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# Count Me In: Community and Belonging in Mathematics

Communicated by *Notices* Associate Editor Katelynn Kochalski

What are the biggest open problems you know in mathematics today? Perhaps your first thought was something quite famous, such as the Riemann hypothesis or P versus NP. Perhaps you have an open problem in your area of mathematics that you have thought about for a few months (or a few years). There are very few open problems that affect almost every mathematician. *Count Me In* highlights one in particular: How can we increase diversity among mathematicians?

The issue of diversity isn’t new; in fact, mathematicians, academics, and students alike have noticed for a long time there aren’t many people from [insert minorityFootnote^{1} group here] among their colleagues. I intentionally call this question “a problem” to imply there may be a solution. Through its chapters, *Count Me In* outlines a variety of communities that exist or have existed in mathematics, many of which desire to enhance diversity in the mathematics profession. Some of these communities began specifically to address a need in mathematics, while others grew more organically and enhanced diversity as a happy byproduct of their activities. In this review, I will consider the “problem” of the lack of diversity in mathematics and discuss various communities presented in the book, focusing on why community is an important step toward increasing diversity.

^{1}

Throughout this review, I use the term “minority” to refer to any group of people that feel part of their identity is underrepresented in mathematics. I acknowledge I cannot discuss every group and intersection of identity in this review.

The editors of the volume are themselves members of various communities. Della Dumbaugh is a professor at the University of Richmond and in 2022 became the second female editor in chief of *The American Mathematical Monthly*, a publication of the MAA. Deanna Haunsperger is a professor at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. She is currently the editor of the MAA’s *Math Values* blog, and from 1995–2014 she codirected the Carleton Summer Mathematics Program for Women.

Throughout their careers, it seems likely that both of these women asked themselves why there isn’t more diversity in mathematics. Identifying as a female myself, I have seen firsthand the effects of too few women in the room/panel/department/institution/program. In addition, I have benefited from the work of other female mathematicians who endeavored to welcome more women into the field.

Whether some of your identity intersects with a minority in mathematics or not, you might be wondering what this book has to offer you. Through many chapters about various communities, it offers a big-picture view of the experiences of mathematicians. You may not have had the same experiences as others, but that does not nullify anyone’s experiences. We should listen, appreciate, and learn from each other; these stories indicate that the problem of diversity truly is a problem. We can only solve this problem together.

When you pick up this book, you will find easy-to-digest chapters that are not much longer than this review. They are perfectly engaging one at a time or completely binge-worthy as a group. The book is divided into two main sections: “Communities for undergraduate and secondary-school mathematics students” and “Communities for graduate students and professional mathematicians.” No matter your job title, institution, or career path, it has something of interest for you.

Perhaps you teach. Have you intentionally made a community in your classroom? Chapter 1 describes how Uri Treisman at UC Berkeley builds community in his classrooms. These ideas seem fairly easy-to-implement in any classroom. For instance, use your students’ names and talk to them about activities on campus or other courses they are in. Also, make them learn the name of at least one other student in the classroom; this can help build a community of learners.

Perhaps you are employed in a department at an institution of higher education. How can you effectively advise students whose backgrounds may be very different from your own? This book contains information about programs you can suggest to current undergraduate or graduate students, such as EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education) in Chapter 6, the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics in Chapter 5, the Smith College Center for Women in Mathematics in Chapter 9, the Math Alliance in Chapter 10, the Infinite Possibilities Conference in Chapter 16, and the Spectra organization in Chapter 21.

Perhaps you are a student, and you would like to organize events in your department to build community among your peers. Chapter 11 discusses events held by the AWM Chapter at Youngstown State University. You would not need to host an official chapter of a professional organization to hold some of these same events (or suggest potential events to some of your professors!).

Perhaps your institution does not have as many mathematics majors as you would like. In Chapter 2, we learn about how St. Olaf in Northfield, MN, went from 18 majors to 100+ majors in the 1970s and 1980s. The professors did this by making mathematics seem like the most desirable major on campus. They did not let the coursework get stale, and they made it easy for students to add math as a second major. The institution let faculty focus on professional engagement opportunities rather than traditional research, which benefited the students overall.

Many communities include members who come from a variety of institutions. At the Duluth Undergraduate Research Program, discussed in Chapter 13, students come from all over the country to work on research for 10 weeks over the summer. Interacting with like-minded students while working on math research for a summer creates an unforgettable community that occurs at a pivotal time in a student’s career. Similarly, the post-baccalaureate program at Smith College, discussed in Chapter 9, gives students the tools they need to be successful before attending graduate school the following year. Arguably, the support the participants at Smith receive is just as important as the educational component of the program.

There are communities that provide a view into graduate school for undergraduates, such as at the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics in Chapter 5. Vertical integration of the communities is a common theme, since the members benefit from the experiences of others. Vertical integration is the mixing of mathematicians at a variety of levels, such as undergraduates working with graduate students or junior faculty working with senior faculty. This happened at the Carleton Summer Mathematics Program (Chapter 4), the EDGE program (Chapter 6), the Women in Numbers research community (Chapter 14), and many others. Even at a younger age, it seems that vertical integration is effective; the Prepare2Nspire program (Chapter 7) partners 8th graders with 11th graders at a tutoring program in Minnesota. Along with an undergraduate mathematics major, the 11th grade students serve as near-peer tutors for the 8th grade students to help them learn mathematics through accountability and community.

Much like using an approximation method to determine a numerical value, some communities have used a “try it and see if it works” approach. These communities tend to make changes over time, and their iterations better approximate the solution to their problem. The MAA Project NExT program (Chapter 18) uses this approach, especially as the community has grown larger over the years. While Project NExT focuses their year-long program on young professionals, they recently added a mentorship component to the program. It turns out that sharing ideas and learning innovative teaching techniques can occur at all stages of one’s career; this vertical integration has enhanced the teaching potential of both the younger and older members of the community. Other programs similarly saw benefits for all of their members, junior and senior alike, when interactions were mixed. The SIGMAA on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education (RUME) in Chapter 25, the AIM SQuaREs program in Chapter 22, the Women in Numbers program in Chapter 14, the Women in Mathematics (WAM) program at IAS in Chapter 15, and MSRI in Chapter 26 all describe intentionally mixing junior and senior researchers at their conferences, workshops, and events. In fact, the presence of senior researchers is a vital component of a program’s success; as Karen Uhlenbeck explains about the WAM at IAS program on page 138, “The biggest lesson I learned is that the senior women benefited even more than the participants.”

While some communities grow organically, some begin with very clear intentions. The WAM at IAS program (Chapter 15) aims to see more women fill tenure and tenure-track jobs at Tier 1 research institutions. MSRI (Chapter 26) offers full funding to support women and other underrepresented groups with their research, which can influence the participant’s academic job prospects. The chapters in *Count Me In* discuss the success that programs have had achieving their goals. While it may be impossible to attribute an individual’s successes to a particular community, it is clear that the support, be it financial, social, emotional, academic, or a combination of these, is valuable.

Of course, a community should expect to encounter challenges. For instance, we are warned against a “savior mindset” in teaching mathematics to those in a drastically different culture from our own. This is especially true in Chapter 12 which outlines Indigenous and Latinx communities in mathematics. In Chapter 17, we learn about communities of female mathematicians in Africa and the challenges the culture and physical distances bring. Women mathematicians tend to be very spread out across Africa, making it hard to plan conferences which many researchers are able to attend.

Chapter 14 about the Women in Numbers community was especially explicit about the difficulties in establishing and maintaining a community. Funding is hard to obtain and organizing workshops and conferences is very time-consuming. As I read this and other chapters, I noticed that many of the groups were started and maintained by members of the community themselves. Of course, it makes sense for leadership to come from within the community. However, I can easily see how a member of a minority group in mathematics only has so much bandwidth to be a leader on top of all their other duties as a mathematician. I don’t mean to imply that leadership should come from outside the community either; rather, my observation makes me wonder what I can do to support the valuable work these leaders are doing to maintain their communities. In the end, these leaders serve as role models and are a vital component of their communities. For instance, in Chapter 8 we learn that the success Bryn Mawr College has had at graduating female PhD students is attributed in part to the presence of strong role models at their institution.

Another challenge is: who do we invite to the community? Sometimes a group is focused on a common idea while other times, on a common identity. In Chapter 19, the founder of the Math Mamas Facebook group grappled with wanting to include other mathematicians who are parents, but ultimately decided that those who are navigating motherhood and a mathematical career needed a community. In addition, some of the chapters ask readers to face uncomfortable truths, no matter one’s identity. Reading about the lengths taken to keep Black students, professors, and researchers out of mathematics in Chapter 20 is a difficult yet important part of learning about our larger mathematical community.

Juxtaposed with difficulties are celebrations. Truly, communities are built around a common idea and thrive due to the personalities of its members. Many communities offer a chance for their members to be themselves. This is an essential aspect of humanity; Brené Brown, a researcher who studies belonging, explains, “True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are” 1. Members of ECCO (Chapter 3), Spectra (Chapter 21), and the Infinite Possibilities conference (Chapter 16) described how these communities helped them feel welcome and “feel less alone” (p. 149). The Infinite Possibilities conference, originally created to celebrate Etta Falconer and the graduates of Spelman College, asked a particularly illuminating question on page 151, which is

“How, then, can we create a mathematical community where we don’t have to check some part of our identity at the door in order to enter?”

There is a real need for community. Brené Brown addresses this by saying, “We want to be a part of something- to experience real connection with others - but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power” 1. Therefore, to have a sincere community, it’s essential that everyone is true to themselves.

What is the cost of exclusion? On a professional level, someone might be overlooked for a promotion or opportunity based on their identity. Even worse, Chapter 21 describes members of the LGBTQ+ community who are fearful of losing their jobs if they reveal their true selves.

Why do we need the communities featured in *Count Me In* and others? It would be a beautiful, equitable world if individuals were valued for their contributions and experiences, rather than if they are a “good fit” for a group or not. However, we are far from this equitable paradise. Progress comes when we listen to those most vulnerable. For instance, in Chapter 3 we learn sidewalk ramps benefit many people, not just those in wheelchairs for whom they were installed. Until the sidewalks of mathematics are truly available to everyone, we need to listen to the stories of minority groups and work to build “ramps” to help everyone in mathematics thrive.

Reading a book like *Count Me In* allowed me the chance to see a big-picture view of many mathematical communities and the problems that no one community addresses on its own. I often describe mathematicians as “pattern finders” to my students, and I couldn’t help but notice some patterns here. I noticed many stories of individuals who initially felt like they didn’t belong in math; in the Math Alliance program in Chapter 10, many participants self-described their experience as “unique.” In the communities of ECCO (Chapter 3) and Spectra (Chapter 21) and so many others, I read about individuals who were worried they weren’t on the “right” path in mathematics. They felt excluded until they found a community that welcomed them. These communities continue to evolve, just as humans continue to evolve. We aren’t ever done learning. Even if you think diversity in mathematics isn’t a problem you created, it’s an issue that we all are responsible for solving.

Many research questions, when pondered, lead to more questions. As you think about the communities to which you belong, you might ask yourself,

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What makes you feel included (or not) in that community?

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What works in that community and what needs to be improved?

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What about those who feel like they don’t fit into any community? How can we bring them in?

Chris Stevens summarizes the important aspects of many communities when discussing MAA Project NExT in Chapter 18:

“The communities that we build should be organic, growing out of their local situation and reflecting local needs. They should be integrated, with all features working harmoniously together. They should be diverse, because diversity makes a community more useful and thus more valuable. Finally, their essence should be defined by the people who participate in them.”

Stevens’s words are a helpful call to action. In reading them, I realize that when I see a need, I have the power to build a community, perhaps using ideas from this book. And you do, too.

## References

- [1]
- Brené Brown,
*Atlas of the heart*, Random House, New York, NY, 2021.Show rawAMSref`\bib{BB21}{book}{ author={Brown, Bren\'{e}}, title={Atlas of the heart}, publisher={Random House}, address={New York, NY}, date={2021}, }`

Close amsref.^{✖}

## Credits

Photo of the author is courtesy of Alyssa Brooke Photography.