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Midwest Regional Conference Report
‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 3, May/June 1977, p. 32–33
A Science for the People Midwest Regional Conference was held in Urbana, Illinois on March 11, 12 and 13, 1977. Representatives from the Ann Arbor, St. Louis, and Chicago Chapters attended, in addition to members of the local chapter. An isolated individual from Fayettesville, Arkansas sent a letter, but could not come.
The conference began with each chapter outlining its history, major activities, and major problems. The following issues developed during this and subsequent discussions:
Analysis, Rhetoric, and Symbolism
One of the main revelations of the Midwest Regional pertained to the political and economic sophistication of the midwest membership of SftP. Since SftP is devoted to the political and economic education of people involved with science and technology, it became clear to the participants of this conference that a minimum political analysis must eventually be worked out, although individual opinion varied with respect both to the extent of analysis required and to the technical language which should be used. The group as a whole appeared to agree that the attempt to reach a broader mass of people could lead to dilution of both goals and analysis; but the perceived potential for sectarian isolation inhibited any suggestion of specific analysis, so the development of a precise set of unifying principles was postponed until more discussion had occurred within the individual chapters. Several people agreed to meet in Ann Arbor before the Eastern Regional to attempt to work out a tentative set of principles and positions.
National Organization and its Nature
National coordination both on the chapter and on the subgroup level was generally favored. A member of the Ann Arbor chapter pointed out that a national organization already exists, and that the issue is not whether we want it, but whether we want to change it. An Urbana-Champaign chapter member emphasized the need for subgroup coordination in order to achieve nation-wide impact on any particular Campaign.
There was general agreement that national organizing should be based on an explicit set of written principles, and that there be an ongoing process of communication and reevaluation of these among chapters. A similar process was advocated for the development of a national position on any relevant issues that may later face us.
Chapter Organization and Activities
Division into subgroups is useful for attacking several different areas of interest at once, but communication within the chapter often suffers. The satisfaction of individual interest and the capability of attacking many problems at once, which organization into subgroups facilitates, carries with it the danger that subgroups will lose contact with each other and that subgroup members will lose sight of the wider objectives of SftP.
Often a small number of members within a chapter will tend to dominate discussion in a local chapter meeting. Ann Arbor chapter members reported that by running their meetings with strict adherence to a “hand-raising” procedure instead of using a “free-flow” format, they improved group dynamics and efficiency substantially. The conference, in fact, substituted the former mode for the latter with good result.
The group agreed that well-defined terms, because specialized, must be used even if some people may characterize such language as rhetoric. A member of the Ann Arbor chapter pointed out that dismissing language as rhetoric very often is a convenient way of resisting its content. One or two members remained concerned that technical language might be overused and might unnecessarily intimidate people. A participant from Chicago warned that terms and tactics that breed factionalism can destroy hopes for coherent and effective organization. Although most participants were in favor of keeping the present logo many people felt that its use should be reduced.
Working with Others
The St. Louis chapter reported that two technicians in a virus lab there tried to start a “rap group” with other technicians around common grievances (e.g. technicians not being informed about the purposes of their work, safety hazards). They found other technicians extremely reluctant to participate in discussion. The Ann Arbor chapter reacted to planned recombinant DNA research at the university by leafletting the marketplaces and by setting up discussion groups in the community. They got a fair response, even though the facilities were eventually built. Such an ambitious attempt to educate a whole community requires a lot of energy, and unless members of the community itself become involved in the process, most of the work must be done by the initial organizers, emphasizing the need for close contact between SftP and other groups, in this case, within the community. Two of the participants recounted a successful coalition between themselves as scientists and several community groups in New York where they explained the technical aspects of a fire-fighting system which had been proposed to allow a cutback in funds for the fire department by a research group at a local laboratory. They stressed that providing “technical” assistance to political and community groups can bring SftP into closer contact with the community — “technical” in quotation marks, because if we actually want to demystify science, we must not function as Alternative “experts” but instead we must provide people with the ability to understand and control technologies which affect their lives.
Working with other radical groups was generally encouraged with the caveat that activities should be planned carefully beforehand. Ann Arbor described an action in which another group broke a previous agreement concerning tactics which led to the association of SftP with disruptive behavior of which the members did not in fact approve. They suggested that SftP simply leave an action when such a situation occurs.
Sexism and Racism
The most painful topic which the group discussed dwelt with the ever present and undiminished problem of sexism. We spent a lot of time discussing the inherent sexism of typical midwest SftP group dynamics and the insufficient energy given to attacking sexism both within SftP and in the scientific community at large. Sexism within SftP reflects that of the scientific and technical stratum from which it tends to derive its base. Several strategies for dealing with the problem were suggested. No specific subgroup or caucus approach seemed acceptable. Again and again. we were forced to the conclusion that each member must continually examine the internal dynamics of the chapter. The conference generally agreed that internal difficulties could be attacked more easily if the chapter directed part of its effort toward analyzing and planning activities around the extreme sexism in science. The problem reappeared as each group claimed that it did not at present have sufficient resources to investigate sexism within the university, and some participants pointed out the sexism implied in the priorities presently accepted by the chapters.
The presence of men and women (although the men far outnumbered the women) permitted some concrete diagnosis of the internal dynamics of SftP chapters. The same could not be said for the issue of racism, the analysis of which remained at an abstract level. In the midwest, at least, we clearly have not solved the dilemma of a pervasive, if uncodified, apartheid within science, which leaves SftP as a white group insensitive to the inherent racism of its dynamics and priorities.
The class composition of SftP and the resulting difficulty in developing solidarity with non-academic and “non-professional” workers came up again as an unresolved problem.
Closing Resolutions to Strengthen Midwest Ties
Participants at the Conference recommended that SftP chapters attend large technical and scientific meetings such as those of the AAA$ and IEEE. The conference participants agreed to meet again in Chicago in September, 1977.