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Q&A: Isha Ray

Ray is a social equity scholar and the new Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion

A professor in the Energy and Resources Group and a former co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, Isha Ray pursues research on access to safe, affordable water and sanitation for the rural and urban poor as well as the role technology plays in advancing sustainable development and social equity. She and her students work with low-income communities across the developing world and in California’s Central Valley.

In July, Ray became the inaugural associate dean for equity and inclusion at Rausser College, but her work in social equity and inclusive activism began decades ago. We spoke with Ray recently about how her research and her new role intersect at this particular cultural moment.

Headshot of Isha Ray

Isha Ray’s research is focused on social justice for marginalized communities. PHOTO: Christopher Irion

You took this role on in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. How has that context shaped your approach to the work?

Those historic events telescoped a lot of existing concerns among students and faculty. Despite some progress, there have been key exclusions in the way that academia has traditionally done business, particularly with respect to African American scholars and scholarship. It quickly brought to the forefront how much room there is to improve at Berkeley.

After the Floyd murder, there was a serious need for reflection and open dialogue. I began having conversations with all of the College’s equity advisers about specific challenges and where they need the most guidance and immediate changes.

Much of your research involves the intersection of gender bias with water, sanitation, technology, and development. How does that work dovetail with your new role?

Equity and inclusion have always motivated me, in both research and teaching, and I’ve served as an equity adviser in my department for many years. My field research has always focused on social justice, particularly in communities that are neglected and marginalized and with people struggling to be included as full citizens. You would think that, in this century, clean, affordable drinking water wouldn’t be such a huge ask, but apparently it is.

Common top-down rationales from governments are that these services are not affordable or feasible. For instance, the cheapest way to get pit latrines in rural—and even some parts of urban—India is to get extremely poor people, overwhelmingly women, to manually clean out the waste. Such conditions are unacceptable, and activists on behalf of toilet cleaners have fought long and hard for more-humane conditions and protections. In that sense, I’m very familiar with the voices demanding inclusion, the anger and hopelessness that comes from not feeling recognized as a full human being. The demand for equity is always a destabilizing factor—in any country—because it requires a power shift within the system.

Photograph of woman squatting to clean

In addition to her research, Ray has collaborated with alum CS Sharada Prasad, PhD ’18 Energy and Resources, on photo essays covering water and sanitation for the rural and urban poor. This photo, originally published in a piece about toilet cleaners in Lucknow, India, on World Toilet Day in 2017, depicts a woman named Vasumati cleaning a household latrine. PHOTO: CS Sharada Prasad

What excites you most about this new role, and how do you see it calling upon your experience?

It was an important gesture for the College to elevate this concern and create this position. Even though I’m very familiar with issues of exclusion and lack of recognition, I’m still on a learning curve about how to translate those learnings into an academic administrative context. This has to be a collaborative community effort—it’s not something I alone can own. Still, every great collective effort needs someone to fully engage and become accountable. My style is not top-down; it’s more to be the hub around which people can learn, strive, and build an improved system.

What are some of the issues you’re already seeing that need to be addressed?

We need to be making much greater efforts not only to recruit BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) faculty, staff, students, and postdocs, but also to support and retain them once they’re here. That’s as big a priority for me as bringing a more diverse group into academia: creating a supportive environment that helps them to become the best scholars and teachers they can be.

In addition, as a college, we haven’t been as progressive as we could be in looking at the wide range of outlets in which BIPOC scholars express themselves or publish their works. We’ve fallen back on a kind of canon for training our students that hasn’t embraced diversity. How students recognize various modes of scholarship is an important aspect of equity and inclusion.

We now understand that inclusion isn’t only about the demographics of the people we attract, but also about breaking the mold and opening our perspectives to see excellent pedagogy and scholarship in a wide range of forums. These aren’t simple issues, and there’s no silver bullet, but the effort needs to begin now. Not just to be more inclusive, but to be more excellent.