Astronomy For Equity: Building Hope Through the Night Sky

Have you ever attended a star party, where amateur astronomers set up telescopes and invite the public to take a look at the night sky? If so, then you understand and appreciate how much these part-time but incredibly enthusiastic stargazers love to share the wonders of our Universe with others.  

That type of passion and generosity of heart is the basis of a new organization that hopes to harness the proven capability of astronomy to bring hope, wonder and science to marginalized and isolated students and communities around the world.

Astronomy For Equity (A4E) looks to bring together existing resources within communities in war-torn or developing countries, and provide the tools and resources to support experienced volunteers and teachers for public education programs that are already in place. Their first initiative will help get telescopes to astronomy students in Libya.

“Astronomy clubs in every country engage in public outreach, educating people while sharing their passion for the cosmos,” said the founder of Astronomy For Equity, Mike Simmons. “But in developing countries, volunteer programs often reach the limit of what local organizers can accomplish as most groups lack telescopes and books.”

If Simmons’ name sounds familiar, it’s no wonder. He’s been a big part of the amateur astronomy community for over 50 years and founded Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) in 2006 to unite astronomy and space enthusiasts around the world through their common interests.

“In meeting people as part of Astronomers Without Borders, what I found was that the astronomers in Europe, the United States, and other developed countries were really sympathetic and supportive to their compatriots in other countries who couldn’t get telescopes and other astronomy tools,” Simmons said in an interview with Universe Today. “And it didn’t matter what the geopolitical situation was in these countries, because these were people who are passionate about the same thing that they were –astronomy — and sharing it with others.”

Simmons said in his time with AWB, he would often get requests from amateur astronomer groups in less fortunate regions of the world, asking for help in obtaining a single telescope, a pair of binoculars or other simple equipment or resources. Seeing the need for coordinating and organizing the requests, as well as spearheading fundraising, Simmons started a new non-profit, Astronomy For Equity. Given Simmons’ experiences with amateur astronomers around the world, Astronomy for Equity is able to vet requests and use its reputation and access to western audiences to fund or find other ways to support these widely dispersed groups.

The Libyan Ministry of Education visited astronomy students to ask them why the students cared about astronomy. “I love Space science because our Universe is vast,” a student said. “And there are many mysteries that we do not know yet.”

For the organization’s first fundraising initiative, A4E is working to get four telescopes to a national astronomy organization in Libya that is creating astronomy clubs in middle schools in five cities across the country. Simmons said that after years of conflict and unrest in Libya, science resources are badly needed.

“We are supporting a large national amateur astronomy association that’s already doing great work and they have the country’s Ministry of Education behind them,” Simmons explained. “They go into schools, have workshops and they are already doing so many wonderful things, but they can’t get any telescopes. Telescopes just aren’t available in Libya. So, there’s this one keystone that’s needed to really make a difference for this group, and for the students.”

A Libyan girl stands in her war-damaged classroom. Image courtesy A4E.

In this fundraising effort for the Libyan astronomy club, A4E hopes to raise $2,500, which covers the costs for four 6-inch Dobsonian telescopes ($350 each) and the shipping costs; as of this writing $320 has been donated. Ultimately, the group would like to get four scopes for each club, for a total of 20. That will allow them to share with other schools, get more use of the telescopes, and bring more students into astronomy.

Donations can be made through Fundrazr.

The Libyan amateur astronomer group is Roaya Astronomy. As evidence of how well-known and widespread their work is, they have over 720,000 followers on their Facebook page, in a region in north Africa where access to the internet is not always available.

Simmons said the students in Libya are already passionate about astronomy because of Roaya’s work, but they’ve never had the experience of looking through a telescope.

“You probably remember the first time you looked through a telescope; for those of us who have had that inspiring experience, we never forget it and many times, it turns out to be a big moment in people’s lives,” Simmons said. “So, getting telescopes to his group would be a big thing. But it’s a small thing for people to contribute to provide a spark of inspiration that will keep these students on the path to the dreams of science that that they have now.”

Girls in Libya study astronomy at a presentation on the solar system. Image courtesy A4E.

In addition to getting telescopes, A4E will also assist to help create STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education programs, programs that are specially designed to encourage students and others in marginalized and isolated communities that lack representation and opportunities in STEM fields.

As Simmons saw with AWB, he knows these astronomy clubs in schools will become the core of a growing group that will take their telescopes to the next school and encourage them.

“And that’s another important piece of the puzzle,” he said, “it isn’t just giving telescopes to schools, it’s providing them to people who will be taught how to use them, and know what they can observe and then share their excitement.”

Simmons said that a few telescopes for an astronomy club and books and other materials for a school returns hours of ongoing public education programs that foster scientific understanding and awareness, as well as support for science programs and education. Once empowered, volunteer individuals and organizations tend to expand beyond their initial plans, reaping additional return on the investment.

But right now, the basics of astronomy – telescopes – just aren’t available.  

“People often don’t understand the degree of difficulty this poses,” Simmons said. “I’ve had people say, ‘They can just order it online.’ Well, even if they had the money, they don’t have the ability to order or to even get it delivered safely. It’s not it’s just not that simple. We would take care of that. And that’s why these small gestures from outside can have such a big impact. That’s why I call it equity because equity is not about equality. It’s not giving everybody the same thing. It’s giving everybody the same opportunity.”

Astronaut Nicole Stott spoke with astronomy students in Libya.

Future initiatives for fundraising are already in queue, such as astronomy camps for girls in Nigeria, and creating and distributing astronomy resources for the blind.

“When you’re in a situation where you don’t know what the what the next day will hold, even if you have an idea or a goal to inspire and educate, you might not be able to see a path to your goal,” Simmons said. “What’s lacking is hope. So, these small things we can do provide hope.”

You can help provide hope to these enthusiastic astronomy students on this Fundrazr page.

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