At the intersection of tenacity and opportunity...

While I haven’t seen a movie in ages, the first one currently on my list is Hidden Figures. The film is based off on a group of African-American female mathematicians who worked in the shadows at NASA to put a man on the moon.  

Meet Katherine Johnson

Johnson started working at NASA in 1953, working as a human “computer” as part of a team of women within NASA.  She would help read the data from the elusive black box in planes, and analyze things like “gust alleviation”. At the time, NASA was still segregated, both by race and by gender, but one day, Johnson was temporarily assigned to the male research team.  There, she impressed her colleagues and bosses and they (according to her) “forgot to return [her] to the pool.” Until she retired in 1986, Johnson worked at NASA on some of the most influential missions of our time. When the first American was heading into space, Johnson was behind the scenes calculating the trajectory for the mission. When officials needed someone to verify the computer’s calculations of John Glenn’s orbit path, they called Johnson (Glenn refused to fly unless she verified the calculations). And when Apollo 13’s mission was ended, she helped return the crew safely.

Meet Dorothy Vaughan

Katherine Johnson’s story might not have been possible if it weren’t for Vaughan. Vaughan started working at NASA in 1943, initially completing complex calculations by hand, and then leading her colleagues in FORTRAN programming skills. She became the first black supervisor and one of the first female ones, overseeing a group of African-American female mathematicians – a group including, Katherine Johnson. Vaughan always remained on the cutting age of computer programming, understanding that electronic computers were the future, and ensuring her staff had the skills to succeed in this new era at NASA.

Meet Mary Jackson

Jackson was recruited by NASA in 1951, to work under Vaughan. Two years later, she worked under engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. It was there that she was encouraged to go back to school and become an engineer, and in 1958, she was NASA’s first black engineer ever. After working as an engineer in several NASA divisions, and receiving the highest level within the engineering department at NASA, she went on to work as an administrator aiming to bring equal opportunities to women in NASA.

I could go on.  But the thing that is striking about each of these stories is the lengths that each family went through to ensure their daughters had a good education, and the opportunities that these women took advantage of. Johnson was born to a lumberman and a teacher, who valued the importance of education and moved cities to give their daughter access to public schooling after grade 8. When Johnson started college at the age of 15, she took every math course that the college offered. She literally desegregated a graduate school in West Virginia in order to get her degree. Vaughan’s family moved from Missouri to Virginia, where she could graduate from high school, and go on to receive a full scholarship at Wilberforce University. Jackson had to petition the City of Hampton to allow her to attend classes through the University of Virginia’s program at a local high school.

And so it’s here, at the intersection of tenacity and opportunity that we find this incredible story. And it’s stories like this that feed the work that we do each day, to provide rural Zambians with a quality education. So that one day, you might read about one of our determined scholars who took advantage of an Impact Network school in her community, and soared.