It’s Time to Enhance the Diversity of the US Humboldt Network—for Science and Society

2020 has been an extraordinary year. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, severe economic distress, and devastating natural disasters, protests calling for racial justice have spread to communities around the world. In the scientific and scholarly community, institutions are challenged to confront their histories and practices, and to identify meaningful actions to illuminate racism’s legacy and remove impediments to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our respective societies and globally. 

As concerned citizens of various nations and scholars of all disciplines, the members of the global Humboldt alumni network, working together, have tremendous potential to address not only exclusionary beliefs and practices in scholarship and international exchange, but also other critical issues at home and across borders. We, as a community, must be prepared, in these turbulent times, to actively bring to bear important and varied perspectives on scholarship and the societal challenges that lie before us.

We can begin with an honest examination of our own scholarly communities. We must also nurture and tend to our own connections, while taking nothing for granted and leaving no assumption unchallenged. 

With over 30,000 alumni in more than 140 countries, the diversity of the world-wide network of Humboldtians is realized through its global reach. Yet, if we focus only on global diversity and demographics, we ignore the factors that, unacknowledged and unseen, have shaped the national scientific enterprises that we draw on to recruit fellows and awardees. With over 5,400 members spread across more than 448 academic, non- and for-profit, and governmental organizations in the United States, the US network includes all disciplines and many professions and is geographically dispersed. But is our network truly inclusive of the best scholarly and professional talent across US society? If not, what can we do, as US Humboldtians and as a network? 

The US Humboldt alumni network, and the US context, are partial but important elements of the broader global Humboldt network. As a partner of both the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and US alumni, the Board of American Friends of AvH therefore has proffered its commitment to encourage and support Black Americans and others from groups underrepresented in the US Humboldt ranks to apply to and participate in the Humboldt Foundation’s exchange and mobility programs. In order to create a more inclusive and equitable organization and US alumni network, the AFAvH Board drafted and adopted a pair of statements expressing our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and to action for Black lives and racial equity in international science, scholarship, and professional practice.

As a first step, American Friends of AvH is compelled to better understand the US Humboldt alumni network, the communal value of the Humboldt experience, and what connects us. Through our conversations with alumni over the last three years, we have learned about the contributions and experiences of individual Humboldtians. We have confirmed that Humboldtians take diverse career paths and that many sustain strong professional and personal connections to Germany. Many also regard their Humboldt experience as transformative, opening their minds to new ways of seeing the world and new approaches to research. 

We must also critically examine our outreach and communications strategies so that we recruit inclusively and equitably within the communities on which we draw. Does our outreach overlook or exclude individual scholars, scientists, or professionals of excellence because of the way that “excellence” is defined, measured, acknowledged, and rewarded? How do we reach out to talented scientists, scholars, and young professionals underrepresented within the Humboldt network and those without previous ties to Germany? How can we demonstrate the relevance of AvH programs to their area of scholarship or professional activity, and convincingly convey that the Humboldt experience can provide valuable perspectives, experiences, contacts, and resources that will take their work in new directions?

A more diverse community engaged in global exchange will not only better reflect the composition of US society, but will also help to produce better and more relevant science and scholarship for society. As we have learned from US alumni, Humboldt programs create opportunities for connection, learning, enrichment, and exploration of shared problems. International perspectives and connectedness may also shine new light on national contexts of common experience, shared values, and mutual benefit. Such experiences may also compel us to think mindfully about the ways in which we are connected to others, when shared values, concerns, and interests may be obscured by distance, race, gender, age group, sexuality, profession, and nationality. Unpacking and disentangling these interconnections is often challenging and finding common motivation is needed to build new knowledge and bridges.

Deep diversity in the US and global Humboldt networks could also help sustain international collaboration. The global Humboldt network connects generations and diverse disciplines and sectors of society across 140 countries. Humboldtians’ experiences build connections between experts who instinctively appreciate the value of international collaboration, mutual understanding, and empathy. As world demographics shift, the fruitful transatlantic and global relationships seeded by the Humboldt Foundation could sustain opportunities to build and share collective knowledge that enhances global knowledge and conveys more equal benefit to the individuals who make up and contribute to American (and other) society(ies).

To encourage and nurture such relationships , American Friends of AvH is excited to announce a new Digital Dialogues series that will explore diversity and excellence and delve into issues of racism and scholarship. The series will also highlight the research and experiences of Humboldtians of color and will feature opportunities available through Humboldt programs and networks. 

To be certain, we are deeply indebted to the AvH for bringing us all together. However, we, as US Humboldtians, have individual and collective responsibilities to reflect honestly on our shared scientific norms, practices, and priorities. Only then, and while nurturing and tending to our Humboldt connections through our own agency, can we determine what unites us and realize our potential in a world of complex global challenges. 

We look forward to your joining us!

Andrea Stith, AFAvH Board member and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force chair