Three Questions For Blake Simmons

September 15, 2021

Blake Simmons is director of Berkeley Lab’s Biological Systems and Engineering division and the Chief Science & Technology Officer at the Joint BioEnergy Institute. He became the executive sponsor of the Latin American and Native American (LANA) employee resource group in 2019.

As part of Latin American Heritage Month, Simmons answers some questions for Elements:

How did you come to be the executive sponsor for the LANA ERG?

I grew up on a farm in Nebraska where my dad was very passionate about the rights of Native Americans and how they had been treated in this country. Later, when I moved out to San Francisco I lived in the Mission District and got involved in the Latinx community. So, during that journey I also developed a strong passion and motivation to try and understand the indigenous and Latinx communities and try to raise their visibility and impact. We call it social justice now, but it was just doing the right thing, no matter what.

What is LANA’s mission?

Its mission is to increase the visibility and connectivity and opportunities for the Latinx and Native American communities at the Lab. It's a great organization that is a thriving and abundant group of folks who are drawn from across the laboratory.

What are some challenges for the organization and how do you hope to work to solve those challenges?

Improving STEM education outreach, in particular to underserved communities, and also to create a more diverse workforce at the Lab. I see my role as a champion, and as a door-opener – to be a force multiplier for LANA and try to align resources and capabilities around opportunities that they identify as part of their charter.

To me, one of the most impactful ways that an ERG can work is to be a change agent at the Lab and to enable safe spaces for conversations to occur in a professional, respectful way. But you have to be ready for a diversity of opinions and perspectives. Give them a chance to be heard so that you can have an honest, productive discussion. Hopefully you can come to an understanding, based on common experience or beliefs and then identify a way to make things better. And I think that's all we can hope for.

How does LANA walk that talk?

One of the principles that we've established for the Lab is that diversity is a pillar of strength and should be reflected in part of everything that we do.

For instance, we now have tribal outreach as a component of science and technology development. We're working with a company called Trio that’s developing a mobile biorefinery and they're deploying it on tribal lands for their first demos.

We look for opportunities that not only elevate the science and technology, but also elevate the communities we represent and the opportunities for those communities.

Obviously, we all know that the Lab can be better in terms of its diversity in the workforce. That’s why the LANA ERG is taking a deliberate strategic effort that is inclusive and intentional, and mindful and deliberate, to establish the Lab’s workforce as a better reflection of the community in which we live.

Efforts like K-12 education outreach, more campus outreach efforts, and going to community-based events to raise the visibility of LANA. It's a full spectrum engagement activity that will, over the years, make a difference. And that's the commitment you need to make. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Join the LANA Steering Committee Sept. 15 from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., on Zoom, for a little community building and an overview of this month's events

And join LANA Sept. 22 from 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. for "The Accidental Mathematician: Advice on Succeeding as a Minority in STEM-Land" a chat with Juan Meza, Ph.D. Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of California, Merced. Add it to your calendar.

Connect with Latin American and Native American employees at the Lab by joining the LANA Employee Resource Group.