Using Urban Astronomy to Start Community Conversations

By Isaac Lief

In June of this year, I headed out to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (known as Bed-Stuy) as a member of NYC #popscope. #popscope stands for “pop-up” telescope. We set up our telescopes in different neighborhoods and invite the public to check out the night sky. It’s about science, community, and public spaces.

In Bed-Stuy, I trained the lens upwards through the warm evening air and began inviting passersby to view Saturn. As I have seen many times before, people’s skepticism turned to awe as they saw the small white dot of Saturn, surrounded by its crisp white rings. About half an hour in, four teenagers walked by and I made my pitch: “Hey, do you wanna see Saturn?” They took turns looking through the telescope and shared their excitement:

“Wow, you can see the rings!”

“I’ve never looked through a telescope before!”

“Is this for real!?”

While the teenagers — who were all black — were still admiring the sixth planet from the sun, a police car pulled up at a red light on our corner. Operating under the principle of inclusivity — that has been so important to this project — I invited them to join us and take a look. After exchanging dubious glances, the police officers pulled over and started walking towards the telescope. When the teenagers saw the officers coming, they immediately headed in the other direction. It took me a moment to realize what I had just seen: a small but clear example of the heightened tension between communities of color and law enforcement.

I had just moved back to New York after living in Baltimore, MD where I had first got involved with the project. It was there that I noticed the powerful effect #popscope has on the communities it visits. In Baltimore last year, we popped-up in the peak of the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray to try and engage the public in a shared activity. And once again, I was saddened by the harsh reality that anger and distrust are often the prevailing emotions felt by both the community and law enforcement. As soon as I moved back, I launched the newest chapter of #popscope to bring public astronomy to the diverse communities of NYC.

The teenagers in Bed-Stuy walked away without saying a word, the police officers made no remarks, and I fell silent, too. I was left thinking about how far we have to go to rebuild these relationships and what role #popscope can play.

It’s hard to find a positive conversation on this issue these days. So much of the coverage is built on divisiveness and it seems like each “side” is becoming angrier and more hardened in its stance. With everything going on, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of small gestures and positive experiences. #popscope facilitates positive community encounters by bringing local residents together to marvel at the night sky on street corners and in public parks. We do this in the hopes of building better understanding between those who live, work, and play around us.

#popscope is a grassroots organization. True to its nature, #popscope would like to pose a question to you, the reader and community member: How can #popscope work to improve the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement?

Isaac Lief works on community health programs in NYC. He grew up in Brooklyn, NY which is where he currently lives. He has been involved with #popscope since April 2015. You can email #popscope at nycpopscope@gmail.com, find out more at www.popscope.org, and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @nycpopscope.