|I've never been big on
national observances or commemorative months. Even though they’re
started with the best of intentions, they seem to devolve into brief
periods of recognition without any meaningful change. A marginalized
group gets a month’s worth of documentaries on PBS but the issues that
led to the creation of the commemoration in the first place remain
unresolved. It’s as if the powers that be said, “If you want to
maintain the status quo while appearing to give a damn, give them a
national observance”. I’ve written about my feelings on Black History
Month in an article that can be found here.
But having said that, recently I accepted an invitation to deliver the keynote speech to The Women’s International League for
Peace and Freedom of Los Angeles in honor of International Women’s Day.
In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for this day, I’m glad I accepted the
Following is the talk I gave:
I’d like to thank
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom of Los Angeles
for inviting me to be your keynote speaker and I send a special “thank
you” specifically to Grace Aaron for asking me to speak on a topic I’m
rarely asked to speak on.
When Grace first contacted me, I was
somewhat surprised. Usually, when I’m called on to give a talk, the
topics I’m tapped for are race, progressive media, the prison
industrial complex, civil rights or civil liberties – which of course
makes sense. I publish a progressive social justice magazine, I’m a law
professor, a member of the board of the ACLU of Southern California,
and I’m black.
I have running joke with my husband, who happens
to be white: Whenever someone wants a speaker for veteran’s
issues - between the two of us, they call on him naturally because he’s a
veteran. But when they need a speaker on the topic of race, they call
on me - naturally because between the two of us, I’m the one who belongs
to a race. But I digress. That’s a topic unto itself that I don’t have
time to address today.
back to my acceptance of Grace’s invitation and—to a greater extent—my
surprise at being invited to speak on feminism. Preparing for this talk
put a spotlight on the ways in which intersectionality has bifurcated
my sense of who I am and where I believe my voice has the most
resonance. You see, I am all of those things I mentioned - a law
professor, a publisher, a progressive, an Africa American - but somehow,
when I think of my activism, I tend to overlook the core of what I am - a
woman. Or as Sojourner Truth so eloquently put it, “Ain’t I a Woman”?
to me, Grace’s invitation was a gift. In preparing for this talk, I had
to look inward in ways I hadn’t done in quite a while.
though I am a feminist and have been one for as long as I can remember,
I’m not plugged into the feminist movement in any meaningful way. I
take activism seriously, devoting a considerable amount of life to the
causes I believe support a civil society. So why is it that I’m not
actively engaged with a feminist organization? That was the question
this invitation sparked and one I’m trying to answer for myself.
keynote prompted me to look a little deeper at my views through the
feminist lens. Although I remember the 60s, I’m really a child of the
70s. By the time I was in high school, the Vietnam War was over and
with it the peace movement, the great civil rights marches were a thing
of the past, and the women’s movement was no longer making headlines.
As a young person I explored the idea of joining several different
activist groups, but the truth is the 60s sense of urgency had
dissipated by the time I came of age. Or so I thought.
around that time, I made a decision that ultimately shaped every other
decision to come for 25 years, I became a mother and soon after was a
single mother of two. That changed the course of my life. At a
relatively young age, I found myself working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. What began as a temporary job to bring in some much needed
cash morphed into a long-term assignment that ultimately became a
career lasting more than 23 years.
For most of those years I was
a member of a spaceflight team. Mars Pathfinder, the Magellan Mission
to Venus, the Voyager Project, and the Genesis Mission were some of the
projects I supported as the financial manager. My responsibilities
included securing funding, procuring and contracting with spacecraft
designers, working with engineers and scientists to help them to get
the biggest bang out of their buck as they designed, developed, and
built spacecraft, some of which went to Mars and beyond.
to tell you - this was exciting, heady stuff. The typical spaceflight
project at that time had a core team of approximately 50 people who
were responsible for all of the decisions that ultimately led to a
mission to another planet!! I was in the room when decisions like where
to land the robotic rover for the Mars Pathfinder mission were made. I
helped to shape the financial and resource requirements and presented
our requests annually to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was
there along with my husband when the Genesis Sample Return Mission
crashed on the desert floor in Utah - my husband and I along with a
couple hundred NASA personnel, their family members, and journalists
had gathered there for what we believed was going to be one of the most
fruitful of all sample return missions. That particular mission ended
catastrophically but so many others were unparalleled successes.
Remember the Magellan mission to Venus and the Mars Pathfinder Mission?
during the early years of my career at JPL, my life was consumed with
raising the kids and producing realistic, credible, and, most
important, sellable budgets for spaceflight projects. But as my
children matured and became more self-sufficient, two things
re-awakened the activist yearning within me. First, with the passage of
time, I began to see a clear pattern of gender and racially disparate
outcomes in terms of promotions and overall hiring at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. Second, I knew there wasn’t a plan of action to
change this pattern irrespective of what was presented on paper.
I first arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory there were almost
10,000 employees. But cuts to government-funded programs resulted in
drastic reductions in the size of the workforce. At one point, the
mantra was “faster, better, cheaper”- which meant doing more with less.
By the early to mid 2000s, JPL was employing approximately 5,500 full
time equivalents but still scheduling a mission to Mars every two years.
I’ve said, I missed the 60s. But what I missed was more than made up
for by working in an organization, the management of which was 99%
white male, especially during the lean years.
As required by law,
JPL had an Equal Employment Opportunity policy prominently posted
strategically across the facility, but a quick look at the workforce
demographics would lead one to question whether NASA had ever heard of
One might assume that technical know-how is racially
neutral. That gender has no relevance when staffing a spaceflight
project but organizational experts have demonstrated that the key to
optimizing efficiency in any organization is to increase diversity. In
his book, , political scientist and complex systems analyst Scott E. Page argues that groups that display a range of perspective consistently outperform groups of like-minded experts.
time, I began to search for answers for the lack of diversity. Was it
possible that an organization such as NASA with a reputation for doing
such phenomenally positive things for humankind could also be a
cauldron of sexism, racism, able body-ism, homophobia and
transphobia—it certainly looked as if its standards of selection for
the best positions excluded women and people of color. The demographics
of its workforce were appalling.
What was equally distressing was
that the criteria used for determining who was hired or promoted didn’t
seem to be an adequate predictor of job performance. During my tenure
there, there were several catastrophic mishaps. Many made the
headlines. You might remember the Mars Polar Lander failure, the Mars
Climate Orbiter disappearance, or the Genesis Sample Return Mission
every major failure, a Failure Review Board is convened. Its job is to
determine the cause of the failure and to report back. The
board reports contain copious amounts of informtion and are usually
published in a couple of volumes. The volumes contain an analysis of
the catastrophe and its origins from several perspectives.
the technical cause(s) of each major mishap is different, in the
reports I’ve read, there is one consistent thread that runs throughout.
Each review board cites the lack of vertical communication and lack of
team cohesion as being at the core of mission failure.
more than 20 years I worked there, I observed a stratified hierarchical
organization that almost mirrored the social stratification of the
United States. The top tier of the organizational pyramid was
practically 100% white male with women and minorities sprinkled at the
lower ranks. In fact, I came to view the JPL community as a microcosm
of our country. Because I was a member of the spaceflight team of the
Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, when I read that one of
the primary causes of the twin disasters was ineffective communication,
I was not surprised. Thankfully, there was no loss of life and plenty
of opportunity to grow from the lessons learned.
investigation of the $300 million loss of the two Mars spacecraft
uncovered many deficiencies related to organizational culture and
breakdowns in communication, the stratification of their organization
along racial and gender lines was not mentioned.
three years after those disasters, and after not seeing any changes in
the way the organizational structure facilitated communication, there
was another catastrophic failure and this one did involve the loss of
life. The Columbia Shuttle blew up partly due to ineffective
communication according to the NASA Columbia Accident
Investigation Board (CAIB). In a section of the review emphasizing how
essential it is to encourage minority opinions, they stated:
continually emphasize that when no minority opinions are present, the
responsibility for a thorough and critical examination falls to
management. Alternate perspectives and critical questions are always
encouraged. In practice, NASA does not appear to embrace these
attitudes. Board interviews revealed that it is difficult for minority
and dissenting opinions to percolate up through the agency’s hierarchy.
Ironically, it’s unlikely the CAIB’s use of the word minority here
was in any way related to ethnicity or gender but one glance at NASA’s
org chart from that perspective is quite telling. The org chart sends a
message loud and clear – diversity is not valued here. It doesn’t take
much of a leap to assume that diversity of any type is not fully
embraced by NASA so the power of diversity to create better outcomes is
an avenue that isn’t available to them which is a loss for all
As I’ve said, the stratified hierarchy at NASA/JPL was
not unlike any other major institution either public or private in the
United States. This microcosm helped me to gain a critical perspective
on systems that perpetuate a world view or set of values that produce
outcomes that are less than ideal. My time at NASA/JPL were my personal
60s. The experiences I had there prompted me to go to law school—
prompted me to co-found the LA Progressive along with my husband and
prompted me to be more of an activist than I had been. My search to
understand the normalizing of systems of discrimination led me to read
the works of authors like bell hooks who coined the term “Imperialist
White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.”
bell hooks identifies
the patriarchy as a system. According to hooks, it isn’t necessarily a
particular individual or group that perpetuates what can only be
characterized as a caste system in the United States - it is a system
of interlocking practices. hooks says that a person cannot be
“imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy;” but a person can
support, uphold, or perpetuate the “imperialist white supremacist
capitalist patriarchy” and that person can be of any race, sex,
nationality, class religion or sexuality.
that takes me to my
lack of involvement in the feminist movement but also to my hope for
the future. For more than ten years now, I have devoted myself to
activism on many different fronts but in all of the efforts I’ve thrown
myself into, after a while I’ve consistently experienced a sense of
futility. After working to support one progressive cause after
another—whether it was work I did with the Progressive Caucus of the
California Democratic Party, the NAACP, Common Cause, even the ACLU—I
found myself wondering, “Are we progressives—the activists among us,
the supporters of non-profits, and a million and one good causes—
merely rearranging the furniture on the Titanic?” Are we like the
engineers, scientists, and managers I worked with at NASA who
to focus exclusively on technology and engineering to solve
rather than work towards creating a more diverse culture with open
lines of communication? Are we perpetuating systems of white
supremacist patriarchy? Are we destined to create the final disaster be
it nuclear war, or racial wars, or global climate conditions that
support life. Are we like the lemming?
Then I started to think
about what I would say as I stood before you today. Should I share my
sense of futility. Surely there must be a reason to do the work that we
do to support peace, to work towards the eradication of nuclear arms,
to battle against racism, sexism, and corporations that destroy our
I searched for ways to infuse my talk with inspiration, I went to the
writings and YouTube videos of some of the women I’ve come to admire
over the years. Women like Lani Guinier, bell hooks, Nina Simons, and
Melissa Harris-Perry have helped me to find inspiration when it seemed
impossible to see light at the end of the tunnel. Nina Simons says that
we must shift our collective course. All of the organizations I’ve
worked with over the years are, almost without exception, white male
led. These organizations use measures such as legislation, policy,
environmental awareness—to make change but these measures won’t be
enough. If scientists are to be believed, we are headed toward a
collision coarse with our environment. We have enough in terms of
nuclear weaponry to destroy the world several times over and the
population continues to grow at exponential rates, insuring that our
land mass won’t be able to support humankind in the near future. If we
don’t make radical changes, we’ll all be the losers.
says that all the policy changes, political actions, legislative
efforts, and I’d add “technological advances” will be enough to create
a sustainable world without an accompanying and radical shift in heart.
She believes—and I tend to agree with her—that what is central to
humanity’s strife and at the core of our devastating impact on the
planet is the imbalance between the masculine and the feminine.
my search to understand what looks to me like humankind’s version of
the march of the lemmings. I read a lot about other primates hoping
that maybe there might be some explanation for our destructive behavior.
used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate.
This belief was held long before the works of Jane Goodall and others
revealed otherwise. The view that “We are the only species that kills
its own” fell by the wayside as it became clear that some of the other
primates kill their own regularly. They have rigid hierarchies where
alpha males kill, females kill, and those living on the lower ranks of
the hierarchy live tenuous existences. Some primates even engage in
what can only be called warfare—organized, proactive group violence
directed at other populations.
For me, this discovery was pretty demoralizing then I read an article about a troop of baboons given the monicker the “Garbage Dump Troop.”
team of researchers had been studying this group of baboons and found
that the alpha males had been feeding from a garbage dump that
contained contaminated refuse. Being the “alphas”, they precluded any
other member of the troop from having access to the dump. But soon
afterward, tuberculosis - a disease that moves with devastating speed and
severity in nonhuman primates - broke out in Garbage Dump Troop. Over the
next year, most of the alpha males died.
The end result was that
the troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social
than average, and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male
ratio giving the females more opportunities to populate the social
hierarchy at various levels.
The social consequences of these
changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy, but it was far
looser than before with the females taking on more leadership roles.
Aggressions against each other were less frequent. And rates of social
bonding behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or
sitting together, increased. The more inclusive more diverse leadership
of the Garbage Dump Troop resulted in a more civil existence for the
entire group. What is even more amazing and inspirational is that the
changed dynamic of the troop lasted and was passed down to the next
story of the Garbage Dump Troop gave me hope egalitarian structures
lead to more successful civilized societies. This is the hope that Nina
Simons spoke of and is possibly the only solution for humankind.