Midtown Raleigh News

‘Hidden Figures’ inspires girls in their scientific pursuits

BGC-RDU co-lead Angie Jones helps workshop attendees during one of the organization’s workshops aimed at helping girls 7-17 feel more comfortable and confident tackling STEM subjects.
BGC-RDU co-lead Angie Jones helps workshop attendees during one of the organization’s workshops aimed at helping girls 7-17 feel more comfortable and confident tackling STEM subjects. BGC-RDU

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I laughed. I cried, too. I pumped my fist and let pride swell my chest with energy, empowerment, enthusiasm and excitement.

I was in perfect company, at the movies watching “Hidden Figures” – with the Raleigh-Durham Chapter of Black Girls Code, a nonprofit organization created to inspire interest in technology in girls ages 7-17.

20th Century Fox partnered with California-based Black Girls Code to host free screenings in January of its box-office hit in all 11 of BGC’s chapter cities, including Johannesburg, South Africa.

Ninety-eight seats were reserved at Durham’s Southpointe for BGC-RDU, chartered in 2015 by Belindia Scott, a Cisco high-tech operations manager and a fellow National Society of Black Engineers member.

Based on a true story, “Hidden Figures” unveils a trio of African-American women mathematicians who provided pertinent data for NASA to launch its first successful space missions – and reverse its space race with Russia. The film adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book opened nationwide Jan. 6.

Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine G. Johnson, now 98, whose calculations were paramount to John Glenn orbiting Earth. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, dismayed she’s refused supervisor pay despite her job leading “colored computers” – black women mathematicians. Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, battling blockades to become an engineer.

Set in a 1961 backdrop of racial and gender inequality, the women stuck together, leaning on and empowering each other, to thrive in a workplace of white men unwilling to accept black women as smarter or more capable.

“This is the environment we’re trying to create with Black Girls Code,” said Angie Jones, a computer programmer, consulting automation engineer and master inventor who has 22 patents in the U.S. and China. “We want to remove that layer of intimidation and self-doubt, encourage a different mindset, and become powerful and confident together.”

Timing is impeccable as BGCs groom future Katherine Johnsons, Dorothy Vaughns and Mary Jacksons to be hidden no more.

NASA recently announced aerospace engineer Jeanette Epps will be the first-ever African-American astronaut to board the International Space Station in May 2018.

Meanwhile, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports foreshadow increasing imbalance in supply and demand of high-tech jobs, estimating STEM jobs to grow by about 1 million jobs to more than 9 million jobs by 2022.

Jones and Scott credit education at their respective HBCUs – Tennessee State and St. Augustine’s universities – for strong foundations.

GC prods its charges, Scott said, to “look beyond,” echoing a movie line. Only then, said Jones, will single-digit representation among black women in the field grow.

“What we’re doing now is filling the pipeline with needed talent,” Jones said. “We’re preparing our young ladies for a promising future in a demanding area. We’re preparing these young ladies to do the job.”

Last year, BGC-RDU presented workshops – on average to 100 girls – on mobile app and webpage development, gaming and robotics. This year introduces the Internet of Things and circuitry.

India Williams marvels when her twins, Kyla and Leah Guilford, 10, warm seats at the BGC STEM table because it’s something she missed growing up.

“What I can do now is educate my children and expose them to STEM so they’ll have the option to choose,” she said.

“Hidden Figures” reminds them instead to embrace their interest and talent to become builders and creators in the technological marketplace.

“It was empowering,” said Kyla Guilford, a fifth-grader at Aversboro Elementary, a STEM school. “I like science and math, and the movie inspires more girls in school to say, even if there is a boy beside you – ‘I’m going to do this work so I can be good at it.’ It really inspires girls.”

Racism embedded in the story wasn’t lost on either twin, but both were surprised segregation outreached separate water and bus seats.

“So many unusual things had to be separated,” said Leah Guilford, also an Aversboro fifth-grader. “A coffee pot? It’s really not that serious. It was surprising, but it reminds us.”