Conversations around ‘Hidden Figures’

30 May 2017

FOCUS member David Higgs ’18 was an organizer for the special screening and discussion of the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” A movie about the ‘hidden figures’ working within NASA in the 1960’s, the story follows three influential black women and the everyday prejudice they experienced in their scientific careers. Seeking to spark discussion about science and math diversity on the Carleton campus, Women in Physics, Diversity and Inclusivity in Physics, Lovelace, SUMO, and members of FOCUS coordinated the screening and discussion. Hear what David has to say about the event’s goals, take-aways, and ways to engage in further dialogue.  

-You helped develop the Hidden Figures event with Zeenath Khan ’17. Can you describe the need you were filling on campus by having a screening and discussion of the film? Describe the goals for the event.
First, Hidden Figures is an important film because it brings much needed recognition to the significant scientific work of black woman at NASA in the 60’s. I think it is important for people to be aware of these accomplishments that are often gone unacknowledged. Additionally, it makes people aware of the difficulties women of color faced in the American and specifically in the scientific community. I felt it was necessary to have a discussion  as well because there are still many issues depicted in the movie that are prevalent today for woman of color and many other underrepresented groups in science. Even at Carleton, looking at the gender and racial makeup of the physics major, it is clear that we have a lack of inclusivity in my major.  I also think that people don’t talk about these issues of diversity and inclusivity enough. I think it is often people of underrepresented groups in STEM who are the only ones really talking about it.  With this discussion, I was trying to fill this gap of communication. I wanted to have an open space to discuss. The result was not exactly that. It was mostly people from underrepresented backgrounds, which isn’t bad, but they are the ones already having conversation about these issues. At least in discussion group I was a part of, it was still beneficial for me to hear about other people’s experiences good and bad. I hope that others left with a similar sentiment.  

-What are some ways that people can acknowledge difference, privilege, and discrimination in science on campus?
Well I think there are subtle things that everyone can do to. First, I think just simply talking about it can help. I think people are often scared to bring up  these issues because they think it will be too serious or awkward. It will only stay that way if you don’t bring it up. This is especially important for people with more privileges. One of the ideas that came out of the Hidden Figures discussion was to have more space to have conversations about these issues. I definitely want to continue to have similar events in the future.

-What types of groups exist on campus that engage in this type of conversation? How can people join or get involved?
There were a lot of groups that were involved in planning this event that have these types of conversations: Woman in Math and Science (WIMS) , Women in Physics (WIPs), Inclusivity and Diversity in Physics, Black Student Association (BSA), and Lovelace. All these groups focus on different identities and issues but all are great organizations that function to build community and support people. You can always join the list serv for these groups so that you can get updates for different events they are having.

-What has being in these groups meant to you?
I am mostly involved in the Inclusivity and Diversity in Physics group. It means a lot to me because it is a way that I can help my own community grow. The physics faculty and staff were very supportive of me starting this group with Zeenath. Making the physics department more inclusive isn’t something that can be done in a few years or by one person, so I wanted to make a group that really works on these issues and builds community.

-Any words of advice?
For any person who is underrepresented in science, I think it is always important to have confidence in yourself and your work. And I think it is especially important to have confidence when you don’t succeed. You have to know that a failing grade does a mean anything about you as a person or as scientist or your ability to learn. A failing grade just means that you have some holes in your knowledge that you need to fill and that just takes a little time.