Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hidden Figures - review

This is a review for the book by Margot Lee Shetterly that the recent film is based on.

What do you do when you have to wait 4h for your delayed flight? You go to WH Smith, of course! This book wasn't in their top 20 Business Bestsellers - but really it should have been. All the things that can be achieved with dedication, grace, talent and intelligence! Inspiring stuff.

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But wait it's about more than those personal stories. There weren't just 3 black women working for NACA/NASA. There were hundreds. There were hundreds of bright women (of all races) who joined because all the men had left to war, basically. That was their break into their amazing careers (digression: interesting to think what would have happened for women's working life had WWII not occurred!)

So after having fought against an inadequate education system, against prejudice, against expectations - against the System, really, which despite their intelligence considered them only good enough to become teachers... suddenly that System needed them and their minds, a huge number of them, to become Computers (that used to be an actual job title!), Mathematicians, Engineers.

And, lo and behold, given that opportunity, those minds flourished!

So this book is also about what can be achieved when governments give everyone the tools and opportunities to succeed. We have to fight to ensure everyone can live to the maximum of his/her abilities, otherwise we ALL lose out.

I was particularly struck by a passage where one of the ladies needs to attend a training course at a local, white, school, and is allowed to enter this long-forbidden space. Only to find it as rundown as schools for black children – a perfect example of how pitting groups against one another, or making one group feel superior to the other, means they are too busy to think about what their common struggle actually is.

"If Mary Jacskon had applied for a job as a janitor, the doors to the school would swing wide open. As a professional engineer-in-training with a plan to occupy the building for the nefarious purpose of advancing her education, she needed to petition the city of Hampton for "special permission" to attend classes in the whites-only school. (...) The City granted Mary the dispensation. (...)

Her night school classmates were the same daytime colleagues she had known for five years, but it was only natural that she should be anxious at the thought of meeting them on the other side of the physical, emotional – and legal – threshold she was about to cross. Nothing, however, prepared her for the shcok that awaited her when she walked through the long-closed door.

Hampton High School was a dilapidated, musty old building.

A stunned Mary Jackson wonders: was this what she and the rest of the black children in the city had been denied all these years? This rundown, antiquated place? She had just assumed that if whites had worked so hard to deny her admission to the school, it must have been a wonderland. But this? Why not combine the resources to build a beautiful school for both black and white students? (...) The cruelty of racial prejudice was so often accompanied by absurdity, a tangle of arbitrary rules and distinctions that subverted the shared interests of people who had been taught to see themselves as irreconcilably different".

Let's all learn from Mary Jackson and her fellow trailblazers.

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