Last night I went to a G-Day (Girl Day) event that was organized by Girls Inc., which is an afterschool program for girls that has the slogan “strong, smart, bold.” I’ve been fortunate to partner with Girls Inc. on a work project, and from what I’ve seen the organization delivers on that slogan in spades. I left the event tonight feeling, once again, that I wish that I had been involved with a Girls Inc. when I was a teenager. I wonder how my life might be different today if I had heard the strong, smart, bold message repeatedly while growing up.
G-Day is modeled after Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. If you are familiar with the Vagina Monologues, you know that the format consists of women speaking frankly about their experiences. At the G-Day event tonight, there were 15 teenage girls who wrote monologues about what is means to be a girl, then shared these monologues with the community in a coffee shop.
In one monologue, entitled “Rap and White”, a girl spoke about the conflicting feelings and messages that go along with being half white and half black. Hers was a fantastic monologue, well-written and expertly performed. But what really got me was her description of not fitting into any box. As a mixed-race person myself, I have spent my whole life feeling that I didn’t fit into any of the designated boxes. I’ve spent decades thinking about this, but I still had tears come to my eyes when this teenage girl spoke aloud so many of the feelings that I have had myself. It reminded me of the absolute importance of seeing yourself reflected in other people. Even though I am not African-American, I could still see pieces of myself in the mirror that she held up tonight.
The project that I work on with Girls Inc. has the goal of encouraging girls to consider careers in heliophysics (translation: the science of the Sun). It is an ambitious project because, quite frankly, there are not a lot of women in heliophysics to be role models and even fewer of them are women-of-color. In fact, when I asked one female solar scientist to give me a ball-park estimate of how many African-American women were working as Ph.D. scientists in heliophysics in the United States, she thought long and hard and came up with the number zero. I’m hoping that she is wrong but wouldn’t be too surprised if she is correct.
This is a problem because it means that there are lots of young women out there who do not see themselves reflected in this entire field of study. And let’s face it, if you don’t see yourself fitting in, then you are less likely to walk through that door.
I’m not sure what the solution is but I suspect it involves mentoring. If there really aren’t currently any female African-American solar scientists in the United States, then someone needs to be the first one. And that woman is going to need a lot of support. She’s going to need a lot of people – female and male, black and white and all other colors – telling her that she CAN do it, that she is smart enough, that she has what it takes. She may not have someone who looks exactly like her to be a role model, but hopefully she will see pieces of herself reflected in those who help her along the way. I hope that I have the opportunity to meet her and contribute to her path in some small way.