adding and/or improving the Wikipedia entries for Black artists. One of the drawbacks to relying on individuals to populate Wikipedia’s body of knowledge is that it can create gaps in that body of knowledge that reflect larger biases in society. Accordingly, a white supremacist society means that many of the entries for Black people are lower quality than for white people working in similar fields, or Black creators of knowledge may be missing from Wikipedia entirely.

Fortunately, Wikipedia belongs to all of us– and that’s where you come in! Today, we are asking readers to add, expand, or improve a Wikipedia entry for a Black person whose work is not fully reflected. If you’ve never edited Wikipedia before, fear not: it’s easy to do, and there’s lots of great guides on how to do it! To get you excited and thinking about whose entry you might contribute to, we’ve written a bit about the entries we’re working on below:

Lauren: This is the first Wikipedia article I’ve ever written, and I couldn’t be happier to have added something on N. K. Jemisin. (Hopefully I did it right and it won’t be deleted by the Wikipedia powers that be). On Thursday night, I finished reading her first collection of sci-fi and fantasy short stories, How Long ‘til Black Future Month. It is Afrofuturism at its finest – full of important themes, good storytelling, and great Black characters. As Jemisin notes in her intro, she was tired of seeing characters, even in sci-fi, fantasy, and future worlds, that looked nothing like her. “When I sampled a particular publisher’s novels or stories for research, I paid attention to how many – or how  few – characters were described as something other than white. I still wrote black characters into my work because I couldn’t stand excluding myself from my own damn fiction.” Many of these short stories evolved into full-length novels that Jemisin has won awards for, and I’m excited to read those next. I’d like to go back and add even more info to this Wiki article, but in the meantime, I’m glad it has a page to call its own.

Brian: Long-time reader, first-time contributor to Wikipedia here. It’s a solemn pleasure to write about Dr. Arden Warner, physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. Warner is from the Barbados (Eagle Hall, St Michael) in the Caribbean and now works in the Accelerator Division at Fermilab, where he works to develop new technologies to enhance particle collider science. Arden works on the Proton Improvement Plan (PIP-II) Project, which is a linear accelerator designed to produce very high intensity beams of particles. In the near future, it will help produce large numbers of neutrinos, enabling scientists to study the nature of matter and the origins of our existence. Such a high-intensity particle beam can potentially damage the accelerator, so Warner is leading an effort to develop a Machine Protection System (MPS) that will guard against this. You can read more about his recent work in this area in Fermilab Technical Publications. This article in the Barbados’ Nation News describes Warner’s early life and journey into physics.

While he works on accelerators at Fermilab, Warner also thinks more broadly about science and its potential applications for the world and humanity. In particular, Warner has developed a technique to remove oil from water to help clean oil spill disasters. In 2010, while watching news with his spouse about the Deepwater Horizon / BP oil spill disaster, Warner hypothesized methods to clean the oil more naturally than heavy-chemical-based methods: Warner recounts the story in Fermilab Today in 2014: “My wife asked ‘Can you separate oil from water?’ and I said ‘Maybe I could magnetize it!'” “But that was just something I said. Later that night while I was falling asleep, I thought, you know what, that’s not a bad idea.” Since 2010, Warner has been developing what would eventually become the “Magnetic Wand” method and device — the Electromagnet Boom and MOP (EMOP) System, in which magnetized particles are added to oil spills, and a magnet pulls the oil out of the water. Warner has started a company to develop the technology, and Fermilab has helped him to patent it.

Arden Warner is a badass.

Warner is also one of three Black appointed physicists at Fermilab. The first was Herman white in 1974. The youngest is Brian Nord, appointed in 2017.

Lucianne: Today’s exercise is a fun one for me– when the Internet first became part of my day-to-day in college, one of my very first browser home pages was the Wikipedia random article! When we were planning this post, my first thought was to go see how some of my colleagues are represented on Wikipedia– and I was dismayed to see that the entry for a fellow astrophysicist (and friend), Jedidah Isler, didn’t reflect the full complement of her work. For example, while the entry mentioned “STEM advocacy,” it didn’t say that she’s the founder of a nonprofit, the SeRCH Foundation, whose flagship effort #VanguardSTEM provides career development resources and mentorship to Black women in STEM. In fact, even the part of the article that mentions “STEM advocacy” only says that she spoke about “intersectionality,” and doesn’t mention that she works with Black women specifically. Furthermore, the entry was out of date, and didn’t mention that she is now faculty at Dartmouth College. It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to create an entry that more accurately conveys her accomplishments.

I was also inspired to create a few new entries, which I plan to work on this week (one of these is game designer Allen Turner!).

Renée: I love living in Canada and one of my favourite things is learning about Canadian researchers and scientists. There is a wealth of talent here and I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface when I speak to scientists and ask them for recommendations about who I should meet or learn from. One of the things that is frustrating though is that often the Wikipedia entries for Black Canadians (of all sorts, but especially scientists) are thin on the ground. There are some entries for notable scientists who worked in Canada (like Mercedes Richards who obtained her PhD through the University of Toronto), but I want to highlight contemporary scientists too. So I’m picking Louise Edwards who is from Victoria, British Columbia. She works in the field of galaxy evolution, and uses data in the optical and X-ray to learn about the in-falling gas in galaxy clusters. She has been put on a Canadian stamp, but shockingly doesn’t have a wikipedia page!

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