To hear my wife tell it, I’ve had a jones for Dr. Mae Jemison ever since she became the first woman of color to rocket into space — an event that happened, coincidentally, 25 years ago this month.
While I won’t confirm my wife’s suspicions, I wasn’t about to miss hearing the former astronaut speak Tuesday at the Women of Distinction luncheon at the Westin Charlotte, an event sponsored by the Girl Scouts Hornets’ Nest Council.
The annual luncheon is held to honor women who show a commitment to others and community. Carolinas HealthCare System’s Debra Plousha Moore took home this year’s Lifetime Achievement award. (Photo below)
Debra Plousha Moore, center, an executive vice president at Carolinas HealthCare System, receives a Lifetime Achievement award from Girl Scouts Hornets’ Nest Council, Sept. 19, 2017. (Photo: Qcitymetro)
But back to Jemison
If you don’t know her story, it might be worth your time to Google her name. Born on Chicago’s south side, she went off to college – Stanford University — at age 16, and she graduated with a medical degree from Cornell University in 1981.
While studying medicine, she found time to also study dance at the Alvin Ailey school, and she is fluent in at least three languages. She even had dreams of being a fashion designer, she said.
During her Charlotte talk, Jemison spoke about courage and diversity, and she painted a futuristic world where girls and women and people of color are empowered…truly empowered. She even spiced her prose with some well-placed African proverbs and a generous heaping of quotes from the great Zora Neale Hurston.
Here are some highlights, in Jemison’s own words:
Time is precious
Time is the one truly irreplaceable commodity we have at our disposal, but time presents us with a paradox. Because while our time is limited, it has infinite possibilities. There are 84,400 seconds in each day — check my math — and each one of those seconds is extremely precious because you can do with those seconds exactly as you please, but you can never get a single one of those seconds back. So it’s really the choices that we make that give it its infinite potential.
Your uniqueness makes you valuable
What difference does it make if you have a place at the table and you act just like everyone else and you mind your table manners? …What difference would it have made when I came to NASA if I didn’t use my experiences having gone to Chicago public schools, of having worked in developing countries as a doctor? If I didn’t bring those experiences to bear on the questions and solutions and the thoughts that I had around space explorations, what difference would it have made, if I had been an astronaut and I came out and I didn’t use what I had learned about remote sensing, about safety and quality, about people and behavior, if I hadn’t used that in the work that I do afterwards?
The “genius” dilemma
How often is the word “genius” used with women? There is a new television show coming on with a little boy genius — Sheldon somebody. Frequently, women aren’t described a genius. And women don’t describe each other as genius. They’re “clever,” they’re “bright,” they’re “intelligent.” …But when we think about the word genius, would we even tolerate the kinds of qualities that we associate with genius — that single and narrow focus — would we tolerate it for women? I just bring this up because these are things that happen, and we infer different kinds of behavior when we do that.
Genius dilemma, Part II
Let me share with you some parent Google searches: For boys, twice as many times parents will Google, “Is my son a genius?” Also twice as many times they will Google, “Is my son behind or slow.” So it sort of shows you what they are interested in. You know what they Google for girls? They Google, “Is my daughter fat?” And I don’t know how they expect Google to know this but they Google, “Is my daughter ugly?” I mean, really. …Is this what you’re concerned about? Unknowingly, you transfer this information.
Our shared responsibility
We have to figure out where the world is going? Right now people will always say, “Things will just work out for the best.” How many times you hear that — things will work out for the best, or that’s just the way it was meant to be? Well, unless we have exceptionally good karma from our past life and deeds, that’s not necessarily true. When people think that — oh, things are going to work out for the best — we absolve ourselves of responsibility.
Why science and technology matter for women and minorities
Scientific and technological advances don’t come fully formed; they’re not just sitting there waiting for us to find them. What science we research or what technology we develop depends on the people we are. It depends upon our society. And so it also depends on who’s participating and who’s being involved. So when we talk about inclusion and science literacy and how to get more people into the tech industry…here’s the importance of diversity and inclusion: It’s not just about improving U.S. competitiveness by having more folks who can create more things. …The scientists and engineers and those who support them, they get to choose some things. They get to choose the topics and phenomenon to be researched. They get to choose the data sets to be analyzed, shelved for later, disregarded or thrown out as irrelevant or flawed. They get to choose the problems to be solved, the priority with which they are addressed…The scientists and engineers and those who fund and support them get to choose the technologies targeted for development, the populations those technologies are targeted to and the means, methods and standards to use to assess their effectiveness.
Above all, we are Earthlings
If you just think about it, all the problems that we face in the world today have this amalgamation of lots of different things happening. It’s always been true, but it’s even more true now. And we have to have buy-in from people from around the world… One of the biggest issues we have right now is that idea that we can some kind of way separate out the United States or North Carolina from the rest of the country and the world. It’s nonsense. We have an impact on this world. Humans are having an incredible impact on this world. I remember when I was in space; you look out and you saw this thin, shimmering layer of blue light that is our atmosphere. It’s stunning. But it confirmed something I’ve always believed. …This beautiful planet that warms us and cools us and envelops us with all we need to survive…it will be here. But we might treat it in such a way that it develops an atmosphere that does support our life form. The hubris is when we imagine that we are the end all and be all. …So how do we start seeing ourselves as Earthlings, with a shared responsibility?
So frequently we talk about empowerment and we say, “We want to make this person empowered,” or “I want to be empowered to do something.” Here is my thought about empowerment. There are three requirements to be empowered, because you can get a job and have the titled and still not be empowered. To be empowered you have to first of all believe you have the right to be involved… Then you have to believe you have something to contribute. And finally, you have to risk making that contribution. Sometimes we are afraid people may laugh at us, that we may not have said the right thing. But we have to have that risk; we have to risk making a contribution.