Erin Heim is a scientist-turned-organizer, propelled into advocacy after the shooting in her hometown of Parkland, FL. The shooting, along with other important issues such as climate change and growing inequities motivated Erin to join the Partnerships Team at ActBlue. She is now working to build relationships with other progressive campaigns and organizations that are empowering individuals to fight for the future of their communities. Erin believes that small actions add up and that with the power of small-dollar donors, we can create big change.
Science Network Spotlight: Erin Heim
Julia Worcester: How did you first become interested in science communication and advocacy?
Erin Heim: I’ve always had an interest in politics and advocacy. I listened to protest music from the ‘60s and ‘70s as I was growing up and joined the Debate Team in high school. Similarly, I’ve always been interested in science communication. I tutored introductory chemistry courses throughout college. I love taking complex topics that I think are awesome, like chemistry, and helping people see what is exciting about them, especially if they initially view it as complicated and scary. As I got deeper into graduate school, I began noticing the disconnect between the science we were doing and the information available to the public in a digestible format. I got involved in making sure the scientific topics we were researching – that taxpayer dollars were going to support – were available to the public in the form of talks at bars or libraries. So really, I’ve always wanted to find a way to bridge the gaps between science, the public, and policy.
JW: Can you tell me about the pivotal event that changed the trajectory of your career?
EH: I was doing my postdoc at a Harvard University chemistry lab. On February 14, 2018, I was shocked to see what was happening on the news. I’m from Parkland, Florida and graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a little over 10 years ago. There is something indescribable about seeing your small town on the news, somewhere like Parkland that nobody had known about, that nobody should know about – because of a mass shooting. I’ve joined the many people for whom that idea of “it could never happen to me” has been shattered. I realized that doing science, conducting research, and fighting for more scientific funding and engagement was not enough – there are so many other issues facing the country that are not being addressed. I decided to shift my career and eventually found ActBlue, where I now work, through one of my fellow Stoneman Douglas alumnae.
JW: I’ve heard people talk about the curriculum around social justice and civic engagement that’s taught at Stoneman Douglas in connection with the political mobilization of the Parkland students. Does that ring true in your experience?
EH: Douglas is a great example of what good funding can do in public schools. Teachers care deeply about their topics, but also have the resources to ensure their students find their passion. When a school has resources like that, much more can be done because they are not constantly worried about being able to afford textbooks, or just survive. Douglas is an example of why better funding for education is necessary: it gives students freedom to explore and engage with the world around them.
JW: How does your background – both in science and at Douglas – shape what you do in your new role?
EH: On the partnerships team at ActBlue, I have the opportunity to build relationships with other organizations which in turn helps to build the small-dollar donor movement. ActBlue is a nonprofit technology organization building the tools and infrastructure needed for democratic campaigns or progressive organizations to fundraise online. It emphasizes the power of the small-dollar donor and that these individuals can have a huge impact when they’re able to act collectively. We saw that with the recent midterm elections, where small donor-funded campaigns in the House of Representatives made an impact. My focus is shaped by my background; I work to shape relationships with organizations that are involved with science and climate change, empowerment for women, and common-sense gun legislation. Engaging with these networks is one of the reasons why ActBlue is more than just a job, it’s something I’m motivated by every day.
JW: How does your scientific background lend itself to political advocacy?
EH: Luckily, science is a career that develops transferable skills. This includes being able to do deep, comprehensive dives into researching organizations and issues I care about and identifying big picture connections across organizations and fields. I also still use my ability to talk about complicated topics in less complicated ways. At the same time, I’ve been humbled by the people I work with. They come from a variety of backgrounds and have taught me more about this world than I realized existed. Science and academia can exist in the “ivory tower,” and there’s so much to learn jumping from that area to democratic politics. I feel like I’m in the first year of graduate school all over again.
JW: How do you think science be used for the public good and for collective action?
EH: There are many ways science can be used for public good – everything from transportation to vaccinations to smart phones to best practices in mental health therapy are due to the scientific method. There must be collective motivation for collective action to happen. Science is a powerful way to provide that motivation, since science is how our society comes together to agree on facts. Science and collective action require trust and buy-in from the community to create positive change, and both struggle with it. If an individual believes their vote doesn’t matter, or they don’t believe in climate change... this lack of belief and buy-in can be disastrous. Organizers and movements inspire people toward collective action, and then science can provide a solution to work towards. Meaningful and lasting change can be best enacted by empowering individuals to see themselves as part of a larger movement. This can be done by providing evidence-based solutions for movements to strive towards.
JW: Local organizing and one-on-one leadership development in the scientific community is important; we need to ensure scientists are aware of and empowered by their political voice. Civic engagement should be part of education, whether or not someone is a scientist.
EH: I completely agree with that. When I was in grad school, what I cared about was federal politics, and I didn’t understand the importance of local organizing and grassroots movements. But after what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, I started lobbying in Massachusetts for the red flag law that passed, and it brought home to me how important local politics are. (In July 2018 Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed the “red flag law” that will allow for the temporary removal of firearms from people considered a danger to themselves or others.) With ActBlue, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with grassroots organizers, helping build up their communities and an infrastructure of trust and relationships and love, and seeing how growth at the community level blossoms into bigger, more widespread changes.
JW: Did you feel any pushback, from yourself or other scientists, when you shifted careers?
EH: Luckily I didn’t. When I was in graduate school, there was a shift in accepting that becoming an academic scientist is not the only viable career. Some people still feel those pressures, but my friends and mentors wanted people to discover what fires them up. Most of them understood that if people are pursuing what they care about instead of following pre-set ideals and directions, everyone benefits. I had a fantastic mentor who was accepting of what people in his lab wanted to do. I went into my postdoc not knowing what my next steps were; in that position I realized that while I was capable of entering a new lab and performing good science, it just wasn’t driving me. I wanted to work with people, and not just at a bench, because people power works.
JW: Over time.
EH: Over time, yes definitely. You also need the buy-in, which is the hard part. Getting people to believe their vote matters is hard.
JW: It is, and it’s also somewhat understandable given the amount of money that is put into disinformation campaigns ranging from climate change to LGBTQ rights. In working to mobilize the scientific community, it still feels like we’re in the rarified world of academia and science and privilege. Which is true! It’s essential to leverage the power and resources of a community for social change and justice. We need to be talking to our own people – in this case scientists with access to education and institutional and historical privilege.
EH: Any privileged group needs to be calling their people in right now, I agree.
JW: Yes – to shift and reconfigure who is able to access money and opportunities.
EH: Many scientists are siloed and focused on their work, but there’s a real opportunity for scientists to bring scientists in. It’s hard though, to break down the walls scientists have built around themselves and their work. To make it professionally in academia is so difficult that it makes it nearly impossible to do other work.
JW: Do you think that is one of the primary struggles with science advocacy, or does it also have to do with concerns about potential compromise if a scientist is involved with politics?
EH: All of that contributes to the problem. Many scientists don’t want to get involved with politics because they don’t want their science to be viewed as political. But greater numbers of scientists are realizing their science is politicized, whether or not they want it to be. If you want scientific funding, or if you want to live in a world that prioritizes clean energy, there are politics involved. I don’t know whether this shift is happening because of the ever-increasing need for scientists in policy making, or because of significant political moments opening people’s eyes. The latter happened to me. But there’s no doubt that the pace and pressure of academia keeps scientists politically inactive, which is why it’s vital to offer a multiplicity of ways to engage.